Some methods of hearing chords depend on correctly identifying many elements within the texture, often beginning with the outer voices, quality, and function. One problem with these approaches is that mistakes about minor details (e.g. mishearing a single bass note) can lead to compounding errors. How might we listen for chords in a way that doesn’t demand 100% accuracy in perceiving each and every detail?
The Do/Ti Test is an alternative approach to hearing chords, one that helps students develop a more holistic understanding of individual chords and complete phrases before paying attention to more atomistic details such as outer voices. The method is straightforward: as you listen to a piece of music, sing and sustain scale degree 1/do, and if the chord requires it, move to scale degree 7/ti (or te, for certain chords in the minor mode). This simple technique allows many listeners to quickly and accurately categorize harmonies as “do-chords” and “ti-chords.” (“1-chords” and “7-chords” can sound like we’re talking about chord roots, so while we usually use both solfège syllables and scale degree numbers, we’ll use “do” and “ti” in our text when talking about chords.)
Give it a try! As you listen to the excerpt below, sing either scale degree 1/do or 7/ti with each chord. For now, don’t worry about whether the sung guide tones are right or wrong. Rather, sing them as if you were on stage as a member of the band, with all the participatory energy you can muster. If the guide tone you are singing doesn’t seem to “fit” well with the rest of the band, try changing to the other. Keep listening and singing until you feel that your line matches the music you are hearing.
Identifying a chord as a do-chord or as a ti-chord is a great first step on the way to a complete and accurate determination of a chord’s identity. But recall that “perfect” identification of chords is not necessarily our goal. A great strength of the Do/Ti Test is that it focuses us on a fundamental distinction. Ti-chords, and particularly the so-called “five” and “seven” chords, are often experienced as more “tense” or “unstable,” while do-chords often seem to have different degrees of relative “stability” or “resolution.” Being alert to this distinction helps us be more sensitive to this fundamental aspect of chords.
Only one chord, the so-called “two” or “supertonic” triad, is unusual in that it contains neither scale-degree 1/do nor scale-degree 7/ti. However, this chord is so often combined with scale degree 1/do (creating a “two-seven” or ii7, often in first inversion) that this scale degree often feels like it “fits” even when it is not actually sounding. It’s your choice whether you hear this relationship and consider the supertonic chord a do-chord, or whether you’d like to complicate the system a bit and add scale degree 2/re to the system to sing when you hear this chord.
Remember that the Do/Ti Test is a pragmatic tool, a heuristic device for participating creatively in the music while listening. The Do/Ti Test is not an analytical tool, so we shouldn’t be too disturbed that we might sing a guide-tone scale degree 1/do in a chord that does not contain it, such as a root position supertonic. The power of the Do/Ti Test is that it can be flexibly applied and developed when hearing real music to identify numerous harmonies and patterns, including chromatic chords that you will learn in later semesters, and sequences. The method can easily be adapted for the minor mode by including scale degree 7/te as a guide tone and adjusting the guide tone figurations to suit the chords in the minor mode. Simply put, singing guide tones provides a critical point of reference when hearing chords that can be combined with other perceptions (such as chord quality and function) to readily and accurately identify chords by ear.
Goal: Develop sensitivity to important structural tones and what they mean for harmonic progression.
- Play a song from the playlist below. As it sounds, find the tonic.
- Restart the song and play the opening 1–2 phrases while humming, singing, or imagining either scale degree 1/do or scale degree 7/ti (or, if you wish for supertonic chords, scale degree 2/re) as appropriate to the sounding chord. Repeat if necessary to clarify.
- Optionally, write down your guide-tone line as solfège syllables or on a staff.