The LANGUAGE of MUSIC – “Hear it – ID it – Play it”


“Hear it – ID it – Play it”

If you only get 1 thing out of this entire issue of GTR, GET THIS:
The single most important skill of every musician is learning how to identify music when you hear it. (I won’t use the term “Ear Training” here because traditional music education has made a complete wreck of that term ).
Instead, think of it this way – Imagine that you can speak English and you can hear when other people speak; but you don’t know what the words mean… What a travesty! Well, when you listen to music and you can’t identify the chords going by, you’re in the same boat! In this article we’ll get you on the road to becoming completely fluent in the Language of Music.

  • Even if you’ve never had any musical training at all, I promise you know more than you think you do – You Can Do This!
  • If you can hear the basics but need to upgrade your skill level, we’ll get you to the Next Level.
  • If you’re already a seasoned musician and you want to fine-tune your skills, then read on . . .

Training your ears will help you learn to play new songs instantly, pull vocal harmony parts out of the air, bust out charts for your band at light speed, identify clams quickly and correct them, and basically super-charge all aspects of your musical life. You can quickly teach yourself to know the chords to a song after 1 listen, write out song melodies, identify bass lines, teach backing vocals, and more. Today we’ll start with the most important aspect of ear training; identifying chords.


In my previous articles we laid out the musical groundwork; let’s break it down – There are 12 distinct pitches in our Western Music system; this set of 12 notes is repeated from low to high (7 times on a grand piano keyboard). But we can narrow things down even more, because 90% of our pop songs feature a particular key, a ‘Family of Notes’ that only uses 7 of those 12 pitches (…the other 5 are used occasionally for ‘spice’). When you play these 7 notes in sequence, it is called a scale. The note you start on is the name of the scale and the name of the key. For this exercise we’ll start on the note ‘middle C’. We’ll be working in the key of ‘C Major’ and using the 7 notes that make up the ‘C Major Scale’.
Get to a keyboard and find ‘Middle C’ (just below the 2 black notes). This Family of Notes is called ‘C Major’ and uses only the white notes. Start on ‘C’ and walk up 7 white notes – Congratulations, you just played a ‘C Major Scale’. You can refer to this scale by letter names or by numbers:

          C                                             1
          D                                             2
          E                                             3
          F                                             4
          G                                            5
          A                                            6
          B                                            7
         C (1 octave higher)              8

(notice that note number 8 is also ‘C’ just like note number 1 only an octave higher; and the pattern starts over again)
You can build a 3-note chord (called a ‘triad’) on every one of these 7 pitches and it’s these chords that form the backbone of all our music.  But now we can narrow things down even more – a huge amount of our music features just 3 of these 7 chords.  These ‘Primary Triads’ as they are called are the chords built on 1, 4, and 5 – since we’re just going to work in the key of ‘C major’ for now…

1 = C   4 = F   5 = G

Revelation! With these three triads as your ‘Primary’ chords, that means each time you hear the chord change in a song it’s very likely one of two options (…you could simply “guess” at which chord you’re hearing and you’d be right 50% of the time!)


Click on the links below to begin fine-tuning your skills. Write down or call out each chord you hear, either 1, 4, or 5.
(Remember, the “1” chord is always the Home Base Key Center; even though these sample songs are all in different keys).

  • First, click here to listen to the sound of each chord.
  • Next, click on each song below and write or say the chord you hear – Remember, for these songs every chord will be a 1 or a 4 or a 5 chord.

“Twist & Shout” – Beatles / Ferris Bueller (2:20 to end)

“Free Fallin’” – Tom Petty

“Happy Birthday”

“Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley

“Auld Lang Syne”

“Surfin’ USA” – Beach Boys


With these three Primary Chords making up roughly 70% of our pop music, you can add just one more chord and cover up to 85%! This next chord is the triad built on the 6th degree of the scale – ‘A minor’ in the key of ‘C’. Click the links below and find out how much you already know!

  • First, click here to listen to the sound of the new 6 chord; along with the 3 Primary chords, 1-4-5.
  • Then click on each song below and write or say the chord you hear – Remember, for these songs every chord will be a 1 or a 4 or a 5 or a 6 chord.

“Don’t Stop Believin” – (Chorus: 0:00 to 1:20)

“Four Chords” the Axis of Awesome


“Stronger” (What Doesn’t Kill You) Kelly Clarkson

“Heart & Soul”

  • After the first 2 verses; notice how the chords change under the melody as the variations develop.

“Whatever it Takes” Imagine Dragons (Chorus 0:42 to 1:10)

“Every Breath You Take” Police (Chorus 0:00 to 0:50)

“Hello” Adele (Chorus 2:22 to 3:10)

“Let It Be” (0:00 to 1:50)

In the next issue, we’ll build on these four chords you’ve learned to identify here and add more.  Until then, try these practice tips:

  • Listen to music in your car and pick out the 1, 4, 5, and 6 chords.
  • Find a good ‘pitch reference’ somewhere in your everyday life. My go-to pitch reference?
    When I unbuckle my seatbelt in my car, the warning bell is the note ‘D’ – From there I can identify any chord in any song; if you stick with me on this, soon you’ll be able to do it too
  • Choose your Top 5 favorite songs and try to chart out the chords – Are there any chords you can’t identify? Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out!

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