Music Ear Training: How to Recognise Chords by Pitch Matching

Music Ear Training Method - Recognising Chord Tones by Pitch Matching

Pitch matching of chord tones is a common form of music ear training that provides a way to recognise and identify chords by ear. It involves using your instrument to quickly find the notes of a chord that is being played and that you're trying to work out. Your voice can also be a great help, so sing along with the notes as much as you like - the more the better. Singing the tones increases your aural awareness and (short term) memory of pitches and (long term) memory of pitch relationships. It's highly recommended.

Watch the video below for a lesson and simple demonstration of how to find the notes (chord tones) of chords by ear.

The text gives more details on the points covered in the video.

Two more videos are included with short tests. Check your ability and speed by identifying the chords played.

Note - This lesson is part of a three-part music ear training lesson on chord recognition and identification. The other two lessons focus on chord types and chord progressions. By using the three methods in combination, finding chords by ear is a lot easier and quicker. The lessons can be studied in any order, and.the links are at the end of the article.

Pitch Matching Video lesson

About the Video Lesson

Here you can find more in-depth detail about the points covered in the video.

Tune Up - 00:27

Have your instrument ready and tuned to the standard pitch of A=440 Hz. Keyboards and pianos are tuned to that standard by default. It's also the standard guitar pitch reference and electronic tuners and guitar pitch piped are set to that standard too. In other words, it's just the normal tuning reference.

C Major's Chord Tones - 1:12

Listen to the chord C major, which is composed of notes (chord tones) C, E & G. Those three notes are notes 1, 3 & 5 of the C major scale. All major chords have the same 'formula' in relation to the major scale starting on the root note of the chord. So E major will have notes 1, 3 & 5 of the E major scale. Every chord type has its own unique formula in relation to the notes of the major scale. It's a convenient standard that's used to classify chord types, and it's highly recommended to know at least the common ones. It makes chord recognition far easier in cases where your brain is working faster than your ear. See the link at the end of the article for more info on chord structure

C Major with Octave Doubling - 1:29

Although C, E & G are the notes that make the chord C major, there's no limit to how many C, E & G notes at different octaves can be used apart from those limits set by your instrument - or the amount of fingers you have. For the purposes of chord identification, however, it doesn't matter. Whether it's C major played on the four strings of a ukulele or played by 70 members of a symphony orchestra, it's still C major and all that's required to recognise it is to find the three different note-names (C, E & G) that make the chord. The actual register (octave) of those notes doesn't matter, at least for the purposes of naming the chord.

Chord Tones - 1:44

Play any C, E & G notes while the chord is playing. Listen to how well they blend in with the chord. That's because they're chord tones. Any C, E & G notes will blend in perfectly, even if they're not at the same octave as the ones being played in the chord. To borrow a term from atonal music theory, we're interested in pitch classes, rather than actual pitches. The pitch classes C, E & G mean any notes called C, E & G - whether at the low, mid or high range of a piano or any instrument.

Non-Chord Tones - 2:09

When you play a chord tone, you can hear how it fits in nicely without changing the chord in any way. If you play a non-chord tone, however, you can immediately hear how different it sounds from the rest of the chord. Not only is it different, but, in most cases, you can hear a perceived tendency of the note to rise or fall to the nearest chord tone, which will usually be either a semitone (half step) or a whole tone (whole step) away. Non-chord tones that are only a semitone away from the nearest chord tone usually have a strong tendency to rise or fall to the chord tone. Those that are a whole tone away have a weaker tendency. With practice, you can recognise that tendency so that if you unintentionally land on a non-chord tone, you can immediately replace it with the chord tone that you were hoping to land on in the first place.


