Chapter 15 – Listening for Chords

Six men around a guitar

Let’s say you’re at a party. Music is playing. You turn to a friend nearby and say, “Hey, this song goes ‘one sus-four, five in first inversion, six in second inversion, four’!” Your friend is very impressed.

That’s a cool party trick!

Many aural skills curricula approach listening for chords in a way that might suggest this party trick is their primary goal. But it’s not ours. Some people seem able to do this with relative ease, and others don’t, and that doesn’t always correlate with their success in other musical pursuits. We aren’t going to treat chords as facts to be correctly identified, but rather as useful tools that let us do new things.

Listening for chords is useful for a few reasons. It can help us detect errors in our ensembles and our own playing. It is useful in helping us chunk and understand music we are reading, playing, or listening to. It guides us as we improvise. Fortunately, none of these goals requires perfect perception of every detail of every chord. So while we will introduce some strategies that help people identify chords more accurately, we will ultimately focus on these outcomes: what can we do with our listening? That’s helpful for everyone, not just the folks who can do the party trick.

Two more things to note about harmony. First, it’s really style-specific. The chord progressions you find in the string quartets by Joseph Haydn are different from those you find in contemporary loop-based popular music. Whatever style you are most familiar with will be the one where you’re likely to have the most success in identification. Second, there’s not always a single right answer. There may be different ways of interpreting which notes are chord tones vs. non-chord tones, missing notes that we have to fill in based on what we think is most likely, or decisions to make about whether to prioritize accompaniment or melody when they seem to clash. Fortunately, since we’re not concerned with “perfect chord identification” as a goal, we can embrace these situations. Instead, our goal will be: what does this moment allow or encourage me to do? In which case, different answers and ambiguity are both fine.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Use strategies such as the “Do/Ti Test,” listening for chord quality, and following the bass to more accurately identify chords.
  2. Vocally arpeggiate a currently sounding chord.
  3. Follow/hum the bass line of a full musical texture.
  4. Improvise a melodic line over a chord progression in a way that reflects an awareness of chord tones and non-chord tones.
  5. Aurally identify I, IV, V (major key) or i, iv, V (minor key) chords with a high degree of accuracy.
  6. Identify strategies for further growth in aurally identifying chord progressions.

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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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