When I hear music what I can consciously detect is the top melody note and the chord as a whole, for eg "that is a C sung over an A min". However, I am unable to detect how the chord is voiced, as in what note the bass is playing and in what order the remaining notes are arranged. How can I train my ear to acquire this ability?

UPDATE: I play intermediate level piano and am aware of ear training methods and am already working in this direction. What I am looking for is particular exercises and techniques that can address this specific aspect of ear training.

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    "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice." Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 21:32

3 Answers 3


As you point out, once you've learned ear training, it's relatively straightforward to determine a melody, the chord, and even the bass notes (listen to the bass line, and treat it like its own melody). What can be harder, is the inner voices. It's not always easy to get these right, and, at least when I do it, it involves some amount of guesswork, and uncertainty.

The first thing to listen for is little countermelodies or riffs. Anything that's not the main melody, but has a distinct and discernible motion to it. Try and isolate these, sing them, analyze them (again, with ear training) to try and fill them out. Listen multiple times, possibly at a slower speed, if needed, and try to ignore the melody and bass (easier said than done). Sometimes it's easier to catch an inner part when it is moving from one pitch to another, and then you brain sort of "latches on" to it, and can hear it better.

You can use knowledge of the instrument to guide your intuition. For example, notes in a piano chord have to be so close together in order to be played (unless you start arpeggiating), and I believe the same is true with guitar chords. Many instruments have a more limited range as well, which can help to place the parts.

Knowledge of voice leading principles can also help to educate your guesses. For example, knowing that the third of a chord is rarely doubled, or that second inversion chords (with the fifth of the chord in the bass) are considered dissonant and therefore often avoided, except in cadential formulas or pedal points.

You also want to be aware of whether the parts sound dense (from a close voicing) or rather sparse (from an open voicing), and whether the parts are moving in similar motion, or contrary motion, or if some of them are just holding a note and sitting there (often done in string pads, for example).

In your example, you have a C in the melody, over an A minor chord. That means that, unless there are non-harmonic tones, everyone is playing an A, a C, or an E. You've already got the C in the melody, which is the third of the chord. In traditional voice leading (for vocal parts, and often in orchestral parts), the third of a chord is very often not doubled, so chances are good that there isn't another C out there, unless it's doubling the melody, or you have a very thick texture. Similarly, the bass is almost certainly playing an A. Somewhere in between, there is probably an E, and maybe another A.

One more thing you can do is come up with a hypothesis about what the voicing is, and then test it. For example, you might think that the E above middle C is the voicing being played at a certain point. Pause the song just before that point, and establish that E in your head. Play it on an instrument, sing it, whatever. Train your ears to focus on that frequency, then listen for it in the playback. Maybe even come up with a few possible voicings, and determine which one sounds the most like what your hearing.

And ultimately, if the voicing is so murky that you can't determine exactly what it is, then how important is it to know? If you pick a voicing that sounds "pretty close" (or it's so close that you can't tell if its right), just go with it. There are no voicing police to arrest you if you double the wrong note!


Ear Training

Ear training is a facility that you can develop over time.

There are textbooks, tutorials, and even many pieces of computer software that provide courses in ear training. The basic method is to start with exercises that teach you to recognize simple intervals between two notes played at the same time, and then build up to chords from there, starting with the ones that are easiest to recognize and then building up to intervals, chords and chord progressions that are more difficult. You also learn to transcribe musical passages, which means to write down the chord progressions you are hearing, and also to write out all the actual notes that you hear.

If you study it in college, ear training is a two-year course that is taught alongside music theory.

You would benefit by finding an ear training method book or website with audio examples and by working through each exercise, in the correct order, slowly, making sure you master each exercise before you move on to the next one. There are so many resources available that I don't have one to recommend.

Here are the results of a Google search on "ear training course".


Since you can only sing one note at one time, you need reference to an instrument which will produce multiple notes simultaneously. A guitar, or better,a piano, will be useful. With this, you can play different voicings, so that you get used to how they sound, and also how they're formed. Without such a facility, it'll be quite difficult, on your own.

  • Thanks, I have been playing piano and have gotten used to playing chords off sheet music. What I was looking for is, how I can use the instrument specifically to develop this ability.
    – gigahari
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 16:55
  • You're probably aware that a basic chord has 3 note - root, third and fifth. Get used to the inversions, only using these 3 notes. Play them close harmony, play them spread out. In a lot of sheet music,one of the notes may be duplicated. This makes things tricky, as it will confuse the ears as to which inversion it could be.Stick to highest and lowest notes- they are the best to recognise. Then try 4 part - as in the three 7ths,and 6ths,(maj./min.).Try playing two notes from a triad, and sing the third, on top, under and in between.Check by playing.Move on to dim. and aug.for some fun.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 18:01

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