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So, in my ear training class, we're seeing open-position triads. Major, minor, and diminished in all inversions.

I can't for the life of me identify these chords by ear. I just hear a random string of dissonant intervals and can't make out the fundamental pitch or the inversion.

Does anybody have any tips for identifying these chords? Our teacher unfortunately hasn't said much, he has shared no method to resolve this.

Any advice would be appreciated!

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    "Open-position triads" as chords played on guitar? I think I can answer this question but I'm worried there's something I don't understand about this use of the term "open-position". Nov 8, 2023 at 22:24
  • How are you with close-position chords and inversions?
    – Aaron
    Nov 9, 2023 at 0:21
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    Ah! I realized what "open position" means here, it's basically a voicing that's wider than an octave, and not a stack of thirds or a closed voicing inversion. An example would be C-G-E, which has a fifth and a sixth. But my answer would be the same: learn to play by ear, and then the identification question becomes "what would I have to play to reproduce the sound I'm hearing." Is it a minor or major chord, what's the bass note and what's the highest note. Stuff you'll learn when you play full songs by ear. Nov 9, 2023 at 0:32
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica Why not post this as an answer? Nov 9, 2023 at 1:42
  • they sound open, there really is nothing more to say about it really. A C Major chord still sounds like a Cmajor chord whether it is a bar chord in 3rd position or an open chord, the open chord just sounds open, while the bar chords don't.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 9, 2023 at 12:44

3 Answers 3

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Based on my personal experience: learn to play by ear, and then the identification question becomes "what would I have to play to reproduce the sound I'm hearing." Is it a minor or major chord, what's the bass note and what's the highest note. Stuff you'll learn when you play full songs by ear.

This can be split to three areas. First you learn to play major/minor/diminished chords by ear, regarless of open/close voicing. For this you'll preferably need practice material that's guaranteed to include only basic triad chords in root position, not sevenths etc. and no inversions.

Then you learn to play bass inversions by ear. For this you expand your practice material to something that uses bass inversions.

Then you learn to play the highest note by ear like it's in your example material.

These are skills, not knowledge. It's not something you "know", it's something you can do, and it comes through lots of practicing.

To improve learning efficiency, you could try to accompany songs by ear, or play in a band. By ear. It should provide an incentive to get it right? Ok, maybe not for everyone. But you'll have to put yourself in a position where it matters if you get it right. There have to be positive and negative consequences to you. Basic learning motivation.

Edit: for practicing playing chords by ear you should naturally use a chordal instrument, preferably piano. Tim's answer provides good advice about playing the notes arpeggiated slowly, as well as simultaneously. Adding notes to the sounding chord one by one strengthens your feel for the role of each individual note in the chord. Singing particularly the highest note as "melody" may improve your sense of hearing the highest note. In piano and organ accompaniment, the song's lead melody is often doubled with the highest note of each chord. With guitar, this is rarely done, because it requires using a lot of different fingering shapes and changing positions along the fretboard to suit the melody. Which is quite an advanced skill for guitar accompanists.

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    +1 for "These are skills, not knowledge. It's not something you "know", it's something you can do, and it comes through lots of practicing."
    – nuggethead
    Nov 9, 2023 at 16:52
  • @nuggethead That's true for so many things in music, and that's why music is not a good fit for this site's idea. Questions should get answers from which the asker accepts the one which solves the problem the best. But learning things can take a long time in music. The OP should now basically start practicing to verify the suggested practice routines and report back with results in a year or so - which I don't believe for a minor second. (and in addition to the wrong time perspective, we cannot have actual sound here so everything is very theoretical) Nov 9, 2023 at 17:02
  • Fully agree with you. I have remarked all people who can recognize chords by ear have practiced playing by ear and improvisation. An obvious remark, which you may nevertheless add to your answer if you wish: this playing must be on a polyphonic instrument, such as piano or guitar. Nov 10, 2023 at 17:27
  • "Learn by doing" is great advice, but the student should stay aware of the degree to which they're being influenced by the physicality and idiom of the instrument. Voicing choices on a keyboard will be dictated partly by what our fingers can reach, in ways that they might not be when writing for a choir or orchestra. And a guitar might make choices of inversion based on how the chord lies on the strings, leaving the voice leading of the bass line to the bass (like the point made above about the top of the chord). No harm in all this as long as the practitioner is aware. Apr 12 at 13:18
  • @AndyBonner I'm not sure what kind of negative or harmful influence there could be for recognizing chords. If the exact target chord voicing isn't one you've produced on your instrument, then you'll feel that something isn't quite right. Maybe you got the qualities and the lowest and highest notes right - which is already very good - but something is still different. You're familiar with the things you've played yourself, and now it's something a bit different, so you'll know that you didn't completely recognize all aspects. Apr 12 at 18:05
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A triad, major or minor, should not come across as dissonant, in open or closed position. Both will contain the same three note, name-wise. It's just that in closed position, those three notes are as close as possible to each other - CEG, EGC, GCE are the only options, whereas in open voicing, they could be played with appropriate notes missing - CGE, for example ( the E is an octave higher than it would be in closed position.

So, first to establish is major or minor? That's fairly simple - the sound between C and any E will be the only deciding factor. The G note won't affect which is which. So, basically, after that's established, given that you can recognise that out of the three, the root is C (it certainly won't be E), but could be construed as G. But - if you thought the root was G, then its third would be B, and there wouldn't be a B in that particular triad.

I think the problem could be that you hear E and G together. That in itself does produce m3. Fooling you into considering that it's a minor chord. But, were that the case, there would be a D note somewhere (5th of root G), and there isn't.

The one that gets a lot of folk is the major 7th chord. As the lower 'triad' is major, but the higher is minor. And that's in closed voicing!

Playing loads of chords in both open and closed, as strummed but also as slowly arpeggiated, will give you more opportunity to unravel which notes are used. It'll also fortify you knowing where the notes actually are on either guitar or piano - the two most common instruments on which chords are played.

An afterthought: have a go at singing the intervals involved. R>3, R>5. A third (R>m3/M3) will obviously be smaller than a fifth (R>P5), and the difference when singing those notes should make that apparent.

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First of all, and unfortunately, you may find yourself largely on your own to solve this problem. Assuming that this is offered as a part of a university music program, these courses are often taught by professors because "someone needs to teach ear training." It is almost certainly not their research area of favorite thing to teach. I had a few excellent instructors who spent time (both in-class and office hours) helping me identify strategies. Others showed up for class, phoned it in, and gave the painful exams.

I'd start by seeing if you can work with the instructor during office hours, or outside of class. It may be that a short on-one-on session at the piano might make a world of difference. If not, this is what helped me:

Personal Playlist

Find a few songs that have easily recognizable chords in these inversions. See if you can find one for each chord and inversion. For example, the first two chords of the Copland clarinet concerto outline first a major chord and then a minor chord, in open voicing.*. Play these a hundred times or so. On your exam, if you hear things that sound like this, they are likely a major and minor traid, respectively.
Another easy one to learn is the second-inversion major chord. Listen to any classical-period concerto. Right near the end the orchestra will undoubtedly play one of these chords, just before the soloist's cadenza. Listening to a few of these, many times, will give you a memory of it. From now on, you will own that inversion.

Others may be harder to find, but they exist. I'd write more but that's all I can remember just now.

Also, working with a group of friends to take turns playing chords on a piano and guessing can be helpful.

  • these chords are each missing the fifth. The first is C-E (a major tenth apart), and the second is D-F (a minor tenth apart).

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