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Lesson #29: Recognizing Chords

by Tyler de Witt posted on 1999-10-17
Topic: The End Result Subtopic: General
Level: All Levels Number of Readers: 73508

Recognizing Chords by Ear

When I talk about recognizing chords by ear, I'm reffering to recognizing what kind of chords they are. For now, we won't worry about trying to figure out the root note of the chord, instead we'll focus on distinguishing between major, minor, augmented and diminished triads, as well as some seventh chords.

Finding some way to practice this can sometimes be a pain. You can try and find someone who will play the chords for you while you identify them, but there will be less and less people to choose from as you advance to the more difficult chords. For this reason, you might have to just play the chords to yourself over and over again, until you can hear for yourself the distinction between them. Doing it this way isn't as effective as having people play them to you, but it still works. After hearing a chord a thousand times, you'll probably be able to recognize it, even if it's you who's playing it.

If you do find someone to play the chords for you, try and do it the same way that you practice intervals: start with only two chords to choose between, then gradually add more. I suggest the following order:

major triad
minor triad
dominant seventh chord
diminished triad
augmented trid
minor seventh chord

Beyond this, I don't have much experience identifying chords, so I can't honestly suggest to you a specific order to learn the rest.

I do, however, have other things to suggest. Learning to identify chords by ear is different than learning intervals. You'll find that you'll learn to assign a certain 'feeling' or 'character' to chords. This is because the notes are being sounded at the same time, combining the two notes. In effect, you are getting a 'new' note. This isn't completely and scientifically correct, so take this statement with a grain of salt. But it is true that chords have differenf 'flavours'. For example, a minor chord is often thought of as being 'sad'. Don't try to always find distinct emotions though, because you'll find that it's hard to describe the sound of a chord, just as it is hard to describe what a color looks like. And, just like colors, some are distinct and some aren't so distinct.

The 'feeling' of the chord is important, because this is the basis of harmony. One thing that I'll warn you right now is that identifying chords by them selves is also much different then identifying them when they are located within a succesion of chords. When chords are put in 'context' there meaning can differ than what they would be thought of when 'by themselves'. This may seem hard to understand, but once you've experienced it, it will make more sense.

Also, the voicing of the chord can sometimes trick you. Major chords that don't have have a note other than the root for the lowest note(for example, having a C major chord with E as the lowent note) will sound slightly different then major chords with the root as the lowest note. You'll have to learn this from practice and experience.

Things to remember from this lesson:

1. Chords have a 'feeling' or 'flavour' that differs with each chord. Learning to recognize these will help you to recognize the chords.
2. Recognizing chords by themselves is different than recognizing them in context.
3. Recognizing different voicing of the same chord can sometimes be tricky.

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