Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Identify Musical Chords by Ear

Tips to recognize chords by ear

In this video, Robert gives you some tips to recognize chords by ear, which may be useful in several instances.

Released on August 3, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin. Welcome to and Today is a viewer question asking how to identify chords by ear. We did one a while back to know the different types of basic triads, major, minor, diminished, and augmented, which you can review that video so you know the technical part of it. Today is about the sound difference. Can you hear the difference? That's the question for today, and you're gonna get a chance to explore it for yourself.

Let's start out with the most popular chord of all time: a major triad. That is three notes arranged in thirds with a major third on the bottom and a minor third on top. Or put more simply, the first third and fifth note of any major scale. So, in C major scale, C, E, G. You've heard it a million times. If you had to describe that sound, it's kind of a pleasing sound, or a happy sound. Isn't it? Compared to a minor chord which has the minor third on the bottom and the major third on top, listen to the difference. The only note that changes is the E goes down to E flat.

So you hear the difference in the tone. Listen to them again, the major first, then the minor. Now, the question is, if I were to play a different major or minor chord, see if you could identify it. I'm gonna play a chord on F, and I will not tell you first whether it's major or minor. See if just from what you've heard so far, you can guess which one this is. No fair peeking. Now, if you're not sure, let me play the other one. Now, many of you probably already know that the first chord I played was an F minor and the second was F major. Again, the minor chord, and the major chord.

There are two other chords. We have the diminished and augmented, and many people find it difficult to tell them apart. I'm gonna give you some clues. The diminished chord has two minor thirds, so it's a smaller chord. In fact, if you were to build a diminished triad on C, you have both an E flat and a G flat, and you get this sound. You probably can tell already that it has a strange quality to it compared to the major and minor. Listen to it again. So now, if I were to play major, minor, and then diminished, you can hear the difference between the three.

Now, for a little test, without seeing the keys, I'm going to play random chords and see if you can identify what they are. I'm going to play, starting on different notes. So here's one chord. How many of you could tell that was a diminished triad? Listen to the difference between the diminished, which is once again, and a minor which you might have confused it for. The only difference is that top note. So the diminished is a smaller chord.

Lastly, we have the augmented triad with two major thirds. That would be C, E, G sharp. Now, I mentioned that some people have difficulty telling augmented from diminished. You know it's different from the major and minor which sound pretty standard. Listen to how different the augmented sounds compare to the diminished. I'm going to play the augmented first, and then the diminished. You'll hear that the augmented is large. The outer intervals are large, and the diminished, it's small. Here's the augmented, and the diminished.

Now, the augmented triad kind of suggests or implies whole tones. That is, whole steps. It's every other note of a whole tone scale. That is all whole steps. You can reference my video on half steps and whole steps so you know what that's about as well. So if I play a whole tone scale, and then just leave out every other note, you'll have an augmented triad. So now I'm going to play four chords for you all on C, major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

They all have distinctively unique sounds. Get used to the sound of these chords and see if you can identify them in your music or music you hear. You'll be surprised on how adept you can become in identifying these chords just by spending some time listening to them. Playing them at the piano is a great technique, even if your instrument isn't piano. It's so valuable on the piano because you can play all the notes at the same time, unlike on a clarinet for example. So, spend time at the piano playing these chords, and you too will be able to identify chords by ear.

Thanks so much for the great viewer questions. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Gus * VSM MEMBER * on October 31, 2018 @6:34 am PST
I learned to hear the difference between major and minor chords in high school when "96 Tears" (? and the Mysterians) hit the charts:
I still use it for teaching basic chord theory to my older students.
Great topic, Robert!
Robert Estrin - host, on November 2, 2018 @9:39 am PST
Using music you know well in order to facilitate understanding of music can be a great tool! For example, the tritone can be challenging to hear since it divides the octave in half. The beginning of Bernstein's, "Maria", from "West Side Story" can help tremendously! Also, the beginning of the theme to, "The Simpsons" is another famous example.
Sylvie Boisvert on January 9, 2017 @2:42 pm PST
Thank you. Very clear explanation and a good reminder.
Lucy Blue * VSM MEMBER * on August 24, 2016 @1:09 pm PST
Thank you so much for covering this! It's been very helpful for me and I would not have thought to ask about this topic. I play an instrument other than piano and only recently have begun to "think" in chords. I appreciate and enjoy all of your videos!
Robert Estrin - host, on August 24, 2016 @1:54 pm PST
Thank you - there are lots more to come!
joao silveira on August 19, 2016 @2:17 pm PST
It helps me a lot.Thanks.You are great!
Ioannis Raftopoulos * VSM MEMBER * on August 4, 2016 @3:48 am PST
what about other chords, eg C7, CM7, Cm7, 6ths, 9ths, especially the 6th chord gives a very recognizable sound, it is used a lot in jazz music. do you think its worth trying to recognize by sound? thank you!
Tony Lockwood * VSM MEMBER * on August 4, 2016 @1:08 am PST
You lost me very early on, Robert, sorry!
robert ellis * VSM MEMBER * on August 3, 2016 @7:43 am PST
please explain the difference between a major 6th chord and a minor 7th chord
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