Can you identify the root and quality of a chord given just one note? It’s an advanced skill, and there is a clear path to mastering it:

  1. Master singing the pivot triad technique exercise as outlined below. It will culture your ear to recognize a tone within a sounding chord as either the root, the third, or the fifth. Focus on each quality (major, minor, diminished, and augmented) exclusively before moving to the next.
  2. Explore playing chords on an instrument like the piano or the guitar where you play a chord, sing a note within the chord, and then practice singing the pivot technique exercise.
  3. Use one of Listen Up Games’ drills to practice identifying by ear.


Here’s how you can identify any major chord given only one note. Imagine a chord playing and you are now able to isolate the top note in your mind. With practice, you will be able to identify whether that note is the third, the root, or the fifth of the chord. If you know what that note is and you know whether it’s the root, the third, or the fifth, you’ll be able to apply your chord spelling skills to identify the name and quality of the chord.

As this requires you to freely singing ascending and descending major and minor thirds, this *is* an advanced skill. This one also requires that you have your chord spellings nailed down. It’s also one of the few exercises I teach that doesn’t work within a tonal framework. So, that alone makes it pretty advanced, and it doesn’t care about what key you’re in! Nonetheless, savoring notes and their part in a harmonic field is a delight and can help you no matter your skill level.

It’s an ear training exercise where you use your voice to conjure the notes of all the minor chords that contain a given note in common. It’s called the *pivot triad exercise* and I learned it from Bruce Eicher back in the late 80’s when I was taking ear training lessons from him in Baltimore. A student of Nadia Boulanger, he was a fabulous teacher who helped me advance in the often mysterious discipline of ear training. The process is simple: 1. Pick a note that is in the middle of your vocal range and get it sustaining. This is your drone tone. 2. Sing a minor triad up, treating the drone tone as the root: “1 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 1”. 3. Sing a minor triad down and up, treating the drone tone as the third: “3 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 3”. 4. Sing a minor triad down, treating the drone tone as the fifth: “5 – 3 – 1 – 3 – 5”.

That’s the basic process, which I will outline in detail in a future video, but the basic idea is: Practice the vocal pattern until it is EASY: like you don’t have to think about the changing major and minor third intervals. (This is why it’s advanced.) By this time, you will start hearing notes within a chord as the role they play in the chord: root, third, or fifth. Then practice listening exercises (I’ll provide a few soon…) where you are given a sustaining tone and listen and identify the role that tone plays in chords the exercise (or friend) plays for you. Limit this to just one quality of chord: Major first (see previous video). Then minor, diminished, augmented. THEN begin to practice naming root, third, fifth with different common notes. Here, all you’re doing is naming whether the given tone is the root, third, or fifth and the quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented).

Once you can do that easily, you’ll be ready for exercises where the given note moves. At first, within a key, and over time, the given note can move between keys or even without a key altogether. I’ll be rolling out different levels of listening exercises over time so you can begin simple (even within this advanced form of ear training) and become more and more advanced. All the while, practice your chord spellings so that when you instantly recognize, say, a D as the third of a minor chord, you’ll then understand that the chord is a b minor!

Nonetheless, savoring tones and their part in a harmonic field is a delight and can help you no matter your skill level. In the meantime, your ability to play songs by ear will improve and improve and improve!

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