How to Identify Musical Chords by Ear

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Today we are going to talk about a very important subject and something that is indispensable for every musician – identifying chords by ear. In an earlier video we talked about how to identify the differences in chords through their construction. Today we are going to explore how to tell the differences between chords from their sound.

Listening is very helpful for this subject, so watching the accompanying video is highly recommended.

Let’s start out with the most popular chord of all time, the major triad – three notes arranged in thirds with a major third on the bottom and a minor third on top. To put it in simpler terms, the first, third and fifth notes of any major scale. So in the key of C major, the major triad is composed of: C, E & G.

The major triad produces a pleasing sound. It’s something you’ve heard countless times and it produces a happy sound. Compare that to a minor chord (which has a minor third on the bottom and a major third on top) and the sound difference is very noticeable. The minor chord tends to evoke more melancholy emotions. Try playing the C major chord and the C minor chord one after the other. Listen to the differences in their tone. Now try playing a major and minor chord in a different key. See if you can identify the differences in sonority. Close your eyes and listen – you will start to be able to tell the difference just by the sound.

Telling the difference between major and minor by ear is something most people can distinguish by ear rather quickly. However, this is only the beginning!

When it comes to augmented and diminished chords, many people find it difficult to tell them apart at first. The diminished chord has two minor thirds – making it a smaller chord. A diminished chord has a strange quality to it that certainly distinguishes itself from the minor and major chords because of the diminished 5th created by the outer notes of the chord. Play a major, minor and then diminished chord in the key of your choice and see if you can discern the differences in the sound.

When it comes to augmented triads, you have two major thirds on the top and bottom. This creates an augmented 5th between the bottom and top notes. When you play augmented chords, you will notice its unique sonic character. At first you may confuse it with the diminished chord. But if you play back and forth between augmented and diminished chords in the same key, you will hear a striking difference in sound. Close your eyes and listen to the differences between the two chords. Listen for the larger outer interval in the augmented chord compared to the diminished triad.

Augmented triads suggest or imply whole tones since the chord is built upon every other note of a whole tone scale.

Soon you will get accustomed to the sound of these chords and you will be able to distinguish the differences between them just from the sound. If you keep practicing this and get better at identifying these chords, you will be able to expand upon the variety of harmonies you can identify by ear.

Thanks again for joining us here at Living Pianos. If you have any questions or comments about this topic or any topic at all please contact us directly at: or (949) 244-3729.

2 thoughts on “How to Identify Musical Chords by Ear”


  1. This may be a bit more advanced — perhaps the next step — but I also find it helpful to try to distinguish the lowest-sounding note (i.e. is it the root, the third, or the fifth) in order to identify which inversion it is. … very helpful for chord progressions, dictation and analysis. 🙂

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