How would someone go about identifying chords quickly and efficiently? While sight reading, I would often come up to some strange chord and try to decipher it. It normally takes me (what feels like) ages to figure out what chord it is. I have seen other people look at complex chords and instantly identify it.

What is the most efficient way to teach myself good chord recognition techniques?

  • 6
    In what context? Are you talking about playing piano? Guitar? Reading an improv section of a big band chart?
    – Andrew
    Apr 29, 2011 at 12:05
  • @Andrew It was in reference to reading piano sheetmusic chords.
    – Dasaru
    May 10, 2011 at 15:24
  • I've wondered the same thing. I mean, there are pages such as scales-chords.com where you can enter the notes and it will find chords for you. I was wondering whether there are any tools where you play a chord on the keyboard and on your screen you immediately see the list of matching chords...
    – MShekow
    May 23, 2014 at 16:18
  • I am struggling with identifying chords but I found something which helps me a little bit. E.g., if you consider triads, in root position tonical note is the most bottom note, in 1st inversion, in the middle, in 2nd inversion at top. So I don't really need to read all notes to read a chord. This can be extended to X7, X5 with notes in octave. If ou read intervals well, these may help you. If you cannot read intervals perhaps practising intervals should be your next step
    – Celdor
    Dec 23, 2015 at 11:22

9 Answers 9


Learn to recognize intervals between notes quickly. For example, notes that skip a line or space are a third apart. Notes that skip seven are an octave apart. When reading a chord quickly, read the root/lowest note and then the intervals above it and place them in the key. With experience you will be able to recognize common voicings by shape alone.


To Rein Henrichs very good advice, I would add:

  • When you look at a chord, try to visualize, play, hear and name its simple inversions (basically putting the lowest note one octave higher, or its highest note one octave lower, you can repeat the process several times until you come back to the original chord).

    It will reinforce your sight-reading of intervals and shapes and you will be surprised how many chords in a piece are in fact related and close variations of each other.


From what I see, you are a "working backwards" personality. You are like a painter who just mix your colors to get your desired shade and then just paint. After that, you ask yourself: "What did I do just now and how did I get that color?" You get the desired sound first and then try to decipher it. So, to achieve your end, learn the below and then work backwards to decipher the names. I will explain as we go along:

I am assuming that you already know the fundamental Major Chords for all the scales already, am I right?

Now, just think in terms of semitones (or half-steps in American Terms) and sharps and flats. With only 9 formulas, you can create at least 144 chords. There is absolutely nothing complicated with forming chords if you do it this way.

You already learnt that Chords are formed by pressing the Root note, next note 4 half steps up and then 3 half steps up. ie. C E and G in C chord. You can get every other major chords by using this R - 4 - 3 formula.

Now, to get the minor chord, just flatten the middle note (i.e. E flatted to E flat). So Cm chord = C Eb G. I do not want to use R - 3 - 4 because by doing so, you end up memorizing 12 formulas at least. I just want you to remember 9 for the time being)

For the suspended chord, just sharpen the middle note (i.e. E sharpened to F) Sharpen means raise the note 1 half step. So for Csus or Cs4 or Csus4 = C F G. You will get this is "McGyver's theme"

For the Diminished Fifth chord, just flatten the rightmost (fifth) note (i.e. G flatted to G flat). So Cm chord = C E Gb. It is most commonly used in m7-5 like in Cm7-5 which is C Eb Gb Bb. It will most commonly be used as Bm7-5 when playing songs in A minor key. Bm7-5 = B D F A. When playing Dm E7 Am progression, replace the Dm with Bm7-5 and you will get the an even more beautiful color to your song.

For the Augmented 5th chord, just sharpen the fifth, rightmost note (i.e. G sharpened to G#) So for CAug or C+5 or CAug5 = C E G+. You will find this is "Greatest Love of All" and "James Bond Theme"

Now for the 6th, 7th and Major 7th. Basically it means:

For 6th ADD a note 2 half steps from the 5th note. C6 will result in C E G A. You will find these sweet sounding chords prevalent in Hawaiian songs.

For 7th ADD a note 3 half steps from the 5th note. C7 will result in C E G Bb. These chords with "unfinished" feelings alway appear in pairs with root chords. I.e. G7 with C chord in C key; C7 with F Chord in F key; etc.

For Major7th ADD a note 4 half steps from the 5th note. CMaj7; CMaj;CM7 will result in C E G B. You will find these big broad sounding chords prevalent in Movie Themes to give you the big countryside feelings. You will also find it in songs with minor keys long root chord progressions like Feelings which goes Am - AmM7-Am7-Am6-Dm...

For Diminished Chords, this is a special exception. All the 4 notes are 3 half steps apart. ie. Cdim = C Eb Gb A. You will find these weird sounding chords prevalent in Hawaiian and Jazz songs as a passing chord ie. C C#dim Dm G7.... or C Ebdim Dm G7..... One of Bach's songs also uses this (I forgot the name) which is commonly used in Dracula Vampire movies. Try it out and see.

For all the above, you will see that all these adds to the color of sound and like an artist, these are your shades that will help you paint your masterpieces. How you use them will determine the quality and output of your music.

