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Clearly this is not essential for playing most instruments. Clearly it helps you to get the harmony of a given song by ear or to compose.

But apart from this are there more benefits to this ability? Maybe things that you noticed after learning to identify chords instantly?

For example is there a reason why a singer should practise this?

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  • By "type," do you mean chord "qualities," like major, minor, diminished, etc? Apr 17, 2023 at 20:43
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    Are you asking about usefulness of ear training in general, or specifically recognizing chords? Also, it's a bit confusing, why do you dismiss playing by ear and composing? Apr 17, 2023 at 21:06
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    "Clearly this is not essential for playing most of the instruments." Depends on the context. In symphonic bands, there is an expectations that the chords will tuned to just intervals, which means you have to hear whether the note you're playing is the root, third, or fifth of the chord, so you know whether to flatten or sharpen it. Apr 18, 2023 at 0:33
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    This feels a bit like asking, "I've learned to read English, should I also learn to understand spoken word? If so, why?"
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 18, 2023 at 15:21
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    @Tim If I don’t consciously intonate correctly in band, it definitely won’t happen on its own. And if you asked my band director I’m 99% sure he would disagree that it just seems to happen. If it just happened on its own, he wouldn’t be constantly reminding us to do it. Same story with my chorale director and singing. The difference in chorale is we get scores so we can tell which note of the chord we are singing without needing to hear it. Apr 18, 2023 at 20:12

5 Answers 5

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  1. By itself, it can be essential when learning a piece by ear or when transcribing from a recording. Recognizing the overall harmony can, for example, help figure out notes that are low in the mix and hard to hear. It can also lend clues to what is being played in a passage of very rapid notes — hearing which notes are inside or outside the chord.

  2. Similarly, having "an ear for chords" will help in the reverse situation: listening to music to check that it has been written down correctly. Being able to read a score and hear the chords in it will allow one to recognize if it matches what is actually being heard. This is an essential skill for, say, a music producer recording an ensemble and following along in the score to check for accuracy.

  3. When coupled with a knowledge of functional harmony, it helps serve the ear as a predictive tool for where the music is likely headed.

For example, if I hear a half-diminished seventh chord, I know there's a good chance the next chord will be a dominant seventh. And hearing a dominant seventh suggests the next chord is likely a major or minor chord.

Of course, there are myriad possibilities for where a chord might go, but recognizing them quickly can still help understand the flow of the music, and how where the music currently is relates the the larger form of the the phrase, movement, piece, etc.

  1. For a singer, it can be additionally helpful for tuning the voice within a chord — making small intonation adjustments according to which pitch within the chord is being sung.
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    Also, if transcription is writing down what one hears, the reverse of transcription might be judging whether one is hearing that which is written. When rehearsing a group or critiquing a performance based on a written score, ear training can help the listener identify whether the score is being played accurately. "Joe, don't forget: at bar 11, that chord is minor."
    – Jim L.
    Apr 18, 2023 at 16:54
  • @JimL. - that's oh so true. Many's the 'discussion' had around that sort of decision. Mainly with folk who can't do what the OP is questioning.
    – Tim
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:06
  • @JimL. May I add that to my post?
    – Aaron
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:53
  • Certainly......
    – Jim L.
    Apr 18, 2023 at 18:00
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Improvisation, which is composing on the spot. It may range from composing an entire new melody line, as in scat singing, but also vocalises, riffs and runs, and ornamentation. Those are often not written in the score, or leave room for interpretation. All this could be composed and deduced in advance, but recognizing the harmonic context can help you to act more spontaneously.

Practicing singing naturally provides lots of ear training, so some singers can get away with less formal training, but I can't believe better awareness wouldn't benefit a singer.

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Surely it helps to understand the bigger picture. Knowing one's own little bit of the jigsaw in a band or orchestra is a fine thing, but knowing how that fits with everything else makes the process better team work.

So, for anyone, on any instrument (inc. vox), understanding what the harmony pattern of a piece is will be advantageous.

Personally, when part of the house band, playing with others who need backing, my go-to is listening to the chord sequence - or sometimes the implied sequence. That means I can accompany someone much sooner, with far less guesswork. When soloing in a jazz situation, 'seeing' the plan, or route that the piece is taking allows me to plan ahead and play a more coherent solo - always a good thing!

It's also very useful to be able to listen to a song, and write down the chords as they occur - not just what kind they are, but where they fit as in V>I, etc) in the musical spectrum. More reliable (for me) than going to some of the sites which purport to supply the chords for lots of songs! To attain a decent level does take a number of years, though, but it's a skill worth having.

I'm pretty sure chord recognition is part of at least some practical music exams - so exam boards must feel they're important too.

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Practice what?

You set up a question about aural skills, then slip "practice" in at the end without making any connection about the practice regime and "benefits."

This sounds a lot like "why should I practice scales" questions.

If you are following an ear training program, and are questioning the value of it, I think you have some justification for your question. I think you should ask whether the program is well designed for real world musical application.

I've seen a lot of software ear training that just throws random chords and notes at you with no real musical context. They have never been helpful for me. By comparison singing along with various chord and scale practice patterns helped improve my ear a lot.

IMO your aural skills, your ability to identify chords, etc. should emerge from lots of practice which combines playing/singing, score reading, and pattern drilling.

The benefit of doing this would be something like this example: in a score you are reading you see the leading tone takes a flat (is lowered a half step) and is played in combination with the tonic chord, your recognize this pattern as a secondary dominant to the subdominant, you can audiate that lowered leading tone in your mind, ideally you can audiate the whole secondary dominant chord and all its tones, when you sing or play it you get the correct pitch the first time, in the case of instrumental performance you can predict any necessary position change required for the passage. This kind of identify/audiate/perform integration will happen with all the other musical passages.

The other way to approach this, beside specific ear training, is to mentally identify things - harmonic, scale, modulation elements - as you play everything. Do not separate out the identification aspect for ear training only. Try to be a aware of what's happening with the musical elements at all times.

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Learning chords by ear help in playing music for many reasons.

  1. Better understanding for how to play a chord If [for example] you are playing a song for someone and you play a wrong chord, knowing how the chord is supposed to sound will help in the ability to recognize it. Especially when you are playing with no music such as playing for a teacher, performance, ETC.

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