The tendencies that we can hear from non-chord tones are just a conditioned response that those of us who have been brought up hearing Western music all our lives have acquired, either consciously or unconsciously. When we play a non-chord tone along with the chord that's playing, it interacts with at least one of the chord tones in a way that we perceive as dissonant. (i.e., clashing - not blending). In most music, dissonance is intentional to cause tension, drama, unrest, unease, etc. and then is resolved by moving to notes that don't clash (consonant). So whenever we hear dissonance, there is an expectation (conscious or unconscious) on our part for it to be resolved to consonance (blending). For a simple demonstration of a perceived tendency, sing a major scale and stop on the 7th note "ti". Do re mi fa so la ti.....
You won't be able to sleep until you complete the scale and sing the final "do".

Dissonant Chord Tones

All chords apart from major and minor chords (triads) have some internal dissonance, so you may stumble upon an already dissonant chord tone but think it's a non-chord tone. So always listen to the chord quality and you'll eventually be able to judge whether or not your chosen note has 'disappeared' into the chord (which means it's a chord tone) or whether it stands out, meaning it's not a chord tone.

Finding the Chord Tones 4:17

When you hear a chord and you have no idea what it is, you need to start somewhere and just pick a note. If you're lucky, you'll hit a chord tone. (You have at least a 1 in 4 chance). Otherwise, you'll hit a non chord tone and can then follow any rising or falling tendency that it has in order to guide you to the nearest chord tone.

When you have a chord tone, you should then look for the others by moving up or down by around 3 or 4 semitones. That's because chord tones are almost always arranged in 3rds, meaning they are spaced apart by three letter names. You can see that with the chord tones of C major, which are C, E & G

C to E is a 3rd (it spans three letter names) C, D & E

E to G is also a 3rd as it spans 3 letter names E, F & G

Guitarists and players of other chordal string instruments should jump from string to neighbouring string in search of chord tones either by ascending or descending in pitch - whichever way you prefer. This is mostly by 4ths, but it's necessary in order to avoid going for two chord tones on the same string (unless you're playing them melodically as a bass or lead guitarist typically does).

If you jump 3 or 4 (or 5) semitones and hit a non-chord tone on either side of the chord tone you were hoping for, listen for any tendency for that note to rise or fall to the chord tone either by a semitone or a whole tone. With enough practice, your 'aim' will improve. You'll begin to feel how far away the next chord tone is and reach it directly.

Chord naming convention - Root plus type
Chord naming convention - Root plus type | Source

Naming the Chord - 4:52

Finding the chord tones is the most important part of the process. When you have those, you can play the chord even if you don't know what it's called. That's the main focus of this lesson.

Knowing what the chord you've found is called is important too, of course, especially if you're transcribing a song while listening to it and trying to write them down by name.

A chord name consists of two parts: the root and the type (or quality)

The root is the note-name that the chord is based on and named after. So the root of the chord E minor, is E - All the E notes that may be present in any arrangement of an E minor chord are roots.

Chord Type - The second part of the chord name, major, minor, 7th, minor 9th, etc., refers to how the notes combine with the root and produce a distinctive 'quality of sound'. These qualities can be recognised and identified by ear and that's the subject of one of the two partner lessons of this one. There's a link to it at the end of the article.

The chord can also be worked out by applying some chord theory. Most chords, like the previous examples, are built in 3rds, so, if the notes can be arranged in order of 3rds, you can be pretty sure that the first one will be the root. Take C major as an example. Its notes are C, E & G. Those notes can be arranged in any order such as GCE, ECG, EGC, etc. So given just those note-names, how can we tell which one is the root? How can we be sure it's not some kind of G chord or E chord?

If the chord can be arranged in 3rds, then (with few exceptions) the first note will be the root.

If we arrange the notes as G, C E, they're not all 3rds. C to E is a 3rd, but G to C is a 4th, so it's not any kind of G chord. Similarly, if we try E C G, we have the same situation. E to C is a 6th and C to G is a 5th, so it's not any kind of E chord either. Neither of those arrangements are all 3rds so the root won't be G or E..

C - E - G is the only possible arrangement of the three notes that is all 3rds. So the root note is the first of those, C, meaning it will be a type of C chord regardless of how the three notes are arranged in pitch.

