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I recognize that Am7 (A-C-E-G) is considered a minor chord because, when stacked as thirds, the A is on the bottom.

But I cannot make my ear perceive it as a minor chord out of context. To me it sounds a 50-50 mixture of a minor chord (A-C-E) and a major chord (C-E-G). In fact, it might even be 70-30 in favor of major, where I hear a C6 chord. Also, my ear doesn't seem to care which note is in the base.

So am I fundamentally missing the way trained musicians hear this basic chord, or is its classification as a minor chord just a matter of technicality?

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    Am7 is not a minor chord. It's a minor seventh chord. The two are different and have different sounds. Don't try to make them the same; learn to hear them as their own entities.
    – Aaron
    Sep 18 at 11:46
  • I support Aaron's statement above - from my experience with ear training chords, I thought hearing separate chord types as their own entities is inevitable (e.g. the distinctive sounds of diminished triads and diminished 7ths need to be memorized separately ear training-wise).
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 18 at 14:56
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    @Aaron - whilst I know what you're saying, and basically agree with you, Am7 is still basically a minor sonority, just as C6 is basically a major sonority. I consider Am7 as a minor triad with the addition of the 7, and if OP could hear the two this way, there wouldn't be the confusion. In other words, the sound of Am7, if I read you right, is the same as that of C6 - which is what OP is concerned with. True, same constitution, hence the question.
    – Tim
    Sep 18 at 15:04
  • @Tim Am7 and C6 are indistinguishable out of context (Laurence's answer is very good to point this out). It's the identical problem with minor thirds and augmented seconds.
    – Aaron
    Sep 18 at 16:26
  • Out of interest, do you hear it as more minor when the A is emphasized - e.g. played an octave lower on a dedicated bass instrument?
    – topo morto
    Sep 18 at 17:00
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Out of context there's no way to tell if C6 or Am7 is the most useful 'spelling' of this chord. If your ear favours C6, that's fine.

Put it in a C, Am7, Dm7, G7 progression and I think you'll hear it one way, put it in D7♭9, G13, C6 I think you'll hear it another.

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    Excellent answer! It's also helpful to consider it's function. Am7 very commonly belongs to a ii-V-I progression, and as such when we hear it we want that 7th to drop down and lead us to the leading tone of the V. But in it's function as C6, it is often the tonic just with a colorful sixth added.
    – nuggethead
    Sep 18 at 22:54
  • Often? Is a C6 ever anything else? Sep 19 at 12:39
  • I guess I can't think of an example where C6 isn't tonic, although there may indeed be one. Maybe a better way to put it is that C6 is usually tonic.
    – nuggethead
    Sep 19 at 18:59
  • In a progression like C6 D7 G the C6 is subdominant, not tonic. Although that chord could be labelled Am7/C if you wanted to show all roots by fifths. Sep 20 at 19:29
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    @Michael Curtis Yes, I think Am7/C would be more useful in that context. A non-functional C6, D6, E6... sequence would be possible of course. Sep 20 at 20:20
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Actually, why would we want to force you to hear things differently than you do? It's your hearing, your sensitivity and you need to work with it, not against it.

The only difference between Am7 and C6 is where you hear the root of the chord, is it A or C? This may depend on many things, including inversion and voicing, timbre of the instrument and context.

Try to play the chord in various ways, and try focusing on either hearing the root as A or C. Try also playing it in harmonic context, e.g. E7-Am7 or Am7-D7-Gmaj7 vs Dm7-G7-C6.

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Based on your "Also, my ear doesn't seem to care which note is in the base." statement, I have a feeling that your Am7-hearing problem is not your only such problem. As a result, I highly recommend training yourself to care about what the bass/lowest notes of chords are.

For example, how jarring do you find the I6/4 chord in a I-ii-I6/4-V-I chord progression, knowing that a I chord should not directly follow a ii chord, but a I6/4 chord can as long as it resolves to a V chord (extensions there optional)? Based on your earlier statement, my guess is that you either find that chord jarring - when it shouldn't - or you're not familiar enough with music theory to know common practice period chord resolution rules. Note that the only difference between a I chord and a I6/4 chord just by listening to them are whether scale degree 1 (I) or scale degree 5 (I6/4) is in the bottom.

By the end of your training, you should find that the first chord/measure of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony should sound a little off. That's right! It's an unprepared i6/4 chord in A minor, with E in the bass!

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With its formula of 4 notes, A C E G, it could either be called Am7, or C6. Usually, the defining factor is the lowest note - that in the bass. Hearing the A lowest, Am7, hearing the C lowest, C6.

This isn't always going to be the case, though, so where it comes in the sequence will be a contributory factor. In fact, that in itself is a decision the writer has to make, and technically it's often a 50:50.

If the preceding chord is a G, it's more likely to be called C6, if the preceding chord is an E, it's more likely to be called Am7. In the oft-used ii V I, that ii will be Am7. It'll be the I that gets C6, although Cmaj7, or plain C is pretty common.

There are precious few chords that give us the same dilemma, but an example is Am7♭5/Cm6. Notes involved: A C E♭ G.So, very similar in sound, and dependant on voicing.

As long as you're aware that those four notes are being played, you only have two choices of names, so that's about where it is.

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