Chord Ear Training Practical Guide



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Chord Ear Training

Hearing and understanding chord progressions is something that all musicians need. It is unfortunate that most chord ear training courses teach you to memorize the sound of each triad or 7th chord structure in relation to itself rather than within a key center. While hearing that a Major 7 chord has the sound of a root, 3rd, 5th and 7th is useful in some situations, more often that not you are listening to chord sound within a key center, so each chord’s root is not the root of the key center. So the individual chord tones should be related to the key, not to the chord.

Modulation with Chord Ear Training

A Student of chord ear training should start with developing the skill to hear chords within a key center. Of course chord progressions do modulate and overtime students should develop the skills needed to hear these modulations. But it is important to remember that many chord progressions do not modulate and the better you get at hearing within a key the less you will modulate.

The Types of Chord Ear Training Exercises

The two most common types of chord ear training are singing and listening exercises. The chord ear training singing exercise should first focus on singing the 4 basic triad arpeggios. In the key of C these four arpeggios would be C Major: C,E,G, C Minor: C,Eb,G, C Diminished: C, Eb, Gb and finally C Augmented: C,E,G#. You should sing these chords over a drone so in this case you would use a “C” drone.

How to get a Drone Sound for Chord Ear Training

Some musicians use a electronic tanpura to create a drone sound for chord ear training. You can purchase a physical tanpura or there are websites where you can listen to a tanpura. Personally I recommend using a MetroDrone because it also allows you to set a distinct rhythm. Remember overtime you want to speed up your ability to sing the aforementioned arpeggios and any exercise that you do with chord ear training. The MetroDrone also allows you to improve many other aspects of your musicianship. Read more about this here.

Listening Exercises for Chord Ear Training

Listening exercises for chord ear training can be tricky and many ear training programs and courses don’t understand how their exercises can actually hurt a student’s development. The first premise of chord ear training is you tend to hear chords in a key center.
So if you hear a C Chord: C,E,G and then quickly afterwards you hear an F Chord: F,A,C many students will get confused because the C Chord created a key center and of course an F chord is a very common chord in the key of C so they hear the notes of the F chord as F=4,
A=6 and C=1. Many times when students are just beginners they just get the F chord wrong when they answer because they haven’t modulated to F to hear the F chord properly.

Chord Ear Training that Hurts Your Development

So you can see that doing chord ear training can force students into modulating on every chord they hear in an exercise. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU HEAR MUSIC. When you listen to any chord progression a majority of the time you are not modulating to a new key for each chord.
So an exercise that plays you multiple chords and expects you to hear each chord as let’s say 1,3,5 for a Major triad is actually causing you harm because in the long run you want to hear chords in a key center.

Doing Chord Ear Training with a 12 Bar Blues Progression

Let me give you one more example of how you should hear chords. Everyone loves the Blues and all musicians use the Blues Scale when they improvise over the whole 12 bar progression. They use the Blues Scale (in C this would be C,Eb,F,F#,G,Bb) because they hear all the chords of the Blues chord progression in one key. If it’s a C Blues then you should hear all the chords in C. Many times students get the false impression from the exercises that some ear training courses give that every chord in a chord progression is a new key center. A 12 bar Blues progression is a classic example of why you don’t want to start learning each chord of chord ear training as a new key center and that is exactly what you do when you listen to all Major chords one after another and hear them all as 1,3,5.

So What Type of Chord Ear Training should I do?

For the reasons stated above I usually don’t start students with chord ear training because of the problem of modulation. If you feel you must start with some chord ear training use a drone like the MetroDrone. This will ensure that you are in a key center or play a cadence in a key center before you identify a chord structure.  I suggest reading my article of How to Practice Ear Training.  This will help you understand the process.

Recommendations for Chord Ear Training

I recommend to my students that they first start with learning the sound of all notes in a key center. Overtime I progress them to hearing two notes simultaneously then three etc… This chord ear training exercises actually teach them how and when they modulate. But for a beginner, I would start with learning how to hear all 12 notes in a key center.  Then progress through various courses before you start chord ear training.  I often recommend two books: A listening courses call “Ear Training One Note Complete” and a singing course called “Contextual Ear Training.”

Recommended Ear Training

The best way to proceed is to send me an email. Tell me the following things:

  • Your musical history.
  • What instrument you play
  • Your goals as a musician
  • How long you have been studying music
  • Any strengths or weaknesses in music that you have noticed
  • How much time you have to practice every day
  • Any severe budget constraints you might have in purchasing ear training courses.

From this information I will give you recommendation and if appropriate recommend some ear training courses to help you in your development.