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How do I identify chords by ear?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by el_Bajo_Verde, Jul 30, 2016.

  1. el_Bajo_Verde


    May 18, 2016
    For example, in the bass line to this song.

    I hear that she is playing some chords, but I can't figure out how to play those chords just by listening. At best I can only identify one note in the chord, usually the highest note.

    Any tips on how I can learn how to do this?
  2. MrLenny1


    Jan 17, 2009
    ear training with a guitar or piano.
  3. HandsFree


    Dec 23, 2015
    There are no chords on bass in that tune, just intervals (2 notes).
    To train hearing that, I suggest finding software that lets you isolate and loop the specific moment and just play along (transcribe for instance). Play different notes until you hit the one that's right. And when it's not right try to hear if it's too high or too low, close to the correct note or far.

    And when you got it, note what it is and how it sounds so a next time you hopefully hear it faster.
    Always works for me with music that's too fast or complex for a normal play along.
  4. el_Bajo_Verde


    May 18, 2016
    So two notes played together are not a chord, but an interval? Sorry, I didn't know the term. But I can't identify intervals or chords then...

    Seems like it's trial and error then, and it will get easier as I do it more
  5. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    You need to be able to recognise melodic and harmonic intervals. The easier ones are melodic - one note played after another. Smaller intervals are not always easier. The 4th and 5th are easier but also easily confused. M3 and m3 are quite easily distinguished but they both appear in both M and m triads...

    Harmonic intervals are more tricky.
    Learn to identify the root note of the harmony, which may not be the lowest note. Learn to identify the 3rd - is it m or M?

    Stick with these fundamental elements before adding 2nds, 6th and 7ths to the equation. Remember that an inverted 4th is a 5th, an inverted 3rd is a 6th, etc. and that an inverted M becomes m but perfect remains so.

    If you have an android device there is an app called Complete Ear Trainer that I think is pretty good...
  6. That's a lot of good advice in a short amount of space. You should be a teacher.
    SteveCS likes this.
  7. joebar


    Jan 10, 2010
    I have said it before-intervals are simply aural distance; instead of using our eyes to read a tape measure, for instance, we are using our ears to determine musical distance.
    I personally believe that anyone can develop their ears to a high level; its like a blind person that develops other senses to compensate for lack of sight.
    -what Is required is a lot of active listening and quizzing yourself.

    the beauty of ear training is that once you learn what the chord/interval distance is, it never changes.
  8. A good way to remember intervals is to have little musical examples to remind you (like a string around your finger). Pick easily identifiable classics that you can sing and/or play without thinking. For a minor third think of the opening two notes of Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water", etc. Now play them simultaneously. That's how you'd form and remember what a minor third would sound like. Do this for every interval. Before long a mental library of them will at your disposal the same as single notes are now. Hope this helps.
  9. First I have to identify the key and then from there I let some theory help me assume what the chord changes will be. To identify the key I have to find the tonal center of the song. I do that best on the piano, however, running the G string up the neck till what is happening in the song and what I'm doing on the fretboard come into sync will work -- look down at what note that happened on. That note should be, if I heard correctly, the I tonic chord's name. From that I assume the I, IV and V chords for this song. My ear picked out E as the tonal center so E-A-B is where I would start.

    Most of the music you and I will run up on will be dirt simple stuff. So dirt simple = the structure chords. Structure chord are the I, IV and V chords in the key. So let's start here and get our ears used to those chords first. I think of them as being the movement chords. The I can move anywhere it wants to, but, you loose any tension you have built up if you move to the tonic I chord. The IV chord is a sub-dominant chord and likes to move to the V dominant chord and the V likes to move to the I tonic chord. And those three chords contain every note in the tonic scale. So, one of them has a very good chance of harmonize the active melody at any one time. Point being the I, IV & V chord will move your progression along just fine. All the other chords add color and flavor, but, the good ole I-IV-V are your bread and butter chords. In a jamming circle you will do fine just relying on those three chords until you can pick out some of the minor color chords. This is where ear training really helps.

    Right now bet on the I being the starting chord, it does not have to start the song or verse, it probably will end the song or verse -- you need the verse to resolve and end this thought so a new thought can start with the next verse. However you will see the following done quite a lot with the ending of a chorus - if it loops back the V will be the last chord in the chorus as V's like to move to I's - and if the I chord starts the next verse that V chord acting as a turn-a-round works great. The video I've listed below has the V chord as a turn-a-round chord leading back to the beginning to start over. All seven of the chords within one key are going to sound OK with every other chord of that same key so no one is going to come on stage and beat you around the head and face if you miss a chord change. Catch the right one in the next verse. If you get lost pounding the I chord till you find your place can work.

    The I chord, which is the tonal center of the progression, will be used the most in the song and the IV will probably be the next most used chord in the song. The V will happen a couple of times per verse. Usually near the end of the second and forth line of the verse.