What kind of C Chord?

You may have noticed that the two 3rds (C - E and E - G) aren't equal in size. The first is 4 semitones wide and is called a major 3rd. The second is only 3 semitones wide and is called a minor 3rd.

BY referring to a chord interval chart, preferably from memory rather than having to look it up each time, you can see notes spaced with a major 3rd below a minor 3rd are major chords. So the chord is C major.

It's even better if you can recognise the chord's quality by ear, which is the subject of one of the two partner lessons of this one.

See the links at the end of the lesson for information on how chords are constructed and named and also how to recognise chord types by ear.

Test your Listening Ability

The video below plays 10 chords and you have to try to find the chord tones in the time given. You can try to name the chord too, but the main focus of the lesson is listening for chord tones.

TEST: Pitch Recognition of Chord Tones

Speeding Up

Speed is crucial when working out chord tones, especially if you're doing it in real time in a real live musical situation. If you're working out the chords of a recorded track, it's not so important, but the faster you are, the less often you'll have to stop and repeat.

This final test forces you to focus more deeply and think faster as each chord is played for progressively less time.

To be fair, the last couple of chords in the test are so brief that you would be unlikely to get them in time using this method alone. However, if used in conjunction with the other two methods, which focus on recognising chords by type and by chord progression, they wouldn't be a problem.

Speed Test

How to Practise Chord Tone Recognition

Practice is essential. The more you practise, the easier that recognising chord tones and the tendencies of non-chord tones become.

Practise as much as possible by listening to real music and just trying to pick out notes as the music plays. Don't try to identify individual chords at first; just let the songs play, and pay close attention to how your notes sound. Gradually, you will find chord tones more easily, and then combinations of chord tones and, eventually, the chords will emerge automatically.

Stay well clear of jazz and classical, for now. Their chords are more complex and numerous. Listen to pop, folk, blues or country to begin with. Their chords are mostly simple (majors, minors and 7ths) and are slow to change - so they're ideal for practice purposes. A lot of rock, especially 'rock and roll' uses a few simple chords too but more complex rock such as that of Pink Floyd uses more complex chords.

Improvements to Expect

If you practise focused listening and matching of chord tones you can expect to progress. Your rate of progress depends on how much and how regularly you practise. You can think of it as goals to be met as follows:

  1. You can distinguish between chord tones and non-chord tones when you play random notes against a chord that is being played.
  2. You can hear the tendencies of certain non-chord tones to rise or fall to the nearest chord tone,
  3. You can recognise by how many semitones the non-chord tone needs to rise or fall to match the nearest chord tone.
  4. You can recognise the 'role' of chord tones that you find - whether it's the root or 3rd, etc. When you reach this stage, there's no need to reorder the chord tones into 3rds in order to find the root and name the chord.

Practise as much as possible and sing along with notes too as singing them makes a deeper mental impression than just hearing them.

Learn to Recognise Chord Types and Progressions.

As mentioned earlier, this is one part of a three-lesson music ear training - chord recognition series. The other two are:

Chord TYPE Recognition
Learn to distinguish between the various types of chords by their distinctive character. All chords of the same type, e.g., 'minor', have exactly the same 'quality' of sound, no matter what or how many notes they contain. Although there are many types of chord, the majority of them can be grouped into just three classes, which makes recognition of them easier.

Recognise Chord Progressions
In real music, chords aren't heard in isolation but as part of a series of chords. The unique ways that they relate to each other and also to the key of the music is yet another way to identify them by ear. Read how chords in music relate to each other and learn to recognise those relationships so that you can identify them within the key of the music.


Chord Construction
This isn't part of the three-lesson series as it's more about thinking, than listening. It's included here because it's extremely useful to know how chords are made. It makes identifying them from their chord tones much faster.

Applying the three ear-training methods in combination with the help of some chord construction knowledge will greatly enhance your natural aural ability and enable you to work out the chords to most music.

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