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3 Steps for Training Your Ear to Hear Any Chord

Ear training is of utmost importance for those of us who want to become better jazz improvisers. When it comes down to it, it’s our ears that have the ability to compose melodies in the moment, not scales and theory (though those can be great tools).

And if you’ve followed our blog or podcast for any amount of time you’ll know that I continually preach that learning jazz repertoire and language by ear is the best way to truly internalize the material.

While learning jazz language by ear will certainly help your ears get stronger, the fundamentals of ear training, such as hearing intervals, chords, and chord progressions are incredibly important.

This week on Facebook I asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how important is ear training for an improviser?” Check out the response!

Even in just those first 7 comments, you can see there, we got a pretty resounding 10…not to mention 1,867,989. Further down we even got 10/10 memes! Not one person who commented said ear training wasn’t worth the time. So it looks like our community agrees, ear training is important and we need to be doing it.

One important ear training fundamental is hearing chords.

What do we improvise over? Chord progressions. And what makes up chord progressions? Chords. Being able to hear chords not only helps us hear chord progressions, it helps us know what the important chord tones are, not on an intellectual level but deeply ingrained into our ears.

I hope you caught the deeply ingrained part. You see, it’s not enough just to recognize the sound of a chord type. That in itself takes some practice, but it’s only scratching the surface.

I’m going to teach you how to hear chords on a deeper level, and I have three steps to do it. Let’s dive in.

1. Recognize.

This is the step where most people stop after, but it’s of course quite important. The most basic part of hearing chords is to simply recognize the sound and distinguish it among other chords.

Now for today’s purposes, we’re not going to go over the sounds of all qualities of chords. We do have a lesson here if you want to do that. But today I’m going to focus on the Major 7th Chord for demonstration purposes.

Here’s what a major 7th chord sounds like:

The key is to get this sound deep in your ear so that when you hear other chord qualities you can distinguish.

This next track plays the major 7th chord and arpeggio in all 12 keys in random order. The track goes about 2 minutes long, and this will just help you to hear the chord in different registers and different keys.

2. Sing.

Steps 2-3 are the most crucial. Like I said, most people stop at the recognition step and call it a day. Unfortunately, they are missing out big time on truly training their ears to hear chords.

The formula for a major 7th chord is Root-3rd-5th.

That’s important to understand on an intellectual level, but it’s also important for you to be able to hear. If you have never trained your ears with intervals before (one of the fundamentals of ear training) be sure you do so, because this makes hearing chords exponentially easier.

Singing takes ear training to another level. You’ve probably heard the phrase “if you can sing it, you can play it.” And while that may seem like a statement you don’t 100% believe in, the underlying intent of that phrase is that if you can reproduce the sound you are hearing, then you have truly internalized it. That’s key.

This next track demonstrates a way you can practice. Essentially, you can play any note and call that the root (the bass note). Then sing the arpeggio up to the 7th (Root-3rd-5th-7th).

These are tracks that we use in our quizzes for our new ear training eCourse.

Here’s how they work:

Listen to the root note, then sing root-3rd-5th-7th. There will be space for you to sing (or hum or whistle). Then listen for the piano to check your pitches. Were you correct?

Pause the track if you need more time between hearing the root note and the piano playing the arpeggio.

Here’s one more.

Did you get tripped up by this one? If you did it’s possibly because the root note of this track was the 3rd of the last track. Your ears may have gotten confused and associated the note with the last major 7th chord you heard. If not, great job!

This is a great practice, and the benefits become exponentially clear when you start adding other chord qualities into the mix. You can further practice this by playing any note on your instrument and singing the arpeggio.

3. Dissect.

So far you can hear a major 7th chord and recognize it by its overall sound. You can also hear a root note and sing a major 7th arpeggio up from it.

The next step is to be able to pinpoint the chord tones out from the chord and sing them.

When you hear a major 7th chord, you are hearing four notes being played at once, which creates a unified, cohesive sound. But are you able to distinguish the 3rd out of that? The 7th? 5th? Root?

This takes the ear training process to yet another level, and this becomes increasingly tricky when you are tested in multiple different keys and in different registers.

So these next tracks, which are also from quiz questions in our ear training course we are coming out with, help you practice this. Here’s how they work:

Practice singing the root of a major 7th chord. Listen to the chord and sing the root. There will be space for you to sing. Then listen for the piano to check your pitch. Were you correct?

Remember, if you need more time to pinpoint the note before the piano comes in, just pause the track.

Recognizing the root is key. Since these are root position voicings (built from the root up) you can distinguish the other chord tones if you can hear the lowest note and you know your ascending intervals.

Let’s do the next chord tone.

Practice singing the 3rd of a major 7th chord. Listen to the chord and sing the 3rd. Then listen for the piano to check your pitch. Were you correct?

These tracks are in different keys because it’s important that you can train your ear to re-establish new root notes. Let’s move on to the next.

Practice singing the 5th of a major 7th chord. Listen to the chord and sing the 5th. Then listen for the piano to check your pitch. Were you correct?

And finally the last chord tone.

Practice singing the 7th of a major 7th chord. Listen to the chord and sing the 7th. Then listen for the piano to check your pitch. Were you correct?

If you’ve struggled with this, don’t worry. It takes practice. It’s ear training and so it takes just that: training. The more you work on this stuff the more your ears will improve and start to hear music on a deeper level.

And this is just one quality of a 7th chord. Think about how many types of chords with extensions and alterations there are. Even triads, which are the foundation chords should be covered.

If you’re interested in some more in-depth ear training, check out my ear training course “How to Play What You Hear.”

Start working on some of these exercises today, and I guarantee your ears will start to feel the results.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Wow! This post really opened my ears to this deeper level of ear training.
    Absolutely great method. I shall be busy for some time.
    Thanks Brent – great stuff!


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