    The ii, iii and vi add color or flavor. So, in our dirt simple song you probably will just have the I, IV and V chord in your song. There may be a ii or vi in your song, the iii or vii (m7b5) chord will probably not come up. Praise is the only thing I play that has iii, vi and vii's in it.

    So? Try this, call up some videos of your favorite song. Find the Key then assume the I chord will start. When you hear a chord change - yes this will take some time to develop - assume the I went to the IV chord. If the next chord goes back down scale - assume the I is now active. From the I if the song goes up scale assume you are back with the IV.

    What about that V? Good luck with that. So you miss it catch it on the next verse... Really nothing bad is going to happen as every chord within the same key is going to sound OK with every other chord in that key. Right now be happy with OK.

    The more you listen and the more you play the better you will be at picking out the correct chords. But, it will not happen unless you get started, make mistakes, pick your self off the floor, dust yourself off and try again.

    I also play rhythm guitar so I can look at the rhythm guitars fretting hand and see what chord he is playing. If you think he knows what he is doing -- when he changes chords go along with him. If you do not play rhythm guitar get him to show you what the fingering looks like so you can assume the active chord.

    Here is a backing track of the D Blues. Don't let the dominant sevens throw you, they are just I-IV-V with a dominant seven note added. Listen for the different sounds. Notice it's going to be I and IV with the V coming in the last line. This one will use the V as a turn-a-round.

    The Blues is great for identifying the chords used, as the progression is predictable and easy to follow. In a jamming circle you may have the song called this way; "It's in G grab a 12 bar blues progression and hang on". Get the following into memory.

    I-IV-I-I or perhaps I-I-I-I
    IV-IV-I-I these pretty much stay the same.
    V-IV-I-V for a turn-a-round or double I's to end.

    Good luck.
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2016
    el_Bajo_Verde and Rich Fiscus like this.
  10. LeeNunn

    LeeNunn Supporting Member

    Oct 9, 2012
    Charlottesville, VA
    It sounds to me like a two measure pattern of E7 G7 A7 B-7. The E7, G7, and A7 start with root on the strong beat (one or three), and then the "and" is a tritone of the third and minor seventh of that dominant seventh chord. For example, it starts with an E and then a high G# and then D above that (outlining an E7 chord). But you're not asking what the notes are. You're asking how to do it yourself.

    With experience, you'll learn to recognize the commonly used high double stop of the third and minor seventh of dominant seven chords. Once you learn it, I really think you'll recognize the sound every time. It might be the most used double stop.

    But how do you get that experience? Ear training, transcribing, learning lots of songs, and lessons. Maybe not in that order. I get the most out of transcribing (listening to a song and writing it out in standard notation). Like lots of TBers, I use "loop and slow down" software to make listening easier. I use notation software to make writing it easier.
    el_Bajo_Verde likes this.
  11. enricogaletta


    May 21, 2011
    Usually two notes played together are called double stops and is pretty common in the bass playing, now in every playing techniques style like the sample below .

    I also suggest you to work on your ear training because it's very important not only to practice on your favorite tunes but also to improve your playing because you will understand better how to apply your harmony skills.
    A simple and deep exercise of ear training consist of playing each modes of major scale, melodic minor, pentatonic etc, playing first each degree of the scale and than playing just the root and than singing by your voice each degree of the modes than to recognize how you were close, play and sing each note of the mode.
    Than more challenging, apply the same exercise to all the arpeggios.
    It will be a great ear fitness.
    Let me know if you need more help.
    T-Funk likes this.
  12. StatesideRambler


    Jul 1, 2015
    What you're after, is the ability to identify the sound you're hearing. That is the realm of ear training. There are a lot of apps and programs available for ear training that range from OK to great and from free to overpriced. No single app or course is "the right one." Try one to see if it works for you. If that one doesn't float your boat after awhile then try another; just give it some time and don't jump around among several. Jumping from one to another too quickly will make it harder, not easier; stay the course long enough to be sure. I'm still using one that I bought many years ago for PC/Mac that came on a 3.5" disk! Since I have a PC workstation in my woodshed I've no need to get an iPad app but if the PC dies or goes away I'll look in the Apple store at what's available.

    It'll probably take a few weeks of 10-15 minutes daily (don't overdo) but you'll hear improvement, slowly at first then progressively faster. Really knowing the intervals between notes is the key to identifying chords.

  13. Gravedigger Dav

    Gravedigger Dav Supporting Member

    Mar 13, 2014
    Fort Worth, Texas
    Not really. The term interval means the distance between two notes.
    I personally don't think of 2 notes as a chord because those two notes can be found in several chords, but I might be wrong.
    But, if the guitar is playing a chord and you are playing 2 notes in that chord, then you are adding to the overall sound and may be creating an inversion.
    DCGuy likes this.
  14. When I started out the old guys told us to practice our intervals. How that will help they never got around to.

