I am playing violin for 6/7 years now and doing ABRSM grade 7 this year.

Problem is I still can't identify chords. Sad/Happy feeling doesn't work for me even a bit.

Because of this, I can't identify whether a chord is major or minor and at least can't tune the violin by playing two strings simultaneously as professionals do.

I normally can play songs by ear, so I don't think I am tone deaf.

This is a huge barrier in my music career. What do you think my problem is and how to solve it?

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    Sad/happy doesn't work for many people, don't let that discourage you. But listening is a skill as much as playing is; it has to be practiced. If you have trouble tuning your violin by ear, start by practicing to recognize intervals; then move on to identifying chords later. Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 3:45
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    Can you identify chords via their intervals if they're arpeggiated, like C - E - G, sound any different than C - Eb - G? Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 4:22
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    @piiperi i can hear the difference. But I can't say which is which without hearing the other one. Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 4:37
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    Yuo don't need to identify any major & minor chords to tune a violin.
    – user207421
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 2:18
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    @JohnWu sometimes I do hear the dissonance. But I don't know which string caused it and whether it is flat or sharp. Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 3:42

7 Answers 7


Hearing the major and minor thirds is a good first step. It should be fairly easy to get intervals. Can you do this? If you cannot do 2 note intervals then chords will be very difficult. Once you get triads in root inversion (1, 3, 5) you will want to be able to identify inversions. The major triad has a major third (1 to 3) followed by a minor third (3 to 5). So playing a 1st inversion (3, 5, 1) can fool beginners. The key to hearing this as a maj 1st inversion rather than a minor triad is that you should hear the 4th on top (5 to 8 (octave of 1)). So, intervals are very important here. Using "feeling" doesn't make any sense. This is subjective, I think minor is happy. You need to learn systematically how to dissect the combination of notes into intervals and hear the "pieces of the chord". If you are tying to test yourself on whole chords without first doing intervals in sequence and together you may have not developed some basic hearing skills. If you can afford it try getting a software package like EarMaster. This has a set of exercises that increase in difficulty from identifying the notes of the major scale relative to 1, relative to 8 (i.e. ascending and descending), then arbitrary placement with a key, intervals, arpeggios, and full chords. It grades you and recommends going back if you can't score above a certain level. I think it has modes and chords with a lot of extensions too. There may be free open source versions of this but it wasn't that expensive a few years ago. Band in a Box also has an ear training video game that covers a lot of things. It tries to increase you speed at identifying intervals, chords, and modes.

In short, get your interval recognition well developed first then learn to dissect larger chords. Learn to arppegiate the chord in your head once you hear it. That will help you identify the intervals.


This may be helpful. Start by learning to hear the difference between major and minor thirds. Find four songs, one that begins with a rising major third, one with a rising minor third, one with a falling major third and one with a falling minor third. Then you can match an interval that you hear with one of those. So, for example, "Dixieland" begins with a falling minor third, and the Marine Corps Hymn has a rising major third. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has a falling major third, and "Greensleeves" has a rising minor third.

There are plenty of sites like this one out there with more songs that you can use. The point is that it often helps to learn the intervals of songs that you already know, so you can put a name to a sound, so to speak.

Once you put the intervals together in your head, you can put them together into chords. Minor chords have a minor third on the bottom and a major third on the top, while major chords have a major third on the bottom and a minor third on the top. Get the intervals, and you should see that the chords fall into place in your head fairly quickly.


I realize that conservatories set great store by music theory classes, including ear training. However, it is quite possible for a person to progress well and be successful with one's instrument, without excelling in those classes. I am such a person. I was a music performance major. I did well in my instrument, graduated "with distinction" and got a full-time orchestra job (overseas) after graduation. But I struggled to get C's in my required music theory classes, and the ear training exercises were especially hard for me. So my answer to you is, please don't feel like a failure if you have trouble with those exercises. You play a melodic instrument. An inability to do well on ear training quizzes will not be a deal breaker for you in the long term.

In fact, my cello professor at Indiana University told me to do the bare minimum of work for my theory classes. She advised me "to pass the theory classes with a D."

To tune your strings:

For the short term, I suggest you use an electronic tuner. Often an electronic metronome will have a tuner built in. For the longer term, perhaps your teacher can work with you on tuning.

Here are some practical tips I can offer for tuning your violin:

  1. Have a luthier add extra fine tuners. Typically a violin would have only one fine tuner, on the E string, and you'd be expected to tune the other strings by adjusting the pegs. (The thinking is that fine tuners sometimes cause a rattle (metallic vibration). However, if the base of the tuner is nice and tight against the tailpiece, you should be able to eliminate rattle.) For a student who is not feeling confident with tuning, having the fine tuners can be quite helpful.

  2. Use "peg dope" on your pegs so that they turn easily, without any slipping. If you are not sure how to put it on, ask your teacher, or a more advanced student, or a luthier, to help you.

  3. Actually, let me back up a step. Have your teacher or a luthier check your instrument and your strings. If something is not right with your instrument, for example your bridge is warped, or a string is "out of true," it can be impossible to get the instrument properly in tune.

  4. Here is a tuning trick: let's say you are playing an open double-stop, for example the A and the D strings together. Let's say you are not sure if your fifth is perfect ("in tune"). Put your index finger on the A string at the nut. You will be in what I could call "zero-th position". Go ahead and put weight on that finger. Because you are in zero-th position, the pitch will not change when you do this. Now, roll your finger gradually to bend the note a tiny bit higher in pitch. This will make the interval between the two notes you are playing simultaneously LARGER. Let your ear tell you whether things got better or worse as you did this bending. If it got better, that means you need to lower the D string with the fine tuner. If it got worse, try a similar procedure, but this time putting your finger at the nut on the D string. If this results in improvement, that means you need to raise the D string with the fine tuner. Repeat this procedure until both bending experiments lead you to conclude that no change gives you the most satisfying result.

