Train Your Ears: Identifying Basic Chords

Identifying intervals and scales by ear is fun and all, but both concepts deal with notes that are played in sequence. What about chords, where the notes are played simultaneously?

For those of you unfamiliar with chords, check out Basic Chord Theory for a quick explanation. To keep things simple I’ll be focusing on root position triads.

Note:  The term, “root position”, is used when the lowest note of the chord (sometimes called the “bass note”) is the root of the chord. For example, the root of a C major chord is C. The root of a G minor chord would be G, an A major chord would be A, and so on. Other notes from the chord can be used as the lowest note, such as the 3rd, 5th, or 7th, which creates an inversion of the chord. I’ll discuss inversions in a future post.

Before I begin, let’s quickly talk about chord qualities. The “quality” of a chord refers to the mixture of intervals used to construct it. Depending on what those intervals are, we put a label on the chord. The main chord qualities for triads (chords that only use three different notes) are major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Those are the four that we will be going over in this series.


Major chords are made with the root, 3rd, and 5th of the major scale. The C major triad is:

C   E   G

Here are these three notes played together as a chord:

Listen to the example repeatedly and try to pick out and hum each of the three notes. Pay close attention to the interval between the root and the 3rd. In this case, C to E is a major third, which gives the chord that characteristic major sound.

For those of you having trouble separating the notes, I’ve made this little audio example. First you’ll hear the chord being played, then the E and G will be cut short so that the C continues to ring. Then you’ll hear the chord again, but the C and G will be cut short so you can hear the E. Finally, the chord will play a third time and the C and E will be cut short, leaving the G. Confused? Listen here:

(You may have to turn your speakers up to hear the sustained notes)

This chord can be described as standard, happy, and unaltered. It’s arguably the most common chord used in modern music, so it shouldn’t be too hard to identify. Perhaps the “unaltered” trait of the chord will make more sense when you hear the remaining three chords that I’ll be going over.


Minor chords are made with the root, lowered 3rd, and 5th note of a major scale. The C minor triad is:

C   Eb   G

Notice how the only difference between this chord and the major chord is the lowered 3rd. Listen to how it sounds:

Only one note was changed, but the emotion and attitude of the chord is pretty different. Just like the minor scale, many people would say it has a sad sound to it. Almost like a sigh. The 3rd is a very important note in a chord, as it defines whether the chord is in the major category, or minor.

Again, here is the same example as above to help you distinguish the three notes:

Finally, here is a series of major chords immediately followed by minor, so you can really hear the difference between the two qualities.

Think you’re starting to get it? Test yourself by listening to these six chords. Can you tell which ones are major and which are minor?

Exercise 1:

Write down whether each chord is major or minor. There are two more exercises in this post, and you can check your answers at the bottom.


Diminished chords are made with the root, lowered 3rd, and lowered 5th of the major scale. The C diminished triad is:

C   Eb   Gb

Take a listen to what this chord sounds like and try to think about how it makes you feel.

I don’t know about you, but I would describe the sound of this chord as suspenseful, unsettling, or uneasy. It sounds like it wants to move to a different chord but it’s a little hard to tell what would come next.

Use this clip to help distinguish the notes:

Of the four basic chord qualities, the diminished chord most closely relates to the minor chord since it contains a lowered 3rd. You can consider it a minor chord with a lowered 5th. Here is an audio example. First you’ll hear a random minor chord, which will be followed by the same chord with a lowered 5th, turning it into a diminished chord. It will repeat for a few other keys.

Now for another exercise. Each one of these chords is either major, minor, or diminished. See if you can figure it out.

Exercise 2:  


Augmented chords are made with the root, 3rd, and raised 5th of the major scale. The C augmented triad is:

C   E   G#

Listen to it here:

Kind of strange sounding, isn’t it? In my post, How to Know Which Chords to Play, I reveal the triads that can be built off of each note within a major scale. Starting from the root, the quality of those triads turn out to be:

Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished

Where are the augmented chords? Augmented chords do not occur naturally in the major scale without altering any of the notes, which is the reason that you most likely consider it unnatural sounding, or a little harsh.

