How to Recognize Chords Faster

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Being able to recognize chords faster will make you a better musician and performer quite clearly, but having solid harmonic recognition skills will also make you a better composer, arranger, and producer.

As a performer, you will get better at improvising because you will have an intuitive grasp of the harmony and melody within a song. This will allow you to create a motif and develop a melodic line faster, and at a higher quality.

You will be able to transpose songs faster, especially if you are accompanying a soloist. You can learn new songs and develop your chops more efficiently. At advanced levels, you can even transcribe chords without an instrument in hand, just by listening to a song a few times!

On this note, here’s a video that should help you perfect your recognition of common note intervals by ear, using nothing but popular John Williams movie themes, courtesy of Soundfly’s YouTube channel. Enjoy!

When you train your ear to the point where you can hear the I-V-vi-IV chord progression in your head, you should be able to create a melody on the top of this progression in your head also (think about top-lining!).

This is not just a great skill for composing, but also arranging, since nowadays most artists are also producing, it is safe to say that being able to recognize chords and internalize complex harmonic material can also help if you are composing, arranging, and/or producing a song.

Now, let’s talk about how you can train your ear to recognize chords faster. There are three main routes you can take to improve.

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1. Listen for the Root Note

First, you can learn to listen to the bass note (root) of the chord. You don’t have to have perfect pitch for this one, you can actually train your ear to memorize a fixed pitch in your head and then find the related root note.

By listening to the root, the objective is not just to find the tonic pitch, but also see if there are any inversions on this chord. If you can detect what note is on the bass, you can get better at voice leading, which can help both from a composer, arranger or performer perspective. 

Being able to voice lead on the spot is always a great skill!

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Use Borrowed Chords.”

2. Ear Training for Chord Type “Qualities”

The second method is to practice ear training and learn about the sound of different kinds of chords (major, minor, diminished, augmented are a few to start). Ear training includes many different sections, such as solfege, rhythmic dictation amongst others, but personally I always thought harmonic ear training was easier and more fun (probably because I am a guitar player).

Studying ear training will give you more edge, because you will go deeper into the harmonic relationships between chords and their sonic structures. With ear training, you can study the sounds of different types of triad chords including, major, minor, augmented and diminished chords. Being able to recognize each of these triads will perhaps not have you recognize the quality of the chord as a whole right away, but it will give you a better understanding of the relations between the intervals that make up the chord.

Using an app like ToneGym (one of Soundfly’s partner brands!) can massively help you improve your ability to decipher chord qualities and interval degrees, and have fun doing it!

For instance, even if you can’t instantly hear the chord quality as a whole, if you can hear the difference between a minor 3rd and a major third interval, this is a great start. Similarly, if you can hear the difference between the diminished fifth and a perfect 5th interval, then you will be able to recognize the quality of the chord way easier later on.  

If triads feel easy for you after a while, you should move up to the seventh chord! It can be quite interesting trying to listen to the difference between a major seventh and a dominant seventh chord. Or the difference between a minor seventh chord and a dominant chord.

Later, you can also compare a minor triad to a minor seventh chord. At the higher stage, you can try to recognize tensions, such as b13, or b9 on various chords. 

3. Learn the Chords to Familiar Songs and Memorize Them

This leads us to the third and final method of recognizing chords faster. This one is more interesting, and more fun! Learn to identify specific chords in certain songs and then memorize them.

A great example is “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, where he uses the infamous E7#9 chord extensively. Another example is the D7(b13) chord, which is used throughout many bossa nova standards, but it is such a specific sound that you can recognize it fast. You can also memorize chord progressions from your favorite songs, which will give you a bag of several different chords in different qualities ready to be used in your ear training vocabulary!

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Hidden In Plain Sight: The Greatest Musical Easter Egg Ever.”

To sum up, these are three methods that will allow you to recognize chords faster. Being able to recognize chords makes your life only easier as a musician, whether you are a performer, songwriter, composer, arranger, producer or all of the above!

I highly encourage you to start training your ear as much as possible to recognize chords and it will only make you a better musician. So make sure you have fun with this, and next time you listen to your favorite song, try to identify the chords and see if you can get them right!

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinRyan Lott, and the acclaimed Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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