Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Identify Chords in Music - Chords Part 1

Learn how chords are built in music

In this first video of an upcoming multi-part series, Robert explains how chords are structured and what their basic composing elements are.

Released on March 16, 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

Welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin with the first in a multi-part series on chords. Today, the question is, "How can you identify the chords you're playing?" I know a lot of people are interested, and you play certain sonorities and wonder, "What the heck is that?" Well, I'm going to give you some ways of approaching identifying chords.

The thing to realize about chords are that chords, for the most part, are built upon the interval of a third. What is a third? A third are any notes that are on lines or spaces. That is, they're a letter name apart. Like A to C because you leave out the B or C to E, leave out the D. And that is the secret for figuring out the chords you're playing.

Now, some chords might be rather sophisticated because there could be altered tones. That is, there might be an augmented or a diminished chord where the notes are sharped or flatted from what they usually would be. So how do you figure out what they are? Very simple. You just arrange them in thirds on the staff. If you're reading the music, you look at the notes and make sure that they're arranged in thirds. How do you do that? Look at the notes that are on lines or spaces. Now, sometimes what makes this tricky is there's something called inversions. It was actually Rameau, many centuries ago who figured out that if you played a chord like this and then if you inverted it and put the bottom note on top, that is exactly the same chord, it's just inverted. So how do you know which chord it is? Well if you were to play it like this, this G to the C is no longer a third. So you keep rearranging, voila, until they're arranged in thirds.

Now, if they're written out it's really easy because you just make sure that you arrange them in thirds on the staff if they're all lines, they're all spaces. So you have to take a note from the top and put it on the bottom or take a note from the bottom and put it on the top in order to arrange chords in thirds. Now, some chords can have more than three notes. It's the same principle. In fact, you could build chords all the way to the 13th: root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth. Why only 13? Because if you play one more you're back to the original note because there are only seven possible notes within a scale, and you hit them all in the 13 chord. So if you had a chord like that, chances are it would be voiced without all those notes in between, and this is what makes it pretty complex.

Now, we're going to talk about in future videos how to approach expanded chords to figure out what they are, both on the staff as well as what you're playing, and there's a lot to that. But in the mean time, try to arrange the notes on the staff or in your hands in thirds, even if you have to take top notes and put them on the bottom or notes on the bottom and put them on the top to arrange them in thirds. That is one letter name apart, skipping a letter or all lines and all spaces, and you'll be able to find the root of your chord and you'll know what chord you're playing.

Very good, thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Alice Borg * VSM MEMBER * on November 3, 2021 @8:24 am PST
I am glad you include the text with each video because I live where we get poor reception and videos buffer and buffer.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on November 3, 2021 @8:33 am PST
I am happy to know that Alice, thank you for letting us know about it. We'll keep including a textual transcription for each video.

Please, feel always free to contact us with any questions or ideas you may have, we will be always glad to hear from you.

Enjoy your time here on VSM and keep playing great music!

All the best,
Alan on August 15, 2018 @3:23 pm PST
usually the lowest even interval of an inverted chord is the root of the chord. i.e. B D F G first inversion of G7 the second between F and G is a second therefore the G is the root of the chord. Alan West Australia
Robert Estrin - host, on August 16, 2018 @2:41 pm PST
You have it exactly right!
Kathie Zakresky * VSM MEMBER * on July 4, 2016 @8:55 am PST
Hello Robert! I truly enjoy and appreciate being a member, am inspired and always learning something!
When is the 2nd part to chord identification available?
Thank you!
Robert Estrin - host, on July 6, 2016 @1:07 pm PST
We produce new content on a regular basis. Thanks for the reminder about moving forward on identifying chords - it's coming!
Violino * VSM MEMBER * on June 15, 2016 @5:49 am PST
What a good explanation !
I have trouble about chords, because chords are mostly more challenging by heard/ear.
How to recognize the lowest note of a chord?
How to undestand the inversion of the 3notes-chords?
Last problem is how to recognize the V7 chords? Since it is very similiar to V chord.
Thank you for your help.
Robert - host, on June 15, 2016 @11:25 am PST
These are all excellent topics which may be addressed in a future theory/ear-training program.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on March 16, 2016 @5:28 pm PST
Having very small hands, I became pretty good at rearranging some of the cords I could not play. I think it gives an acceptable result, most of the time!
Robert - host, on March 17, 2016 @12:49 pm PST
You can also get adept at breaking chords as I describe here:
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 16, 2016 @2:16 pm PST
music theory made easy. Why not ?
solfege lessons sometimes were a little too complex ...
Robert - host, on March 16, 2016 @4:35 pm PST
If you stay with solfege it can clarify your understanding of music. I had the good fortune of studying sight-singing with my father Morton Estrin from a young age. It is a part of me that enables me to identify what I am hearing even without perfect pitch!
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 16, 2016 @11:18 pm PST
Oh I have done a complete curriculum in solfege in due time, 7 levels of 1 year, and I can do sight reading with all clefs, albeit at a much slower pace than professionals and some trial and error, and write down the music notes I hear. It's just that music theory is often presented in a complex way at the music school, without real necessity. You have found ways to explain chords (and other music / piano subjects) in a straightforward and simple language, thank you for that.
Marion Thorne on March 16, 2016 @9:06 am PST
This is a fabulous way of learning on home ground. Thank you.
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