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Every once in a while I try to figure out how to play a song on piano. I can get the melody, rhythm, and I can usually figure out the chords, but I have a hard time figuring out which chord notes are present.

To be a little more concrete, maybe I can tell that the top note is an E and that it's an A minor chord, but sometimes I can't even tell how many of the chord notes are being played (let alone which notes they are). It's even harder if the recorded piano doesn't have the same sound as my own piano

Is this just something that improves with practice, or are there a few tips to improve my transcription accuracy?

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Aural transcription is a good way to improve your ear! You can also try to play along to easy pop songs, but I can give you some other tips:

  • if you play, study and sing intervals, chord theory, and chord progression, the knowledge of chords will improve your ear training, as we hear what we know.

Sing and play e.g. the cadence I-IV-V-I as arpeggio, also all triads and tetrads in relation to their solution, the same with circles of V7 chords or ii7-V7 chains.

2 other helps will:

  • be play along to midifiles, you can slow down the tempo and you can see the keyboard or the the sheet transcription.
  • play along to songs on youtube e.g. with piano roll or videos where they show the keys of the keyboard or the sheetmusic. You can first play by ear and then control by looking at the video and compare your solution with the original music. You can also control the speed by slowing down to 25%.
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If you know it is an a minor chord, then you should know that the notes are a-c-e. You mentioned that you sometimes hear that the E is the top note. Being able to tell what notes are present will come with practice. The period of time the music was written in may also help you determine if there might be a 7th in the chord. Remember that the 7th in a chord will add a bit of dissonance between it and the 8th (a.k.a. the root). Composers during the 16th and 17th centuries avoided dissonance as much as possible. So, the likelihood of having a chord with a 7th is lower in music of the aforementioned periods.

A good way to practice listening for the chordal notes would be to play an 'A' and then play the note 'C'. Next, play them together. Get accustomed to the various intervals and how the two notes sound together. Now play the 'A' and play the 'E'. They make a Perfect 5th. Play them together. Memorize what they sound like together. The more you do this, the easier it will be to hear the notes of the chord. When you start playing on the piano, after a bit you should be able to pick them out. The internet most likely has interactive exercises for practice use. Try googling "interactive pitch identification".

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