    Yes an interval is the distance between two notes. Is it a 3rd, a 5th or a 7th? That confused the heck out of me at first. So forget about intervals and worry with notes and how they fit into scales and chord tones. When you understand that you'll also understand if this note is a 3rd or a 5th.

    The C major scale has these notes; C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
    The D note is a 2nd, the E is a 3rd. You take it from here. If someone said make your chord from the Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th intervals of the C major scale what notes would you use? No you tell us.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2016
  15. I agree with a lot of what's been said. An interval is distance between notes. I believe a chord is defined by its function: two or more notes played simultaneously to create a "color" of harmony. In the bass world most often it's referred to as a "double stop" (I.e. Two notes played at once) because of the limit of strings and positions. It the most common way you'll hear chords on bass. Also, because of how the bass is voiced, it can be difficult to stack many tones together and hear them all clearly. Most often double stops occur in the upper register, just because it sounds clearer. If you're Victor Wooten, then you can play a bass line in the low register while hitting double stops (or triple stops) on the upper strings (see: "U can't hold no groove").

    In the world of (western tonal) harmony, different combinations of intervals create "color". There are consonant and dissonant colors generally, although you could debate all day about what is most aesthetically pleasing. "Color tones" are notes, in a set of notes (scale), that are the most vibrant. In other words, they're bold, they make a statement to our ears. The strongest color tones are generally understood to be the 3rd and b7th tone. They're fundamental to a dominant chord (root, major 3rd, 5th, b7th) as in the example video you posted. Dominant chords are ubiquitous in jazz, blues, rock, etc., so understanding them is critical.

    If you built a major chord in C for example, you'd have C, E, G. Walk this up and down your bass as far as you can and across strings starting on the 8th fret on the E string. Without changing position, you can get C, E, G, C, E. That's a C major arpeggio. Now play C and E together as a double stop (8th fret E string, 7th A string). The "color" of the chord is sufficiently perceived with only two notes, although it's not very clear. Now play E, C (7th fret A string and 10th fret D string). Still the same chord, voiced differently (what's called an inversion). Try C on the 8th fret of the E string, and E on the 9th fret of the G string. Play them simultaneously or let them ring together. Different quality, but same chord suggested with two notes.

    Now build a dominant chord on C. It would be C, E, G, Bb. Mess with different combinations of the notes creating double stops all over the neck. Like E, Bb, or C, Bb anywhere you want, and with whatever distance between them you can manage. If you focus on the color tones (E and Bb) you'll usually suggest a C dominant, even if no one is playing a C!

    Now shift to E dominant (a.k.a. E7) which would be E, G#, B, D. In the video, you hear an open E string ringing first. Then there's a double stop played on the 18th fret on the D string, and the 19th fret of the G string. Two extreme ends of the range, but still E, G#, D. That voicing of a dominant (or 7chord) double stop is a very common way on bass. Or, open E string, 12th fret on the D string, 13th fret on the G string which makes E, D, G#. Also very common.

    As to how did I hear that double stop and know the color and voicing? By building arpeggios up and down the neck, in different registers. You'll get familiar with how things sound in different inversions and registers. I also recommend singing along with your arpeggio. Match the notes of the chord, singing and playing them one-by-one, then play the root and let it ring while you sing the other notes. Try to imaging the sound of an E while you're playing a C on the bass, then sing the E while playing C. If you can sing it, you can play it.

    I hope this helps, and I don't mean to insult anyone who already knows this stuff. It all in the interest of better bass playing!
  16. Also, double stops don't have to be color tones, or in the high register. The bass riff for "School Days" by Stanly Clark is a sequence of perfect fifth double stops, close to each other, and in a low register. You can play it on the A and D strings this way (described in fret#'s, A string-D string, played simultaneously):


    The root of each pair spells out most of a blues scale in A. But because there isn't a chordal instrument pounding out an A chord, and the riff starts on D, it has a suspense in it about where it's going, or where the root is.
    The sound of fifths is unique, and although the intervals don't give away a chord type the way root-3rd would, it has a sound of its own. That sound is called parallelism in western tonal harmony. It was popular in French impressionistic music. Check out Debussy - "La Cathedrale Engloute".

    Ok, now I really have to get back to browsing the classifieds!
  17. CalBuzz51


    Mar 11, 2016
    There's a weird thing where low notes can be hard to distiguish, especially if a couple are played together.

    What I uusally do: find one not that sounds correct. Listen tho the part again. Then play all the notes around the first note on adjacent strings that could be the 2nd note, until I find one that sounds right.

    Do this often enough, you'll start anticipating what the intervals sound like before you fret them.

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