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2 minutes reading time (491 words)

Learning to play by ear

The purpose of this exercise is to plant a seed of playing by ear in fertile minds, a seed that could germinate and result in life-long learning. A command of basic chords is important, but expanding your vocabulary of chords can become a source of pleasure for you and for your listeners. Hearing the different chords that go with each pitch of the scale is an integral part of playing by ear.

Consider starting with the basic chords in the key of F Major (see Example 1).

Example 1: Using the basic chords in F Major.

With a little effort these progressions can be transposed to other keys. Suggestion: Think first, then play. 

Select a key (e.g., G major) and play the first three pitches of the scale.

Name the three basic chords of the key: G, C, and D.

Where there is a slash (/) after a chord symbol, the letter after the slash indicates the pitch of the bass voice. For example, D/F# indicates a D major triad with an F# in the bass. Notating each progression on the staves below might be helpful (see Example 2). I have provided the notes for the soprano; see if you can figure out the other voices.

Example 2: Transposed to G Major.

The chord symbol G/B indicates that B, the third of the chord, is in the bass. The symbol D/A indicates that A, the fifth of the chord, is in the bass, etc. (see Example 3).

Example 3: Slash chords

Now consider adding the vi and ii minor chords (see Example 4).

Example 4: Addition of vi and ii chords.

Example 5 shows one option for a modulation to the relative minor.

Example 5: Modulation to the relative minor.

In addition to D minor and G minor, A minor is also one of the minor chords in the key of F Major. It is built on the third tone of the scale and has the Roman numeral name iii. In the above example this chord is altered by the addition of C#. Adding a seventh to this chord creates a strong pull to D minor, hence it is analyzed as the dominant of D minor, or V7 of vi. In Example 6, note the ascending bass and the use of suspensions.

Example 6: Ascending bass line and suspensions.

Below are additional chord choices to explore (see Example 7).These are just a few possibilities available for the first three notes of the major scale. Let your imagination and creativity lead you to other choices.

Example 7: Additional chord choices.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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