Here is the example to help distinguish the notes:

This type of chord is used more often in classical and jazz music. In modern pop/rock music, it may be used as a passing chord (a chord that links two other chords together). Since it most closely relates to the major chord, take a listen to this example, which switches between major and augmented chords in different keys:

Finally, combine all of the knowledge gained from this post and try to figure out the quality of each of these chords:

Exercise 3:  

Don’t be too discouraged if these exercises are too hard. Depending on how developed your musical ear is, these things can take a lot of time and practice to get the hang of. Again, a fantastic tool to use to practice is Check out the chord ear trainer at Make sure you adjust the settings so that it only plays these four basic triad qualities.

Oh, and here are the answers to my exercises:

Exercise 1 – Major, major, minor, major, major, minor

Exercise 2 – Minor, major, major, diminished, minor, diminished

Exercise 3 – Major, diminished, augmented, diminished, minor, major


Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part I)

Learning how to distinguish one type of scale from another by ear is a great skill for any musician. It allows you to better understand the purpose of each scale and how they fit into the music you like to play.

Most scales can ultimately be boiled down to one of two foundations:  major or minor, with minor having three fundamental variations:  natural, harmonic, and melodic. For your exciting leap into scale ear training, I suggest you start with these four scales.


The major scale is usually the first scale you learn while learning an instrument. If you play all of the white keys on a piano from one C to the next C, you play the C major scale. You can refer to my post on basic scale theory for more detail about constructing this scale, or you can just trust me these notes make a C major scale:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

Which looks like this on sheet music:


And sounds like this: [audio ]

Fun fact:  That little “8” below the treble clef means that all of the notes actually sound an octave LOWER than how they’re written. This is common for written guitar music. I plan on going over written music in a future post, so don’t feel horribly sad if this confuses you.

In theory this should be the easiest scale to identify by ear. Think of when vocalists warm up using solfeggio (Do re me fa so la ti do). In fact, singing along with the scale using solfeggio is a great way to solidify its sound in your head. Try it (while no one is listening).

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is usually the second type of scale you learn. It is created by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the major scale by one half-step. Here is the C natural minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Which is written as:


And it sounds like: [audio ]

Notice the distinct change in emotion from the major scale. Most people would agree that the minor scale has a sad sound to it, where a major scale has a happy sound (I posted my own thoughts on why in this post).

What’s cool about the natural minor scale is that you can play one by starting on the 6th note of the major scale. In fact, if you read my post on modes you would already know that the natural minor scale corresponds with the aeolian mode. So for example, if you begin your C major scale on the 6th note, A, you will be playing A natural minor.

“I don’t believe you”

No? I can easily prove it to you by rewriting that C major scale while starting and ending with A.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The key of A major should have three sharps, which would be F#, C#, and G# (I talk about how to determine this in my post on the circle of 5ths). Keen observers will notice that there are no sharps in the scale written above. They are all natural notes, which means that those three sharps that should be there have been lowered. Do you notice where those three notes are in the scale?

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

How about that! They are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes. This right here is an A natural minor scale, and we got to it by writing the C major scale starting from A. Please remember this:

***Every major scale has a relative natural minor scale starting from the 6th scale degree***

Knowing this will help form a bond between major and minor in your head. It also helps for improvising music. If you’re jamming with your friend and they’re playing chords in the key of C major, you know you can play A minor over it and it will work nicely.

In solfeggio terms, you sing this scale by starting on the la in “do re mi fa so la ti do”. So the solfeggio for a natural minor scale is “la ti do re mi fa so la”. Again, I highly suggest trying to sing the scale using the solfeggio, as it really helps in solidifying the intervals and overall sound of the scale.

Relative minor exampleListen to the above example and really try to compare the two scales. It will climb up the C major scale, then drop from C to A to begin the A natural minor scale:

[audio ]

For now, focus on these two basic scales. If you play an instrument, try playing them in different keys. Really compare the sounds, feelings, and emotions they produce. Again I have to recommend Go to the scale ear trainer ( and change the settings so that ONLY the major and natural minor scales are involved. It will play either a major or minor scale randomly, and you’ll have to guess which one it is.

Next post:  Identifying Scales (Part II)

Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part I)

For those of you that don’t know, an interval is simply the distance between two pitches. Here is a list of intervals along with the number of semitones (or half steps) they represent. I also give examples of which notes are separated by that interval (second note is always higher than the first note).

