How to Identify Chords by Ear on the Piano

Kevin Castro  /  Ear Training / Nov 25

Learning how to identify chords by ear on the piano can help you learn new songs faster. Because once you understand the chord movements of a song, you have the foundation to the entire song.

Recognizing chords by ear is similar to recognizing intervals by ear: build an association between a chord and a song, then practice listening to and hearing that sound. Better yet, practice the chords in all twelve keys.

If you’re new to chords, make sure to check out our lesson on diatonic chords before you get started on this lesson. We’ll divide this lesson up into two main categories: diatonic chords and non-diatonic chords.

  1. Diatonic Chords
  2. Non-Diatonic Chords

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How to Identify Diatonic Chords By Ear on the Piano

Diatonic chords are chords that appear naturally in a scale. So, if we take the C Major scale, then stack triads on top of each note, we’ll end up with the following diatonic chords:

C Major diatonic chords on staff with chord symbols and Roman numerals.

I – ii

Song Reference: “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton

I and ii are neighboring chords. And as you can hear in “Tennessee Whiskey,” this progression has an upward-pushing feel. In “Tennessee Whiskey”’s original key of A Major, the chords are A and Bm.

I – iii

Song Reference: “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s

The I-iii-I-iii progression that opens “Hey There Delilah” is iconic. The pairing of a major and minor chord taking turns also create a contemplative feel in the song. In the original key of D Major, these are the D and F#m chords. 

I – IV

Song Reference: “Imagine” by John Lennon

Chords I and IV have a strong relationship, and you’ll see this progression everywhere. Reverse the progression to IV-I and you have a plagal cadence, which is a satisfying way to resolve songs. In “Imagine,” the chords used are C and F.

Bonus: Learn how to play “Imagine” here!

I – V

Song Reference: “Someone Like You” by Adele

The I-V-vi-IV progression is the most popular progression in all of pop music! So definitely get to know this one. Reversed, V-I is a perfect cadence—a resolution that sounds especially strong. In the original key of A Major, Adele uses A and E as the I and V chords.

Bonus: Learn how to play “Someone Like You” here!

I – vi

Song Reference: “Earth Angel” by Marvin Berry & The Starlighters

The vi chord is special because this is the relative minor of the I chord, which means they share notes and have a strong relationship with one another. In C Major, C (I) is C-E-G and Am (vi) is A-C-E. In our example, “Earth Angel” is in F Major so the chords are F and Dm. Try practicing walking down from the I to the vi, or use vi as a passing chord to the IV.

The viio

Song Reference: “This Love” by Maroon 5

The viio chord is unique because it’s the only diminished chord among the diatonic chords of the major scale. The viio is crunchy, so it’s hard to find examples of it. But if we take “This Love” by Maroon 5 (which is technically in C Minor) and see it from the perspective of E-Flat Major, you’ll notice that the song lands on the viio. This evokes an unresolved feel, which works particularly well with this song.

How to Identify Non-Diatonic Chords By Ear on the Piano

Diatonic chords sound pleasing to the ear, but break the rules and wander outside of the established key and things can sound very interesting. Here are some chords outside the scale that you can add to your vocabulary.

The I – II

Song Reference: “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green

Going from I to II (instead of I to ii) adds extra boldness to the progression. You can hear this in Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” where the chords are C and D. The II is technically a secondary dominant—which means it’s the dominant (V) chord of the dominant (V) key. C Major’s dominant key is G Major because G is five steps up from C, and G Major’s V chord is D. You might see this notated as V/V in chordal analysis.

The I – III

Song Reference: “Creep” by Radiohead

The I-III movement creates a very interesting sound. You can hear this in Radiohead’s “Creep,” where we go from G to B. This chord is also used in Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” where it creates a jazzy sound. This chord may sound a little unsettling, but it’s a creative choice for sure.

The I – iv

Song Reference: “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars

Landing on iv before resolving to I can sound very cool. You can hear this in “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars, where the chords go from IV to iv to I. In C Major, that’s F – Fm – C. Sounds pretty!

The I – v

Song Reference: “Clocks” by Coldplay

Using the minor v is a signature move of Coldplay’s. You can hear it in “Clocks,” where we move between the Eb major and Bb minor chords. In “Yellow,” the major V chord is used…until the end, when the band chooses the minor V instead. That’s a key thing to note about non-diatonic chords: if you use them sparingly, they can have a more powerful effect. With great power comes great responsibility!

Bonus: Learn how to play “Clocks” here!

The I – VI

Song Reference: “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding

The VI chord is handy because if you use it as a dominant 7th chord, you can use it to change keys. For example, for a G Major to A Major modulation, try going from G to E7, then E7 to A. You can go further, using the VI7 of A, which is F#7, and modulate to B Major.

The ♭III

Song Reference: “Hold On, I’m Comin'” by Sam and Dave

The ♭III has a bluesy sound that can be handy in rock music. You can hear this in “Hold On, I’m Comin’” by Sam and Dave, where we transition between the A♭ and B chords. (The ♭III of A-Flat Major is C♭, which is equivalent to B.)

The ♭VI

Song Reference: “More Than a Feeling” by Boston

At first glance, the ♭VI seems too far out from the scale to sound good. You’re making a chord that’s typically minor into a major chord, and then flatting it! But Boston uses this chord very well in their hit “More Than a Feeling.” We land on a ♭VI at the end of a I-IV-vi-V-I-IV-♭VI progression (which is the end of their chorus) before resolving back into vi. This creates an intriguing sense of wonder.

The ♭VII

Song Reference: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles

The ♭VII chord was quite popular in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. You can hear it in “Sweet Child of Mine” (Guns N’ Roses) and “Sweet Home Alabama” (Lynyrd Skynyrd). You can also hear at the end of “Hey Jude” when we move from an F chord to an E♭ chord before resolving to a B♭ (IV) chord. This is a fun progression to solo over—try it!

Bonus: Learn how to play “Hey Jude” here!

Remember, practice makes perfect! Listen to music intentionally, practice your chords and progressions, and listen to yourself too. The more you practice and listen, the easier it will be to identify chords by ear.

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Kevin Castro is a graduate of the prestigious MacEwan University with a degree in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music, and is the Musical Director and touring pianist for JUNO-winning Canadian pop star, JESSIA. As your instructor at Pianote, Kevin is able to break down seemingly complex and intimidating musical concepts into understandable and approachable skills that you can not only learn, but start applying in your own playing.

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