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Guitar Chords Ear Training From Beginner To Advanced

As a guitarist, and musician in general, being able to recognise and distinguish chords by ear is a skill that will prove invaluable to you and the musicians you collaborate with.

For one, it'll mean you don't need to rely on chords being written down in front of you to know what to play. You'll be able to work out songs as you hear them, whether listening at home or jamming in a band situation (your band mates will love how quickly you pick things up!).

With the chord ear training I'm about to guide you through, you'll also develop the ability to write songs almost entirely in your head.

Sounds impossible? I can only assure you it is indeed possible, and I will help you get there! Let's begin.

Chords - Hearing A "Flavour"

As you may already know, chords are a type of harmony - a bunch of notes played/heard simultaneously. The first aim of chord ear training is to develop the ability to hear both the chord as a whole unit and its individual parts/notes (you'll see why later).

Chords come in many different forms. They offer different musical "flavours" based on their tones. For example, a major 7th chord sounds different to a dominant 7th chord (we'll get to that!).

It's not unwise to think of music as a kind of "food for the ears". The ingredients are the individual notes. Different combinations of notes come together to form different flavours. Just as a chef or foody can identify when a particular ingredient has been used in a dish, purely by taste, you as a musician can develop the ability to identify when a particular note has been used, purely by ear.

So developing this skill is about sensitizing your ear to the key ingredients that distinguish one chord from another.

Triad Ear Training - Major Vs Minor

The first and most important chord distinction to master is that between major and minor.

Major and minor triads - so-called because they contain just three notes - are the most basic chords that form the basis of most songs we know and love, and will write ourselves.

As this is an ear training course, I won't go into the theory behind chord construction (this is covered in another series). But we need to first be confident with distinguishing major and minor chords purely by ear.

Pitch Recognition in Chords

Take a listen to this audio clip of a major chord followed by a minor chord...

I'm sure you'll have heard people refer to major chords as "happy" and minor chords as "sad".

Why is this the case? How can a simple collection of pitches evoke an emotional response in our brains? I'll let you ponder that question in your own time!

Whatever the physics behind it, there's no doubt we hear a difference between the two chord types. But what creates this difference?

This time I'm going to repeatedly play the note that is responsible for making the major chord major and the minor chord minor. Listen closely to how that note changes the quality of the chord...

So the only difference between a major and minor chord is one single note. One little ingredient makes all the difference!

Now I'm going to isolate that note and then bring in the full chords after several seconds...

Amazing, isn't it, how slightly changing one note can completely change the quality of the chord. When you hear the note in isolation, the change sounds very subtle, but as part of of the chord, it has much more dramatic effect.

Why am I telling you all this? Because you need to train your ear to pick up on the nuances that give us our different chord types/flavours.

Incidentally, the examples above involved changes between A major and A minor, A being our bass/root note.

But we can do exactly the same exercise on any other root/bass note: E major and E minor. D major and D minor. B major and B minor. Etc....

While these chords use different notes, they all use the same major/minor structure. Even though they sound higher/lower than the previous/next chord, they still have that same major or minor quality.

You need to be able to recognise a major or minor chord no matter which root we play them on.

Major and Minor 3rds

So we've established that there is just one note difference between major and minor chords on the same root.

In music theory, this difference is actually between the intervals of a major 3rd and minor 3rd, both just one semitone (fret) apart.

In the below clip I'm back on A, but this time I'm just playing between the root and 3rd, first a major 3rd, then a minor 3rd. This is the relationship that creates the major or minor sound respectively...

You can explore this interval difference yourself by isolating the major 3rds (3) and minor 3rds (b3) in common chord shapes. Strum the whole chord followed by picking between the highlighted intervals. Strum the chord again and try to isolate those interval tones while hearing the whole chord...

guitar chord diagrams with major and minor 3rd intervals highlighted

You need to internalize the sound of these intervals so you can recognize them no matter what root the chord is being played on. Also try humming the interval tones after you've played them to help with this.

Being able to identify a movement or relationship between notes like this is known as relative pitch recognition and is a highly beneficial skill to develop as a musician.

The more you isolate these interval sounds in your mind, the quicker you'll internalize them and be able to recognise them when they occur, in both chords and melody. In other words, you'll hear the "major sound" or "minor sound" when it's played.

Let's take this a step further...

Major to Minor (and vice versa) on Different Consecutive Roots

Most songs involve changes between major and minor chords on different roots.

This time, I'm going to play two chords, one after the other, and I want you to identify which one is major and which is minor...

Did you get it? If you did, you'll know I (unsuccessfully) attempted to trick you! Sorry. Both chords were in fact major.

What about these two?

Answer: The first was major, the second minor.

If you didn't get it right, not to worry. All you need to do is work on isolating each chord in your mind, referring back to the interval recognition exercise from before.

Even though the chords are played one after the other, without a gap, you need to train your ear and mind to treat them as separate chords.

Try again...

Answer: They were both major this time.

Let's add a third chord to the exercise. Just like before, see if you can identify the quality of each chord...

Answer: Major, minor, major

And again...

Answer: major, major, minor

Keep going...

Answer: minor, major, minor

If you want to continue with this exercise, try Fachords' brilliant chord recognition game. It does move on to more advanced chord types, but see if you can at least make it through the major/minor stage! The more we progress with this course, the further you'll be able to make it through the game.

In the next part we'll be exploring other chord types. Once you can identify individual chords, you'll be in a much better position to figure out entire progressions by ear, but that will be a lesson in its own right. First, we need to be confident with recognising chord types by ear.

Until then, I hope you feel you've made some progress here. Keep going over the lesson until it sinks in. Have patience and devote some time to it every day (or as often as you can).

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