Part 3 - Chord Tricks


In Part 3 of this 12 part series, you'll discover several
tricks to figuring out chords.

In my 23 years of experience teaching students to play piano by ear, I have found that most students can learn how to play single-note melodies fairly easy, but it gets a little more challenging when it comes to being able to hear 3 or 4 notes at one time, as is the case when it comes to learning chords.

Knowing the key you're in helps, especially since more songs are written in major keys than minor keys. If you know a little theory, then you probably know that there's only one major scale for each unique note in music, resulting in 12 major scales, or 12 major keys.

However, there are three different minor scales for each unique note, giving you a total of 36 minor scales, thereby complicating  the learning process of songs by ear in minor keys. So, for this discussion, we'll focus primarily on songs written in major keys.

3 Major Chords and 3 Minor Chords

As I mentioned previously, knowing the key of the song is extremely helpful in determining the chords. If you know the key, then you probably know the scale, because the two are synonymous.

If a song is written in the key of C major, for example, then the melody and chords are based on the C major scale, which is: C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C. Eight notes, seven of which are unique.

So, if you're learning a song in the key of C major, it's helpful to know that there are 3 major chords that are commonly used, which are the C, F and G major chords, and there are 3 minor chords that are also related to the key of C major, which are Am, Dm and Em.

Knowing these six extremely common chords in advance gives you a huge advantage in learning the chords to any song in the key of C major. When it comes to learning chords by ear, it's always better to have some advance information, instead of going in and starting from scratch. 

To determine the 3 major chords in any key, just build a chord off of the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the scale, which are C, F and G in the key of C major

To determine the 3 minor chords in any key, just build a chord off of the 6th, 2nd and 3rd notes of the scale, which are A, D and E.

Advance Knowledge and the Answer Key

Having the six most commonly used chords in any key is definitely an advantage when it comes to learning songs by ear. Having the Answer Key can also be quite helpful. Let me explain...

When I first started learning songs by ear some 30 years ago, I lacked a great deal of confidence when it came time to learn the chords. So, I went out and bought the songbook to my favorite album at the time and started learning each one of the songs.

  • When I came to a part of the song where I was unsure of something, whether it was the melody or a certain chord, I would quickly refer to the sheet music to see if I was on the right track.

Of course, I'd only view as much of the sheet music as I had learned by ear, and then I'd quickly close the sheet music. This may seem like cheating, but having the sheet music on hand as a quick reference guide allowed me to get through the rough spots and kept me from getting frustrated and giving up my quest to play piano by ear.

In Part 4 of this series, "How To Play Piano By Ear", I will continue my discussion on chords and tell you how I broke through the really challenging sections of each song where I couldn't hear the chords exactly as they were being played.

Part 4 - More Tricks To Learning Difficult Chords

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