Using a Chord Instrument

People sometimes worry that it’s “cheating” to use an instrument in an aural skills class. We prefer to think of it differently: instead of asking whether or not it’s cheating, we ask, is it useful in building skills?

As we’re listening for chords, an instrument absolutely can be a useful tool. Compared to just listening and guessing at chords, playing an instrument can be like having a dialogue with what you hear: you hear something, then play something back and see how the two relate. In addition, playing an instrument can build and activate your physical, instrument-based kinesthetic imagery. We encourage you to use an instrument on which you are comfortable playing chords. Ideally, use an instrument that can play chords all at once (piano, guitar, harp, marimba, autoharp) rather than having to arpeggiate.

In this section, we’ll listen to a chord progression and try to replicate it on an instrument. We encourage you to listen first, then play, then repeat as necessary to figure things out. But if necessary, you may wish to play as you listen.

The only approach that we will discourage, here, is random guessing of chords. For the most part, this shouldn’t be a very rewarding strategy anyway, but in addition, it will short-circuit the kinds of thinking we’re trying to build. Instead, after listening, come up with a hypothesis and then try it out; then compare what you played with what you heard.

Activity: Playback chords

Goal: Connect instrument-based kinesthetic imagery to chords.

Before you start: You’ll need a chord-capable instrument, or to work with a group of people who have access to at least one such instrument. Alternatively, you can do this on your own with a melodic instrument and arpeggiate the chords, but this tends to be much more difficult to compare to the chords you hear.

Instructions: Listen to a song from the playlist below and determine its key. Choose a phrase, listen to it, and then play back the chord progression on your instrument. Try to alternate listening to a phrase and then playing it back; however, if you have difficulty, you may wish to play along as you listen.


Suggest a song for this playlist!



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book