Unison = 0 semitones (Same note played twice)

Minor 2nd = 1 semitone (examples:  C to Db, B to C, G# to A)

Major 2nd = 2 semitones (examples:  C to D, A to B, F# to G#)

Minor 3rd = 3 semitones (examples:  C to Eb, G to Bb, F to Ab)

Major 3rd = 4 semitones (examples:  C to E, Db to F, A to C#)

Perfect 4th = 5 semitones (examples:  C to F, A to D, Bb to Eb)

Tritone = 6 semitones (examples:  C to F#, G to C#, E to A#)

Perfect 5th = 7 semitones (examples:  C to G, Eb to Bb, D to A)

Minor 6th = 8 semitones (examples:  C to Ab, B to G, E to C)

Major 6th = 9 semitones (examples:  C to A, F to D, Ab to F)

Minor 7th = 10 semitones (examples:  C to Bb, D to C, A to G)

Major 7th = 11 semitones (examples:  C to B, G to F#, B to C#)

Octave = 12 semitones (Same two notes played one octave apart)

You could continue on to even larger intervals (9ths, 11ths, 12ths, etc…) but for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the intervals contained in one octave. The diagram below may help you visualize these distances.


(NOTE:  If you’re unsure of what those notes in parenthesis are doing there, refer to my post on basic scale theory.)

The space between each of those lines is a semitone. From B to C you have one semitone or a minor 2nd, from D to A you have seven semitones or a perfect 5th, and so on. 

Of course, using this diagram is cumbersome and not very practical while actually playing or singing music. What you’ll want to do is memorize as many of these intervals as you can (the perfect 4ths and 5ths are a good place to start, as they are linked to the circle of 4ths/5ths, and are very useful in general). Find the intervals on your instrument, find them in written music, make flash cards, or use any other method you want.

“But this post is about ear training, not staring at diagrams and flash cards!”

Right, while the theory is important, don’t get too caught up in it. Balance the theoretical studying with some actual ear training. Let’s go through each interval in detail and actually listen to them. I’ll give you some pointers on how to recognize them by ear, including references to some popular songs. Let us begin.

Disclaimer:  I will be focusing only on tips for identifying intervals in the upward direction in this post. Depending on the response I recieve, I may make a post where I discuss intervals going downward as well. So if you think this post is swell, let me know! If not, let me know how I could make it better. Also, the MIDI piano examples all begin with the note C. The audio examples I give may not begin on the same note, so don’t let that throw you off. Remember it’s the space between the notes you care about, not the notes themselves.


Things couldn’t start off any simpler. If the distance between two pitches is described as unison, they are the exact same note. It’s as easy as that.

Minor 2nd



The minor 2nd is the smallest interval between two different pitches that exists in a scale (well, at least in the 12-tone equal temperment scale we commonly use today). This is the interval between every single note in the chromatic scale. Familiarize yourself with that scale and you’ll be able to identify this interval by ear fairly easily (just be careful not to mistaken it for the major 2nd).

For a classic reference, just listen to the tense theme from Jaws.

(audio taken from this video)

Major 2nd



Perhaps a little easier to identify, the major 2nd represents the whole step. A good song to think of is the lullaby, “Frère Jacques (Are You Sleeping?)”. The interval between the first two notes (as well as between the 2nd and 3rd notes) is a major 2nd.

First part of “Frère Jacques” melody:

Minor 3rd



I personally recognize this interval by hearing the minor triad in my head. It’s the distance between the root note and the lowered 3rd. Here is a clip of a C minor triad, first arpeggiated then played all together.

Minor 3rd triad:

Remember, a minor triad is made up of a root note (in the above example it’s C), a lowered 3rd (in the above example it’s Eb), and a 5th (in the above example it’s G). The interval between the root note and the lowered 3rd is, not surprisingly, a minor 3rd.

Also, how about a little “Smoke on the Water” for my guitar playing readers? Listen between the first two notes of the riff.

Major 3rd



The major 3rd can be described as more “uplifting” than the minor 3rd. You could think of the major triad in your head to help identify this interval, but another way is to think of “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

You can hear the major 3rd in the first sentence of the lyrics:


Listen to Louis sing it here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 4th



I can’t hear the perfect 4th without thinking of “Here Comes the Bride”:

The interval between the first two notes is a perfect 4th.




Does this interval sound particularly menacing to you? You aren’t alone. According to The New Oxford Companion to Music by Dennis Arnold, the tritone adopted the nickname, “Diabolus in musica” (the Devil in music) in the Medieval era due to its dissonance (lack of harmony). While other intervals sound dissonant as well, this one is often considered the most awkward to sing.

