Chord Quality

The term “triad quality” refers to whether a triad is major, minor, diminished, or augmented. When we hear these triad types sounding in isolation, they can feel very different from each other: some people find, for example, that major triads feel brighter, happier, and lighter, while minor triads feel darker, more serious or sad, and heavier. Diminished and augmented triads, since they are less familiar, may be harder to distinguish, though it may help to hear diminished triads as “tense” and augmented triads as “otherworldly.”

This concept extends to other types of chords, such as seventh chords and extended chords. For example, some people hear these associations with seventh chords:

  • Dominant seventh: “dominanty,” rich, “bluesy,” “leading”
  • Minor seventh: somber, dull
  • Major seventh: bright, nostalgic
  • Diminished seventh: tense, scary, dramatic
  • Half-diminished seventh/minor 7 flat 5: mysterious

These associations can be helpful when we’re listening to chords and trying to figure out what’s going on. They can be particularly useful when trying to distinguish two similar chords such as vi and IV in a major key.

Nevertheless, we need to add a caution: chords in isolation are very different from chords in context. We use the terms “major” and “minor” with intervals, triads, and keys. A minor triad, for example, has a major third in it somewhere (between the third and the fifth of the chord), and can be used in a major key. These “major” aspects of the chord and context may sometimes outweigh the “minor” effect of the chord itself in our perception.

In the end, we see no reason to avoid using listening for chord quality as a strategy when listening for details of chords. But keep in mind the effects of context, and practice with these in mind.

Activity: Identify chord qualities in isolation

Goal: Develop sensitivity to chord quality.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of isolated chords. You can find quite a few websites that will do this for you by searching “chord identification,” or you can have someone else play your chords. You will likely want to start with root-position triads; once these are comfortable, the next step is usually adding inverted triads and/or seventh chords. Identifying inverted seventh chords is not likely to be very useful at this point, with the possible exception of the dominant seventh.


  1. Listen to the first chord, and describe it with whatever adjectives seem appropriate to you.
  2. Identify the chord’s quality with your best guess.
  3. Either reveal or ask your friend to identify the quality of the chord. If you were incorrect, listen to the chord again, paying attention to how that sound, your adjectives, and the correct quality go together.

Activity: Identify chord qualities in context

Goal: Develop sensitivity to chord quality in musical context.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of chord progressions. You could use the harmonic dictations in chapter 22 and later in The Dictation Resource, or a recording.

Instructions: Listen to the chord progression. Stop it after a random chord and try to identify the quality of that chord.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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