With the above, you can create 144 chords at least. Test it out as below

Major (try out all the 12 chords) Minor (try out all the 12 chords) 7th (try out all the 12 chords) m7th (try out all the 12 chords) m7-5 (try out all the 12 chords) dim (try out all the 12 chords) 6th (try out all the 12 chords) 7th (try out all the 12 chords) Maj7 (try out all the 12 chords) Dim (try out all the 12 chords) Aug5 (try out all the 12 chords) Sus4 (try out all the 12 chords)

Now, for the final crunch!: Assuming you pressed F Ab C# E and you like the sound to fit that section of your song, then just take the F as your root note and know that F Major is F A C. With reference to that, find out what happened to the other notes: ie. Ab is lower than A, therefore it should be a Minor; C# is higher than C, so it should be Augmented and E should be 4 halfsteps above C, so it should be Maj7. Putting it all together, it should be FmMaj7Aug5! Get it? Get this first. Then we deal with the 9th, 11ths and 13ths once you have grasped this.

If not, you can always write to me for further clarifications.


  • 2
    I don't see how this answer is related to the question at all.
    – JiK
    Dec 24, 2015 at 15:20

Something that's always helped me, particularly when learning specific-but-related-sets of items (such as notes and then chords), is to simply make flashcards.

Writing things down (in general) seems to make a big difference in one's ability to recall that information. And, for me at least, this includes making flashcards.


Recognizing the intervals between notes is very vital in understanding and being able to identify chords, but there is a lot more to it then that especially since you may play the chord in any voicing where the notes of the chord are not in an order you recognize and you may also only be playing part of the chord. To be able to identify chords efficiently, you need to understand the building blocks of them and be able to arrange them so they make sense.

Breakdown of a Voicings

Let's look at this example below:

enter image description here

These three notes come together to make a chord. From bottom up, the notes are B♭, E, and C. Just by looking at all the intervals, you see B♭ up to E is an augmented fourth (A4), B♭ to C is a major second (M2) or major ninth (M9) depending on how you want to look at it and E to C is a minor sixth (m6).

Looking at B♭ as the root doesn't get you too far as you only have an augmented 4th and a major second which isn't a typically defined chord. However if you play with the order that you are looking at the notes, you'll see something very different. If we want to look at C as the root, then we have a major third (M3) from C to E and we have a minor seventh (m7) from C to B♭. Now if you look at typically built chords you see that we have everything we need to build a dominant 7th chord to get a C7 except the 5th which is omitted, but that is typical for the 5th.

This may not be a common voicing for a C7, but you should be able to recognize it. Switching the order of the notes will help a lot when you don't really see what is going on due to the voicing and after practicing, you'll be able to rearrange the notes in your head no problem.

Close Voicings

Another thing that helps recognize chords is understanding the basic close position chord shapes/voicings. Let's take a look at an example:

enter image description here

All three chords are a C major triad, but in different close position voicings. The first is a root position where you have the root, third, and fifth of the chord in that order. The next is a first inversion close position voicing where you have the third, fifth, and root of the chord in that order. The last is a second inversion close position voicing where you have the fifth, root, and third in that order. If you spot one of these close position triads, it's easy to identity the root and from there determining the chord will be much easier.


Was it question on guitar and jazz lead sheet chords sight-reading, i would advice (i've picked it up from one of Joe Pass DVD) - SIMPLIFY !!!:)

When You see something like this: G7b5b9 - You play simply essential notes of G7 (would be 7th, 3rd, root - in order of importance). In "playing in the Band" - this method will be not very sophisticated but will not result in any "crash notes"

C69 - You play B,E,C of C major


This way You need to recognize and be able to play major, minor, dominant, augumented and diminished chords.

Afterwhile when You build up Your chord vocabulary - you will slowly start to add those b5 and #9 notes.

I know this is different context, but maybe this will help :)


Here is an article about how to spell any chord you want.


However, you still need to know how chords are created, that is the step you are missing. There is no shortcut there, it is just like learning your times tables, there are very well known and VERY well documented recipes for every chord that there is out there. Here is just one -


That list will not help you unless you know how those chords are made or what they are used for. There is no shortcut for that other than just looking at a lot of music and asking specific questions when encountering something you have not seen before.

Its like asking "how do I know what a word means in Spanish" but you don't speak Spanish.....You can look it up in a dictionary but there is a lot more to the language than just knowing that "gato" means "cat".


To answer your question: The most efficient way to learn how to more quickly identify chords is by composing. When you compose in four voices, you are forcing yourself to analyze what you want to write, what comes next, and then going back and reviewing what you already wrote and making adjustments. When you create a chord from scratch, you understand what it is made of and how it became to be a chord; now take this on a higher level (building a harmonic progression, building a section, building an entire piece). This is most "efficient", I believe.

However, if you are not a composer, and you do not have a solid grasp on theory, then it might be better for you to simply just practice sight reading.

As others have said, you need to start looking at a triad as three notes, but as one "entity". Similar to how when you look at a bus driving by, instead of seeing every single window with every single kid inside, you see the bus as one single entity. When you look at a chord, all you need is to look at the bottom note (or top) and based off the actual physical shape of the chord be able to recognize what chord it is. If there are accidentals, then take that into account (While always remembering what key you are in).

I know that sounds like a lot for the brain to process, but it comes with time and practice, just like everything else in life.

Edit: Obviously as others have pointed out, knowing your intervals completely is an absolute requirement.


Nothing beats knowing what all the common chords sound like in the key you are playing. See link below. I would play all these chords in various inversions, and also see what they sound like if you omit a note. http://www.piano-keyboard-guide.com/key-of-c.html

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