However it has become an increasingly popular interval to experiment with over the years. One of the most notable songs to feature the tritone is Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story.

You can hear the tritone between the first two syllables of “Maria”.


Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 5th



The perfect 5th is a very strong, confident sounding interval. So incredibly powerful that it has been used in such works as the Superman theme and, of course, Star Wars.

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

I’ll cover the remaining intervals in Identifying Intervals (Part II)! Feel free to comment!

Train Your Ears – Introduction

1032418_69630195Have you ever wondered what people really mean when they say someone has a “good ear” for music? Is that someone that they’re talking about never you? Do you change keys 14 times while singing Happy Birthday? Well, my friend, I believe this mini-series of mine will be of service to you.

When it comes to listening to, writing, or playing music, your ears are kind of an important factor. Believe it or not, they can be trained to be more helpful (and believe me, a good ear for music is one of the most helpful things you can have as a musician).

“What exactly does a ‘good ear’ for music get me?”

There are several benefits to having a good ear, including the ability to distinguish the distances between two different notes, name chord qualities, and identify scales. If you are a singer, it will also help you sing in key. For example if you know the distance between the note you’re singing and the next note in the melody, you can hit that next note with far better accuracy. If you’re playing guitar, you may be able to tell when it’s out of tune, quickly figure out which strings need tuning and adjust everything on the fly.

Most importantly, in my opinion, are the benefits a good ear has for improvising. Melodies will pop up in your head effortlessly when you hear chords being played, and you’ll really feel like you have control over what you’re playing.

“I think I can do some of those things already. Do I REALLY need to train my ear?”

If you’ve never sat down and specifically trained your hear, but you feel like you already have some of the mentioned skills, that’s great! Some people have naturally good ears for music, but everyone, no matter what level, can benefit from ear training. Trust me, I thought my musical ear was as good as it would ever get until I took a couple of ear training courses in college. I was pleasantly surprised with how much it helped, and I realized that there was a lot more to learn than I thought.

As far as upkeep goes, ear training is something you should absolutely revisit every now and then. In fact part of the reason I’m even writing this is because I haven’t been keeping up myself and I’ve noticed quite a difference.

I’ll link to each post below as they come out, so check back soon!

Part 1:  Identifying intervals (Part I)

Part 2:  Identifying Intervals (Part II)

Part 3:  Identifying scales (Part I)

Part 4:  Identifying scales (Part II)

Part 5:  Identifying scales (Part III)

Part 6:  Identifying basic chords

Part 7:  Listen

Project updates and other general chatter

Hello, readers!

First of all, I’ve notice a very slight, yet steady increase in average daily views over the last few months, which is pretty sweet. Thanks to all of you who check back regularly! I originally started this blog to post updates on my current projects, so let me do some of that right now.


The next series I plan to post about is on ear training. Topics like learning how to distinguish the different intervals (major 3rd, minor 7th, etc), scales, and chords all by ear. If you’re not familiar with ear training, I strongly suggest looking into it.


I’ve been working on a backing track for Tiana McKelvy ( which will be finished by the end of this week. It’s sort of a rock/R&B/pop feel, and so far includes acoustic/electric guitar, bass, drums, djembe, egg shakers, tambourine, keyboard, and mandolin (and of course eventually her vocals). I’ve got a few more friends lined up who want tracks made for them, but if you or anyone you know is interested in one, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at!


Over the last few months I’ve been cooking up some ideas for my new album. I’ve been drawing a tremendous amount of inspiration from New York City since I’ve been living here, and I’m sure a lot of that will show up in the music and lyrics. Once in a while I take my mandolin over to central park and improvise for one or two hours at a time, which has so far led to one mandolin-heavy track. What are the main differences between these new songs and the tracks on my first CD, you ask? Well, more djembe, more guest musicians, a little more focus on musicality, and a wider range of styles/energy level between the tracks. Also, I plan on doing 90% of the recording myself, which will pose quite a big challenge that I’m pretty excited to tackle.

So far I have roughly eight ideas for songs, with three or four in an almost-completed state. It’s chuggin’ along.

Again, thanks for all of your support thus far. I’ll close this update with a bit of self advertising. As always if you like what you read, see, or hear, please consider supporting me by following/liking my various pages!