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How To Identify Chords By Ear - Advices And Practice Tips For Guitar Players

Identifying chords by ear is a valuable skill for any musician, especially in jazz. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you develop your ability to identify chords by ear:

1. Learn Chord Types:

Familiarize yourself with common chord types, such as major, minor, dominant 7th, diminished, half-diminished and augmented chords. Understand how these chords are constructed and how they sound. 

Chords are built by combining different notes from a scale in specific intervals. Here's a brief recap with basic guitar shapes of how common chord types are constructed:

1. Major Chords:

  • Root note (R)
  • Major third (4 half steps above the root)
  • Perfect fifth (7 half steps above the root)

D major guitar chord2. Minor Chords:

  • Root note
  • Minor third (3 half steps above the root)
  • Perfect fifth (7 half steps above the root)

D minor guitar chord3. Dominant 7th Chords:

  • Root note
  • Major third (4 half steps above the root)
  • Perfect fifth (7 half steps above the root)
  • Minor seventh (10 half steps above the root)

D dominant 7 guitar chord4. Half-Diminished Chord (Minor 7th Flat 5):

  • Root note
  • Minor third (3 half steps above the root)
  • Diminished fifth (6 half steps above the root)
  • Minor seventh (10 half steps above the root)

D minor 7 flat 5 guitar chord5. Diminished Chords:

  • Root note
  • Minor third (3 half steps above the root)
  • Diminished fifth (6 half steps above the root)

D diminished guitar chord6. Augmented Chords:

  • Root note
  • Major third (4 half steps above the root)
  • Augmented fifth (8 half steps above the root)

D augmented guitar chord7. Minor 7th Chords:

  • Root note
  • Minor third (3 half steps above the root)
  • Perfect fifth (7 half steps above the root)
  • Minor seventh (10 half steps above the root)

D minor 7 guitar chord8. Major 7th Chords:

  • Root note
  • Major third (4 half steps above the root)
  • Perfect fifth (7 half steps above the root)
  • Major seventh (11 half steps above the root)

D major 7 guitar chord9. Diminished 7th Chords:

  • Root note
  • Minor third (3 half steps above the root)
  • Diminished fifth (6 half steps above the root)
  • Diminished seventh (9 half steps above the root)

D diminished 7 guitar chord10. Extended Chords (9th, 11th, 13th):

  • Extended chords are built on the basic major or minor chord structures by adding additional notes, typically in thirds above the root.

Remember that these intervals are counted in terms of half steps (also known as semitones), and the root note is the starting point for building any chord.

The specific combination of intervals determines the quality and sound of the chord. Experimenting with different chord types and inversions on your guitar will help you understand their sonic characteristics better.

2. Focus on Root Notes:

Start by identifying the root note of the chord. The root note is the foundation of the chord and often the easiest to identify.

The root note is the foundational or fundamental pitch upon which a chord (or scale) is built. It serves as the reference point for the entire musical structure. In both chords and scales, the root note provides the tonal center, defining the key or tonality of the music.

In a chord:

  • The root note is the note that gives the chord its name.
  • It's the starting point from which the other notes in the chord are determined.
  • The relationship of the other notes to the root note determines the chord's quality (major, minor, diminished, etc.).

For example, in a C major chord:
- The root note is C.
- The other notes (E and G) are built around the root note, creating the C major triad.

3. Hear The Quality:

Pay attention to the quality of the chord (major, minor, dominant, etc.).

Focus on the third interval (whether it sounds "happy" or "sad"). There are two types of third intervals: major thirds and minor thirds. 

  • Major Third: A major third consists of two notes that are four half steps or two whole steps apart. It is generally considered to have a brighter or happier sound. For example, the interval from C to E is a major third.
  • Minor Third: A minor third consists of two notes that are three half steps or one and a half whole steps apart. It is often associated with a sadder or more somber quality. For example, the interval from C to E♭ is a minor third.

Focus on the seventh interval (whether it sounds "resolved" or "tense"). The seventh interval can refer to two primary intervals: the major seventh and the minor seventh. 

  • Major Seventh (M7): The major seventh interval consists of 11 half steps or five whole steps between two notes. It often creates a sense of tension or dissonance in music and is typically heard as requiring resolution to a more stable sound. For example, the interval from C to B is a major seventh, and it can create a feeling of tension that wants to resolve, usually by moving the B up to a C or down to a B♭.
  • Minor Seventh (m7): The minor seventh interval consists of 10 half steps or five whole steps between two notes. It can also generate tension in music but is sometimes used in a way that feels less dissonant than the major seventh. Whether it sounds tense or not depends on the musical context. For example, the interval from C to B♭ is a minor seventh.

The perception of tension and resolution is often influenced by the surrounding chords, melodies, and harmonic progressions. Major sevenths are typically heard as more dissonant and in need of resolution compared to minor sevenths. 

4. Train Your Ear:

Use online resources or apps that provide chord ear training exercises. These tools play chords, and you need to identify their types. As you practice, you'll become more attuned to the nuances of each chord.

Here is a brief list of websites proposing ear training exercises:

5. Listen to Chord Progressions:

Listen to songs or recordings with clear chord progressions. Try to identify the chords as they change. Start with simple songs and progress to more complex ones.

6. Use Visual Aids:

Visual aids like chord charts can help you associate the sound of a chord with its appearance on paper. This can aid in developing a mental connection between the auditory and visual aspects of chords.

7. Practice with Familiar Songs:

Choose songs or jazz standards you're familiar with and try to identify the chords by ear. Start with songs that have relatively simple chord progressions before moving on to more intricate tunes.

8. Isolate Chords:

Isolate chord changes in a song and practice identifying them one by one. This can help you focus on the specific sound of each chord.

9. Sing Along:

Sing the notes of each chord as you listen. This can help you internalize the chord's sound and make it easier to identify.

10. Use Your Instrument:

Play along with recordings, attempting to match the chords you hear. This hands-on approach can help you develop a tactile connection to chord sounds.

11. Start Slow, Build Confidence:

At first, you might only identify basic chords. Over time, your accuracy and speed will improve and then you'll be able to start hear and regognize more complex chords. Don't get discouraged; this skill takes time to develop.

12. Analyze Music:

As you listen to more complex jazz recordings, try to analyze the chords used in the context of the song. This can deepen your understanding of chord progressions and their functions.

13. Seek Feedback:

Play chords for someone else or ask a more experienced musician to play chords for you. They can provide feedback and help you refine your chord recognition skills.

Remember that consistent practice is key. Ear training is a gradual process, and improvement comes with time and patience. Over time, your ability to identify chords by ear will become more accurate and intuitive.

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