Mastering Difficult Piano Chords by Ear: Sean’s Step-by-Step Guide

When you start playing the piano by ear you discover this whole world of nice chords and  sounds!! You will hear sounds and chords from other songs and you will want to play those yourself. But when you try... Ugh! "Why does everything have to be a struggle?" "What is wrong with me?" Well there is nothing wrong with you, you  need a system to find chords quickly. A system that works for you. I'd advise you to start by finding easy chords then work your way up to more difficult chords. 

Here is my 3-part personal system for finding difficult chords by ear

Section 1: Framing the Chord

Before I try to figure out the chord I ALWAYS look at the content, this means that I set the stage by framing the chord. This basically means analyzing the chord in context:

  1. Analyzing the Chord Before: Listen closely to the chord that precedes the one you're trying to identify. It can provide valuable hints about the chord you're hearing now.
  2. Examining the Chord After: Pay attention to the chord that follows. Progression dynamics often reveal the mystery chord's identity.
  3. Passing or Target Chord: Determine whether the chord is a passing chord or a target chord. The context can unveil its role and function.
  4. Position in the Progression: Consider where the chord sits within the overall chord progression. Understanding its place can provide clues about its essence.

"Before I try to figure out the chord I ALWAYS look at the context" ~ Sean

The chart above represents one of the systems I use to help frame the chord. Chords generally move from left to right. So if the chord I am trying to hear is between a Min7b5 (in yellow) and a minor chord (green), then most likely I am listening for the Dominant chord (red). Which is the biggest block in the section. If that doesnt work, then it can also be diminished (purple).

By framing the chord appropriately, you'll gain a clearer picture of its musical purpose and characteristics, setting the stage for our chord identification journey.

Section 2: The Process of finding the chord

Now, let's dive into the the heart of finding out the actual chord, here is the process I use:

  1. Identifying the Top Note (Melody): Start by focusing on the top note of the chord you're hearing, often the melody note. It's a significant clue about the chord's identity.
  2. Finding the Bottom Note (Root): Locate the bottom note, typically the chord's root. This foundational note sets the tone for the entire chord.
  3. Noting Intervals: Pay attention to any intervals within the chord. Identify major sevenths, major seconds, or other distinctive intervals, which can guide you toward the chord's quality.
  4. Sean's 4-Tier System: Introducing "Sean's 4-Tier System," a systematic approach to narrow down the chord to its quality:
    • Tier 1: Major (this includes suspended chords)
    • Tier 2: Minor
    • Tier 3: Dominant (this includes diminished)
    • Tier 4: Half-Diminished
  5. Finding the arrangement of the notes: A Gmaj7 G-B-D-F# sounds different than D-F#-G-B, but they are the same type of chord. Understanding this is important. 
  6. Find tensions notes. I may be able to tell that a Dominant chord was played. But what type of dominant chord is it. There can be a lot of notes added to the chord to make it sound different, and usually that is the problem. You may not it is a minor chord or a dominant chord, but there is something still missing. You have to be able to find the tension note!!

If you are a member login and check out the 4-Tier System that will help you hear, play, and understand chords faster!

Section 3: Developing Chord Intuition

Although I have tried to develop the ability to hear chord into a system that works, this process is largely intuitive. This means it is something you just know. When I hear and transcribe a chord instantly on my Youtube channel, I am not using a long-drawn out process. I have developed my natural intuition. Here are some steps that will help you develop chord intuition

  1. Listening for a Single Note: Focus on identifying a single note within the chord rather than dissecting intervals. Listen carefully and pick out that one note that stands out.
  2. Replicating the Note: Sing or replicate the note you heard within the chord. It's an experimental and intuitive process, more art than science.
  3. Testing for a Match: Play the chord on your instrument and see if the note you replicated matches one of the chord's notes. Trust your instincts and listen for that "aha" moment when you hear the match.
  4. Developing Chord Intuition: With practice, you'll develop a deep intuition about chord types, enabling you to transcribe chords instantly.

"I prefer relying on my intuition than relying on a system. It's faster!" ~ Sean

But, there is a shortcut to all of this

So we've talked about the system to finding chords by ear but there is a shortcut you can use that circumvents this whole process– building your chord vocabulary.

Why Vocabulary Matters: This video is NOT saying that ear training is not important. In fact the system above relies on the ear. Besides you cant play what you cant hear 😎.

But most people underestimate the power of an amazing vocabulary which can give you the superhuman musical ability  of instant chord recognition. This way we are trading a system for efficiency which is especially helpful during live performances and spontaneous improv in front of your friends. 

How to Build Your Chord Vocabulary: You must learn and memorize songs. You must study songs. You must transcribe. All of these give you an insane vocabulary

This is the reason you need to invest and and grow your chord vocabulary. 

  • Chevonne says:

    This is definitely a game changer!!

  • Anthony says:

    THIS is super helpful!!! Sean did it again 🙂


  • mp says:

    love learning from you. This will take me lots of revisits, its too good to olny watch and move on. gold nuggets.

  • Tigiripalli stephen son says:

    Can you please teach me my name is Stephen gospel musician keys

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