  5. Play an open G, and then an A on the G string (first finger in first position), using a slow, legato style in full voice. Then play an open A, same style. This should give you a perfect octave. (Octaves are easier to tune than fifths.) You're not just looking for it to sound like a perfect octave. You also want to listen for the sympathetic vibration of the A string while you are still playing that first-finger-A-on-the-G-string. If the two strings are in tune with each other, and if your hand shape knows exactly where to place your finger, the sympathetic vibration will show you the two strings are in tune with each other. And the lack of a sympathetic vibration would suggest that the two strings are not in tune with each other.

    You can follow the same procedure with an open D, followed by a fingered E (first position on the D string), and then the open E.

    Note this trick doesn't work as well on a really cheap student instrument.

  • Hey, another IU Music alum. :) I was at IUSB in the days when Fritz Magg was the main cello prof down in Bloomington. I was the other way around, struggled to perform, had little difficulty with theory and ear training. Needless to say, I wound up with an IT career. LOL
    – BobRodes
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 23:12
  • @BobRodes - What years were you there? (If you care to say.) Fritz Magg was there for a long stretch of time. What instrument? Did you ever think about doing theory or an education degree instead? Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 2:15
  • Ear training isn't really theory. It's what music is. Acoustics. The degree to which it matters depends on what type of career you choose to pursue. Conversely your strengths may determine your career path.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 2:22
  • @ggcg - I was just asking because I wondered if Bob had an interest in studying theory or some other non-performance major. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 2:25
  • @aparente001 I don't mind. I was there from 74-83. Piano, studied mostly with John Owings. Also some time with Sasha Korsantia, one of Toradze's students, after I graduated. I got a BS in Music with a concentration in foreign languages. (Sort of performance lite; one recital instead of two, for example.) I got as far as one class in education. We all sat in a circle and defined learning (after some discussion, of course) as "an interpersonal contract between student and teacher" (the definition in the book, of course) withdrew from the program and went into the BS program. Young hothead. :)
    – BobRodes
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:13

This is really two separate questions:

  • Tuning by ear: Violin strings are a perfect fifth apart, which has a very "open" sound because the sound waves match up. If they are close, but not quite in tune, you will hear "beats" when you play the strings together, which is a repetitive regular warble as the sound waves go in and out of sync. The closer you are to the right note, the faster the beats will happen. When they go away, you are in tune.

  • Learning to recognize chords: If you can play by ear, appeggiate the chord, and then see which one you are playing. For instance, if it is an a-minor chord you'll be using a c natural, if an A-Major chord, you'll be using a c#. Over time, you'll be able to recognize the sound without going through all the steps.


I would give the same advice as Bob: try to sing a wellknown minor or major song to the given chord.

Make a selection of only 4 songs: 2 with an up-beat of a fourth in each mode.

The song that fits will give you the answer.

You can even try to make the test with only one song:


(if one fits it's a major triad, if not it will be certainly minor)

Now you can make the control-test by a minor song (scale or minor triad) like

the Themes of alla Turca, Moldau, Lady in Black, El Condor Pasa

If you know Grieg "PEER GYNT"

make this test with

In the Hall of the Mountain King (minor)

Morning Mood (major)

Take care with the Moldau (Smetana) and In the Hall of the Mountain King (Grieg): Both tunes are modulating to major, but maybe that just this modulation to the related key will help you to hear and learn the difference for identifying the different modes.

Maybe this link can help you too:


  • Thus Spake Zarathustra is an excellent one to listen to!
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 22:02
  • "Peer Gynt" is such a good advice! Brilliant! Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 11:07

If you can hear a difference between minor and major third intervals, but can't identify and remember which one is which, you can learn to recognize them, but you have to make the difference mean something for you. It has to be important and meaningful and make an "emotional" effect on you, as if your life and happiness depended on it or something. ;) I think this has to do with how different people learn things like languages: for many it's impossible to memorize and identify the meanings of foreign words, but once they get to real-life situations where the difference has concrete consequences, they start to remember.

Turn the perspective around: instead of just observing, start producing. Play major and minor intervals and chords in situations where it counts. Accompany songs with chords and play melodies by ear. Translate the question "what interval is this" into "what would I have to play to make it sound like what I'm hearing". Ear training isn't only listening, it's playing and listening, learning to understand the whole feedback loop: what I do and what it sounds like.

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    Say I can identify major thirds and minor thirds. But major chord has both of these intervals within it. So how will it support me with identifying the chords? Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 6:24
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    @LasithaYapa start accompanying songs with chords and playing melodies by ear and you will notice! :) You relate everything to the chord's root note, and the tonal center of the key. But I think this is not a logical/theoretical exercise. You have to start doing it in practice. You can't really get a person to walk or ride a bicycle through any amount of theoretical explaining, the person has to practice it. A coach/trainer can only give suggestions about what to do and what to focus on. So, pay attention to the chord root notes and the tonal center i.e. tonic i.e. home note. Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 6:48
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    @LasithaYapa - you're correct about major and minor triads - they both contain M3 and m3. But not in the same order! Don't rely on a theory fact to get you through. It's always the interval between root and 3rd that's more important here. You need to learn to identify root - often the 'home' feeling on the key's I, then take the very next note in the triad - the 3rd. The other 3rd interval doesn't matter a jot here.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 8:44

What worked for me was singing over a drone. Put the drone on C for example, and then sing a major scale while plunking the notes out on a piano. Once you get good at it, try and remove the piano. The important thing here is to hear / feel the interval in your body as you sing. Once you get the hang of recognizing the intervals, the chords become much more manageable. Start with 2 notes before you go to 3 :)

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