First, find a comfortable note in the middle of your vocal range
In this ear training process, we use our voice to refine our ability to identify chords by ear. Start by finding a note that’s in the middle of your vocal range. It should be a comfortable note for you to sing.
If you want, you can find that note on an instrument like the guitar or the piano. Make it something that can sustain a tone while you sing. I like to sing over a drone such as an organ sound so I can continue to improv my vocal intonation. (I’ll always have something I’m improving and this bit here has gotten my attention since I started making videos!)
Sing as though your note is the root of a triad
This singing exercise will culture your ear to identify whether any note is the root, third, or fifth of a chord.
Now, here’s where the advanced part comes in: First, imagine that the main note is the root of the chord. You sing, “1 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 1”. To do this you will sing UP a MAJOR third, then UP a MINOR. third and back down.
Sing as though your note is the third of a triad
Then comes the hard part, because you need to have a good grip on conjuring major and minor thirds. This means you can sing a major third up after singing a minor third . Then you can sing a major third down after singing a minor third. It’s harder than you might think and well worth the practice.
Happily, this exercise will make you good at it! Unfortunately, if this is totally new to you, you might find this to be too difficult for now. Remember, this is an advanced practice, and we’ve got lots of more foundation level things to help you improve your musical ear.
So, in this part, you’ll imagine that the note you are singing is the third of a chord (in this case, it’s a major triad). You’ll sing like this: “3 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 3”. So you’ll sing down a MAJOR third and back, then up a MINOR third. (If you want to know more about the structure of major and minor triads as it relates to this exercise, comment below! I’m at your service.)
Sing as though your note is the fifth of a triad
Then, you’ll imagine that your main note is the fifth of a chord and you’ll sing down through it like this, “5 – 3 – 1 – 3 – 5”. Here again is a switch because now you are singing DOWN a MINOR third, then DOWN a MAJOR third and back up. Switching easily between imagining major and minor thirds is the extra power this exercise gives you, and you need to be really good at it in order to apply this exercise to actual chords.
Master Major and Minor Thirds
Here’s the reason why this ear training exercise is advanced even though it is simple:
Let’s say you hear a chord and the know you know in advance is a C. You will discover it to be an F major triad once the exercise is complete, and here you’ll know that the C is the fifth of the chord.. You will sing UP first, going “1 3 5 3 1”, As you sing, you’ll dive your ear into the music and SEEK the “3” in all octaves. If there isn’t the “3” in there, you go on to singing as though your C is the third of the chord.
This is the advanced part because you need to sing from C to A-flat EVEN AS AN A-NATURAL IS RINGING OUT IN THE CHORD. You might be tempted to sing that A-natural. It will try to pull you. But your skill in singing down a major third will win and you will sing it correctly. BUT when you do that, it’s going to jangle your nerves a little. That A-flat is NOT in the chord!
So then you go to singing down as though the C is the fifth of the chord: “5 3 1 3 5”. And sure enough, as you seek the notes you are singing in the chord you are hearing, you will find that each of those numbers has a match in the chord.
Your practice will be rewarded!
Now, here’s the best part! Over time and with practice, you’ll be able to recognize instantly whether your given tone is the root, third, or fifth of a chord. If you know the name of the note and you’ve got your chord spelling down, you’ll also know the name of the chord.
Repeat for minor, diminished, augmented triads and all the seventh chords!