How to Recognise Chords by Ear

A technique you can use to start recognising and playing chords by ear.

Ultimate Guitar
Have you ever listened to a track and thought to yourself: I wish I could recognise each chord as I heard it?

From learning new songs to memorising music to improvising, learning to recognise and play chords by ear can make a lot of things easier for any guitarist.

Fortunately, with a little bit of work, anyone can develop this skill. If you approach ear training in the right way you can start recognising chords in the not too distant future.

There are 2 pieces of information that tell us how a chord sounds:

1. The scale degree of the root note
2. The quality of the chord (Major, minor, dominant 7th etc)

It doesn't matter whether you're talking about a major chord built on the tonic, or a b9#11 chord built on the b2nd scale degree - the scale degree of the root note and the quality of the chord tell us what that chord is in any tonal setting.

So how can you recognize the chords you hear?

There are 3 steps to recognizing any chord:

1. Identify which note is the root note of the chord
2. Recognize the scale degree of the root note
3. Identify the quality of the chord

If you'd like to recognize and play chords by ear, you'll need to master each step.

1. Put a track on and try to sing the root note of each chord.

If you find this difficult, it's the first skill you need to master.

Practice playing chords on your guitar, and sing the root note of each one. As you do this, you'll get better at identifying the root note of any chord you hear.

2. Recognize the scale degree of the root note

Scale degrees (or solfege) are the number one tool for identifying any notes or chords in most of the music we listen to and play.

Use the techniques from my previous lesson on Tonality Based Ear Training to improve your ability to identify the scale degree of the root note once you find it.

3. Identify the quality of the chord

Practice playing major, minor, diminished and any other types of chords you hear regularly. Listen to the way that they sound and try to memorise the sound of each one. You can get a friend to test you as well to see how you're going (or use ear training software).

The final technique:

4. Practice it all together

Finally, practice all 3 steps together. Play simple chord progressions. While you do this, make sure you sing the root note of each chord and identify the scale degree of the root note and the quality. With practice you'll soon start to notice familiar sounds while you're playing or listening to music!

Good luck with it:)

About the Author:
Scott Edwards is the founder of He has helped hundreds of musicians to train their ears and become better players by breaking the process of ear training down into easy to follow steps so it is simple and easy to progress, and providing effective, targeted exercises for each step along the way.

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

    The better your singing gets the easier it is to work out chords for songs. I work out the song with my voice and then the chords.
    And if you can't sing?
    Then learn to sing. You don't need to have a good voice. The point is being able to recognize different pitches and being able to think in pitch. And singing does help with that.
    Yeah. I wouldn't worry about becoming a "good" singer who feels confident performing vocals live. That would be an ideal goal if possible of course, but I wouldn't worry about that. Just focus on learning to produce pitches and tones with your vocal chords. The put those together to form melodies and voila, you are able to sing. Some people think being able to sing means more than it is. It's like any other instrument in that the base level of skill is not that hard to reach. Becoming an excellent singer is much more challenging, but that's like becoming a master pianist just to be able to use the keyboards for composition. Just acquire a baseline skill and slowly upgrade it over time as a means of improving your guitar playing and musicianship. It doesn't have to be something you have to feel pressure to be "good" at.
    Can you go, "Ahhh" in a certain pitch (doesn't matter what pitch)? Congrats, you can sing! For this, it doesn't matter if you can sing well, just that you can sing on pitch.
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