Identifying chords by ear

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If you have followed me up until this point, you have a good idea on how to identify and name most chords in church music. There may be exceptions but that is fine for now.

I hope you have been doing the exercise of going through the hymnal and learning to quickly identify the chords that are being used. This is very important and really is the foundation for almost everything  I am about to teach about in coming months.

By the way, learn to identify the chords not only by their letter name but also by their number (relation to the key of the song). For example, in the key of C, you should identify the A chord as the 6 chord.

Sound like a lot of work? It may be, but you have nothing but time to learn it. It make take a few years, but if you are faithful, naming chords will be as easy as riding a bike.

Once you can do this, think of where you can go with it. For example, you will be able to transpose quickly. If you see a minor 6 chord in a particular key, you will just play a minor 6 in whatever key you are transposing to.

Now, I want to discuss something a bit more intimidating to many people. You need to start learning how to idea of when you hear them. At first, you may think it is impossible. Trust me, you can improve your ear, and you need to start today.

Here are some tips to get started:
1) Listen to the piano only. Don’t try to identify chords in orchestrations or vocal choirs yet. Focus just on the piano sound.
2) Listen for the bass note. Don’t worry if you can’t hear the notes between the bass note and melody note. Just try to get the point where you hear what the bass line is doing.
3) Force yourself to start playing music by ear. The only way to do it is to get started. Sit down and start picking out a tune.

Is a good ear an inherited trait?
In short, yes and no. Without doubt, there are very blessed people who can play well without ever having a lesson. However, if you do not play by ear, there is hope for you. I am an example of that. I did not play by ear until after college. After a while, I started hearing the harmonies that I use today.

In more recent years, I have learned how to pick out the chords that other people play. I even have developed a form of perfect pitch in that I can usually identify the key that songs are played in and sometimes identify the note when only one key is pressed on the piano.

So, get started developing your ear, and quit blaming your ear trouble on your parents!

Is a good ear necessary for a church pianist?
No. But it is necessary if you want to be a great, highly versatile church pianist. In today’s world, playing by ear and improvisation are becoming two must-haves for musicians. You have probably heard the story of the classical concert pianist who failed to play “Happy Birthday” when asked to at a party. Don’t embarrass yourself-learn to step outside the rigid box of having to play everything with printed music.

Practice strategy:
Listen to a lot of church music.  In fact, try to listen to very simple church music.  You will just frustrate yourself if you start trying to identify chords you hear in something complex like jazz.  Listen for the melody note and the bass note for now.  Also, spend a few minutes each day (not too long) trying to play a different song by ear.  Play it in several different keys.