Chords are a fundamental part of music.
Musicians consider melody, harmony and rhythm to be the three core components of any piece of music.
Chords are how we tend to think about harmony.
Why are chords important to musicians?
Take all the notes playing at any given moment in a piece of music: that’s the current “chord”.
So chords are everywhere in music, but there are a few specific reasons chords are a hot topic in ear training…
Chords for Guitar and Piano
Guitar players and piano players in particular tend to think in terms of chords.
When learning guitar you begin by learning a few chords and then using them to strum along with songs. You might also play broken chords in fingerstyle guitar or use chords to improvise a solo.
On piano, one of the key skills is learning to use your fingers together to play multiple notes in parallel—i.e. to create chords! Perhaps you’re playing triad chords in the left hand and a melody in the right, or using both hands together to create more complex chords with interesting variations and voicings.
Depending on whether they’re trained in the classical or modern perspective, piano players may or may not think in terms of chords—but they’re constantly playing them nevertheless!
Chord Ear Training and Playing By Ear
Chords are also how many musicians think about playing by ear.
When someone asks a guitar player if they can play a song, what they normally mean is “can you play the chords by ear, for us to sing along with?”, rather than whether they can play the melody or a complex classical-style arrangement!
So chords are a big part of playing by ear—and of course ear training is the process by which you can learn to play by ear.
This means that chords ear training is essential ear training for the many musicians who want to play by ear.
Chord Ear Training and Improvising
When you improvise a melody or play a solo, it needs to fit with the chords being played underneath.
Unless you’re playing alone in your room, the chances are that your improvisation will happen over a harmony part.
- The lead guitar player in a rock band
- A saxophone player in a jazz trio
- A blues guitarist sitting in with the house band
All of these need to choose their notes based on the chord notes being played.
That’s not to say you can only play notes from the chord. But to make sure your improvisation has the musical impact you want, you need to hear and understand the harmonic context you’re playing in. Ear training chords can help you do that.
What is chord ear training?
The techniques and methodologies you can use in ear training chords vary considerably, but there are two main areas to practice:
Chord Ear Training 1: Chord Types
Learning to recognise individual chords is a good place to start with chords ear training. As you probably know, there are different types of chord.
The most basic are triad chords: three-note chords made using intervals of a third.
For example, the most common chord type in all of music would be the major triad: a major third interval with a minor third interval on top:
There are also minor, augmented and diminished triads and you can do ear training for each. Here’s an example of each of these triads:
Learning to recognise the different types of triad is a good starting point for ear training chords, but then you can move on to more advanced chords, such as:
- Seventh chords (common in jazz and blues music)
- Suspended chords (used to temporarily add tension)
- Extended chords (adding notes beyond the octave)
- Power chords (take any of the above and add distortion… Just kidding!)
Chord type ear training helps you appreciate the different characteristic sound of each of these types of chord.
Once you can reliably recognise different chords by ear, it’s time to move on to the next stage:
Chord Ear Training 2: Chord Progressions
Chord progression ear training is the other big part of ear training chords.
If there was one ear training topic to help guitar players play by ear, this would be it.
Chord “progressions” are just what we call sequences of chords, one after another. If you take a simplified song chart from a jazz “fake book” or look up the guitar chords for a song online, what you get given is the chord progression.
Chord progressions ear training means learning how to work out the sequence of chords by ear. This mostly relies on your sense of relative pitch, and a combination of interval recognition (to follow how the chord’s root changes) and chord recognition (as discussed above).
You might do chord progression ear training so that you can play a song by ear or transcribe music (i.e. doing chord progressions dictation).
The most powerful lesson in chord progression ear training is learning about 3 chord songs and the I-IV-V progression. If you’re familiar with the 80/20 Principle, this is a clear case where learning 20% of chord progression ear training actually lets you play 80% of songs out there!
Here’s an example. Does this progression sound familiar?
So chord progression ear training is a combination of:
- Getting to know individual chord types well, and
- Learning to recognise the chord changes in the progressions.
Benefits of chord ear training
There are many types of musician to whom chords should be a central part of ear training.
Playing by ear
The first and most obvious case is the play-by-ear musician. If you want to play songs by ear on guitar, or make up your own arrangements on piano, or perhaps you’re taking up ukulele and want to play as many songs as possible with just three or four chords, then chord ear training is for you.
Hearing richer harmonies
Next up: The classical musician and the music lover. Recognising different chord types builds your overall appreciation of music. It’s the doorway to greater harmonic awareness.
Learning to recognise chords trains your brain to hear multiple notes simultaneously.
This is one of my personal favourite benefits of ear training: to go from hearing a “blur” of overall harmony, to hearing the rich detail and the contribution of each note in parallel. It feels like a musical superpower!
You’ll hear music in a very different (and more enjoyable) way once you’ve done some harmony ear training with chord recognition.
Jazz Ear Training
Jazz musicians also benefit significantly from ear training chords. Advanced harmonies are a large part of what characterises jazz music. Understanding the difference between say, a C dominant seventh and a C minor seventh, in terms of their sound (not just the music theory) can empower you as a jazz player.
This is actually a combination of the two benefits above: being able to recognise elements by ear (and so play by ear and improvise more freely) and hearing in more detail (so you can appreciate the jazz you hear and play more).
It’s also great for musicians (jazz or otherwise) looking to broaden their “palette” of options when improvising. Whether you play the chords yourself, or use them as the basis for improvising melodies, having a broader sense and aural understanding of the harmonic possibilities (developed through chords ear training) lets you create much more interesting and varied music when you compose or improvise.
Compliments and Complements
Playing chords by ear is a pretty great party trick, and the guitarist who can play any song when asked always garners plenty of compliments.
Another more serious benefit of chord training is its complementary effect on other areas of musical listening skills. For example, chords ear training and intervals ear training are both part of developing your sense of relative pitch, so improving your chord recognition will in turn improve your interval recognition.
What Can Ear Training Chords Do For You?
If you’re wondering “Is chord ear training for me?” hopefully the information above shows you how it could help you in music.
- Do you play chords?
- Do you improvise over chords?
- Do you want to write songs or play them by ear?
- Do you want to understand and appreciate music more?
… then chord ear training is for you!
Very useful and comprehensive info for any musician who struggles to play by ear or wants to improvise over chords. Some of the even the most technically gifted guitarists or keyboard players can struggle with this aspect in their music careers in my experience.