If you play me a chord (even one with two or three notes), I have a hard time hearing the notes that make up the chord, and an even harder time singing them. 2 notes are frequently doable - 3+ is basically impossible, unless it is something simple like a major chord played in the standard inversion.

I think this is one of the fundamental barriers to training my ears, and I want to know if anyone has suggestions for practicing it.

(Further comments - if you play a chord, typically I'm tempted to sing a note that is melodically appropriate, but not necessarily part of the chord. Also, if I close my eyes and listen to an chord sustained on an organ voice of my keyboard, I can hear inside of it periodic arpeggios ... frequently but not always the notes of the chord but in a different position. It's also unclear to me if it is an aural illusion or something actually in the sound.)

2 Answers 2


First off, don't use organ sounds as examples. A lot of what makes an organ sound is partials - harmonics - and they come in varying doses. Hammond organs use drawbars for the very purpose of changing the relative volume of specific harmonics.

Secondly, get used to which three notes make up most basic chords. Start with major and minor, of which there are three variations; root, first and second inversion. Get familiar with the order of notes - root has the key note at the bottom, while first inversion has it at the top. Be able to sing the three notes in order, after playing onl one of them and understanding which that one is. So, given an E, told it's a 3rd, sing root position, which puts that E as the second note sung.

Get used to the sound of dim and aug., sus and 6ths, before moving on to 4 note chords. Use a purer sound on keyboard - piano, flute are good.

You say you can sing a note that's melodically appropriate, but it's not from the chord. That I don't understand. If you listen to G, Bb D (Gm) and sing any other note, how is it melodically appropriate, unless it's a passing note, which obviously won't be part of the triad?

Singing uo and down scales may work, too, accenting certain notes that produce a chord. E.g. sing C scale, and emphasise 4, 6, 8. It's within the key of C, but you'll be singing a root F triad/arpeggio. Giving a different perspective.

  • Thanks. By melodically appropriate, I meant that I'm tempted to sing something that runs it's own line contrapunctally to the chords I'm playing. I will try your suggestions. And thanks for answering the implicit question about organ voices.
    – Elle Najt
    May 30, 2017 at 7:35
  • @AreaMan - Tim said it. I'd just add from experience that it's not a trivial skill and it does take lots of practice. Start simple and don't get discouraged. May 30, 2017 at 7:40
  • @ScottWallace Thanks for the encouragement. I was feeling pretty tone deaf for finding this so hard.
    – Elle Najt
    May 30, 2017 at 8:22
  • @AreaMan- hey man, I know. I thought I was pretty hot stuff as a music major many years ago, but the eartraining was humbling. Persevere. May 30, 2017 at 8:44

Tim's advice is obviously right on the mark. Sing up and down through the chord tones.

Another exercise I have used is to sing around one "central" pitch while playing some chord progression on the keyboard. For example, I would play this chord sequence called the "rule of the octave" while singing pitch centered on a selected pitch like the dominant. So, in C major the chords start with I - V6 - V4/2 of V - V and I would sing G - G - F# - G and then carry on in a similar way sometimes going down sometimes going up from the central pitch. I could start singing on other pitch like the tonic or mediant, basically start on any pitch of the I chord. You can kind of think of it like singing one of the inner voices, tenor or alto.

The important point with this is to sort of reverse the approach to singing various chord tones. Instead of arpeggiating the chord with your voice to sing all the types of chord tones (root, thrid, and fifth) the type of chord tone you sing changes, because the chords change. I.e. G - G doesn't move melodically, but changes in that you sing a fifth then a root relative to I - V6. So while your voice isn't really challenged by the singing you can concentrate on the feel of singing the root, third, or fifth of the chord. It's essential to go slowly. Hold the notes. Try to feel the acoustic beating in your throat. If you pay careful attention, you should feel the different vibrations. Singing the third feels physically different that singing the root. The beating is different.

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