I recently took a musical listening test and one of the sections involved listening to a set of chords or a musical phrase, then listening to 3 different notes played individually, and identifying which of the notes was the key-tone (or do in solfege) that the chords or phrase was built on.

What are some ways of identifying this based only on listening? Are there some listening exercises or tricks that can be used to do this? The aptitude being measured was labeled "Identification of Tonal Center".

4 Answers 4


The 'tonal centre' is the note that most makes the listener feel the music has arrived back home. Each and every key has this key note - the first note played in the scale of that key. Be it major, minor or modal. A lot of tunes work on the premise that they describe a journey - starting from 'home' and returning after some detours. It's that feel of returning you need to listen for, if only doing this by ear.

It's often, but not always, the last note of a piece, and usually part of the final chord. Whether it comes at the end of a perfect or plagal cadence, it's the one that signifies finality.

Take some of the songs you know, and play/sing the last line. It's almost inevitable that the last note will be that 'home note'. The listener somehow needs to know that the piece is at its end, and not just having a bit of a rest.

By singing or listening (or playing) the notes in the question, one in particular will feel like 'the end'. There may be one or two others which allude to that, and they will be the other couple of notes contained within that home chord.

For example, in key C, obviously the C note is definitive, but E or G can feel like they are the answer. Except that G (the fifth) will feel like there's one more move to make. Same could go for C minor. C is the obvious one, but Eb or G could be the red herring.


I developed this skill after or together with another skill: finding chords to melodies by ear. After doing that enough, I started to identify chords I heard and the tones in them started to map (in my mind) to the familiar chord roles and scale positions, the things you might call I, IV, V, or tonic, subdominant, dominant chord etc. To find the tonal center, I imagine or hum or play with an instrument a solo melody note on top of the chords (for which I can feel the relative roles and scale positions through the chord role identification skill). And then I "see" where the note lands in terms of the familiar places, i.e. chord roles, relative pitches. And if I played the note on an instrument, I also get an absolute pitch reference (not only relative roles or scale positions), so the relative reference frame (scale) moves itself to the right place in the absolute pitches.

So, the hierarchy of skills required, in my subjective experience, is:

  1. Play melodies by ear, identify pitches you hear so that you can place them on, say, the major scale.
  2. Play the melodies in different keys, so you can separate absolute and relative pitches.
  3. Find suitable accompaniment chords to melodies, by ear. With which chords would you accompany this melody. Of course, you do this in several keys, to understand the relative chord roles instead of absolute pitches.
  4. Identify chord roles (relative pitches on a scale) in music by ear. Which one is the "one chord" i.e. tonic, home base?

You're asking for something "based only on listening". It is possible to do the identification based only on listening, but in my opinion and experience, learning that skill is not possible without playing exercises. You have to produce notes, melodies, chords, and your music "input" and "output" i.e. hearing and playing have to be tightly connected.


When you listening to the melody phrase or set of chords, start humming along with the music, once the piece is over, keep humming the melody/chords, and see if the humming at the moment is resolving or giving a feeling of completion, if yes, keep humming the current chord/note, if no resolve it by yourself in your humming and continue humming in the resolving note/chord.

Now you have the key chord/note in your mind/hum, continue to hum this chord/note, and listen to the 3 different notes, and one of that will perfectly match to your humming.

  • Not all songs will finish with a triad. (Maj 6th, maj.7th, or in jazz, a seemingly completely unrelated chord!!) Even if they do, there's a good chance some notes will be doubled, confusing some listeners.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 7:11

From gregorian chant we know the repetitio or tenor is the 5th. So if you have a tune that is swinging up in steps or thirds to a repeated fifth we can assume that this is the sol or mi and derive the root note of the tune.

If the a song begins with a fourth the upper note will be the root tone in 99%.

If the first interval is a major and minor sixths are more ambiguous, but the tonality can be derived by the following intervals.

In 99,9% the root note of the final chord is the do or la, aswell the tonal center is indicated by the final tone of the tune.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.