Perhaps you can relate to the following situation: You’ve been working really hard to learn or write a new song. It’s taken many hours and lots of frustration and patience to work out what the right chords are. After putting all this work in, you go to rehearsal with a talented friend or colleague of yours and they quickly learn the whole song with all of its chords after playing it through once – maybe twice. How do these people do this?!?
It turns out your musical ear is something you can develop – you don’t need to be magically gifted at birth (though some people sure seem to be). Here are a couple of ways to get started.
Identify the Key
Every song has at least one key. A key is just a way to name the set of pitches used to create chord progressions, riffs, melodies, solos, and just about anything else that has pitch in a song. You can think of a key as a pool of “right” notes to start from.
Keys are defined with scales – which is just a fancy name for a pattern for organizing pitches. Scales usually have seven pitches that are spaced with particular intervals (distances between pitches). For instance, the major scale is built out of seven pitches spaced apart using half and whole steps (half steps are the shortest distance between two pitches, whole steps are made of two half steps).
Learning scales gives you the basic foundation you need to construct and name chords because they define the pitches most chords are made of. The better you know your scales, the easier finding and naming chords will be, and the stronger your musical ear will become.
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Identify Root Notes
Chords are built on specific pitches called root notes. Any pitch can be a root note – all you have to do is build a chord on top of it. You can usually find root notes by listening to bass part since most bass parts use these root notes as their foundation.
A good practice for learning to hear root notes is to identify the key a song is in, practice the scale that defines it, and then start trying to sing, play and name the root notes in chord progressions. The more you do this, the easier identifying pitches in a scale will become. If you practice this consistently, this will become almost second nature.
Identify Chord Qualities
Once you can identify root notes of chords, the next step is to identify chord qualities. This is an endless, wonderful rabbit hole of a subject. The process for naming chords is very detailed, systematic, and needs greater explanation than there is space for in this post, but the goal of all the rules is the same: give specific names (qualities) to specific sets of pitches built on root notes. For instance, a chord’s quality might be “major” or “minor”, which sound “happy” or “sad” respectively.
A good way to begin identifying these qualities is to take simple three or four chord songs and identify which chords sound “happy” or “sad”. Just about any pop or singer/songwriter tune will work very well. If you do this with every song you learn, your ear will become very good at hearing major and minor chord qualities. Once your musical ear has begun to hear these qualities easily, you will have a strong foundation for understanding additional chord qualities. A good book or course on music theory can help immensely in this process.
I have only scratched the surface of the wonderful, deep and never ending process of learning to hear chords, ear training, and developing your musical ear. If you would like to explore it further, consider checking out HITMusicTheory.com where I explain these concepts in much greater detail with specific examples from hit songs from a wide variety of genres.
By Daniel Roberts