Chords are everywhere in music. From the rich harmonies of classical orchestral music to the complex chord varieties used by jazz musicians and the young guitar player strumming away in his bedroom.
Any time you hear more than two notes at once - that's a chord. But what kind? Major? Dominant seventh? Which inversion? What voicing?
Chord ear training can help make sure you always know.
With so many different types and uses of chords, the possibilities for training are naturally just as endless and wide-ranging. However, music in the Western tradition (including most modern rock and pop music) is based around some core principles that go back centuries.
Which area of chord ear training you should focus on will depend a bit on your background and what skills you want to improve. For a lot of students, starting with the four types of triad, and then building up to more complex 3- and 4-note chords, and studying chord inversions is a good progression - no pun intended!
Introduction to Chord Ear Training
If you haven't done chords ear training before, start by reading about the different areas and what each can do for you as a musician in "Chord Ear Training: What is it and What can it do for you?". You'll find out how chord types ear training relates to chord progression ear training, and the musical benefits of each.
Triad Chord Ear Training
The four types of triad chord (major, minor, augmented and diminished) are the basis for all commonly-used chords in music. Start ear training chords by learning to recognise these triads. You can connect it with your other relative pitch practice, such as interval ear training, using interval recognition to pick apart the triad notes by ear.
When you have developed your ear for triad chords, the harmony of music starts to make a lot more sense. You can hear the triads underlying the harmonies in songs you listen to. This makes it much easier to play music by ear, or write songs yourself.
Advanced Chord Ear Training
There are two directions to take your chord ear training once you've mastered triads:
Chord Voicings and Inversions
A chord is fundamentally defined by its notes, but those notes can each be in various octaves without changing the nature of the chord, or altering its characteristic sound much. You can also repeat notes. This means that you can "voice" a chord in a variety of ways, depending on which exact set of notes you use to play the chord. You can do specific ear training for these variants of the basic triad chords.
For example, a C Major triad has the notes C, E and G. But you could choose to make E the lowest note, playing the G and C above that E to form an inversion of the triad chord. You could also add extra C, E or G notes to give the chord a fuller sound. Chord ear training can allow you to tell which of these options has been used in the music you hear.
This topic of voicing chords is particularly relevant for piano players and composers, but all musicians can benefit from doing ear training to recognise chord inversions and identify the exact voicings of chords in music.
Four-note Chords (and jazz chords)
Apart from repeating notes as mentioned above, you can also add extra, different notes to a triad chord to form more complex chord types.
The most common option is to add the seventh note of the scale, forming a four-note "seventh chord", popular in jazz and blues music. Ear training for four-note chords can help you to recognise seventh chords by ear (there are several kinds!) and other more advanced types of chord too.
This form of ear training is essential for jazz musicians, but four-note chords crop up everywhere, so it's worthwhile continuing chord ear training to these more advanced chords, even if you're not a jazz fan.
How to do Chord Ear Training
For more details on how to plan your ear training for chord recognition, read the full article "Chord Ear Training How-To: Chord Types" which explains the step-by-step process to develop your ear for chords, including triads, inversions, and advanced chord types.
Chord Ear Training for Guitar
Guitar players spend a lot of time playing chords and thinking about songs in terms of their chords, so chord ear training is a natural fit for them.
There are particular ways to train your ears for chords on the guitar, such as learning to recognise the sounds of triads and chord inversions on guitar or learning to recognise jazz guitar chords by ear. Broken chords are also an important topic for guitarists since that's so often how chords are played.
The natural next stage for guitar ear training is to work on chord progressions and learning to recognise popular progressions (like three chord songs and four chord songs) by ear. Once you have trained your ear like this it's a small step to instinctively play songs by ear on your guitar.
Chord Ear Training Resources
The fundamental type of chord is the triad: a three-note chord which can be major, minor, diminished or augmented.
Learning to recognise the different kinds of triad is an excellent first step in becoming proficient with chords, and our Chordelia: Triad Tutor app makes it easy, fun and effective!
Learning intervals is another good way to start opening up your ear to the harmonies of chords. The RelativePitch app for iPhone and iPod Touch helps you get your ear around all the intervals of the octave.
Learn all the fundamentals of chord ear training with the Chords module of the Ear Expansion course.
Chord Music Theory
Watch a short video introducing the music theory behind chords:
Topics Related to Chords Ear Training
Chords are almost always used as part of a harmonic sequence, with one chord following another. Once you've started to appreciate different types of chord, the topic of chord progressions is a great next step.
Interactive chord ear training
If you've enjoyed this game, we recommend the full Theta Music Trainer which has several other chord games and more advanced challenges.