Identifying Common Chords Through Exposure

We are best at identifying familiar objects. As a result, you will likely find it easiest to identify certain most common chords in certain most common contexts. In this section, we’ll do activities to get used to listening for what are sometimes called the “primary triads” of a key (the “one,” “four,” and “five” chords).

As you listen, make sure you’re paying attention to how you perceive each chord in relation to the chords around it. After all, the primary triads of a major key are all major triads: there’s nothing about them in and of themselves that distinguishes them. Their only differences lie in how they relate to each other.

The relationship that is most likely to be helpful here is the relationship between the “one” chord and the major “five” chord (which is often used in minor keys even though it requires an accidental there). In the vast majority of classical music and jazz, and a significant amount of broadly-defined popular music, the “five” chord most often leads to a “one” chord, especially at cadences/points of rest. If you’ve heard this progression enough, you will feel a sense of tension when you hear a “five” chord, as your brain waits for the expected “resolution.” When the “one” chord arrives, you’ll feel more relaxed as your expectation was satisfied.

Activity: Identifying primary chords.

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to certain particularly common chords.

Instructions: Listen to the songs below and identify the chords as tonic (“one”), subdominant (“four”), or dominant (“five”). If you are having trouble, it may be helpful to start with a Do/Ti Test guide-tone line.


Suggest a song for this playlist!



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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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