Hearing in Color: Chord tones in context

Every chord tone has its own unique sound, its own unique color. Learning to hear these colors brings these sounds to life.

This crucial ear training is often overlooked or even talked about. Take your time and study it carefully…

Match piano pitches accurately

The first step toward hearing these colors is to hear a sound, repeat it in your minds ear, and accurately reproduce it with your voice on your first try.

Go to the piano. Play a note near middle C, or wherever you can sing comfortably within your range. Clearly hear the note resonate in your mind.

Think about singing that pitch and prepare your vocal chords. Get them precisely where they need to be to sing the note. Your goal is to sing the note perfectly the first time. You don’t want to be sharp or flat. You want to be absolutely dead center on your first attempt.

Sing the note, paying close attention that you’re truly right on with the pitch.

Spend 15 minutes a day for a few weeks at this exercise and no matter how poor your singing, you’ll notice dramatic improvement at hitting the center of a note on your first try.

Understand chord tone colors

The second step in hearing these chord tone colors is to clearly understand what they are. It’s a difficult thing to describe. It’s like trying to describe the color green. I could say things like lush or nature, but how closely does that depict the color green? There’s no real tangible way that I could possibly describe to someone what green actually looks like.

With sound, it’s the same way. In a major seventh chord, there’s definitely a distinct difference between how the major 3rd of the chord sounds and how the major 7th sounds. Anyone can learn to discern these differences. It’s like knowing the difference between red and blue. You just see that they they are different. That’s the kind of ear we want to develop, where we just automatically hear the differences.

To get an idea of these distinct chord tone colors that we wish to hear, go to the piano. In your left hand, play a C major seventh chord (C-E-G-B). In your right hand, play an F# (the #11).

Notice the distinctive sound of the #11? This characteristic that is very apparent when playing the #11 over a major chord pertains to every chord tone, in every context. In other words, every chord tone within a given chord sounds a particular way. They each have their own color that you can learn to hear.

With the #11 over a major sound it’s easy to hear because the sound is so distinctive. Try playing a C major seventh chord in your left hand (C-E-G-B) and an E (the major 3rd) in your right hand. For many, this color is more difficult to hear because the sound of a major third chord tone is not nearly as unique as a #11. You’ll most likely need to spend more time on the lower chord tones (1-3-5-7) than the upper (9-11-13).

Start with triads

The best place to start hearing these colors is on a major triad.

Play a major triad (C-E-G). Hear the chord in your mind. Play the triad over and over. Notice how you can consciously shift your attention to the various chord tones in the chord? If you don’t notice this, keep playing the triad until you do.

Once you observe that you can control where you place your attention in the triad, hone in your focus on the root of the triad. Continue to hear the rest of the chord, but isolate the root in your mind. A visual of this would be: C E G

Once you can hone in on the root and hear it clearly, sing it, paying close attention to your pitch just as you did when you matched pitches in the earlier section.

All the notes are there and you’re aware of them, but the one you’re focused on jumps out at you. After you’ve accomplished this isolation with the root, move to the third. Focus intently on it, repeating the triad over and over until the 3rd just jumps out at you and you can sing it. Then, do the same exercise with the 5th.

If you’re having trouble hearing or singing any of the chord tones in the triad or if you’re having difficulty in the future, use this trick: play the chord for a moment, then immediatley play the chord tone you want to focus on, and then immediatly play the chord again. For example, if I wanted to focus on the major 3rd chord tone of a triad, I might play the triad for a quarter note, then the major 3rd chord tone for a quarter note, followed by playing the chord again for a half-note as illustrated the following example.

Hear the third

Once you’ve spent some time doing this on the root, the 3rd, and the 5th, repeat the triad again and each time, shift your attention to the next chord tone and sing it.

So, you’ll play the triad, focus your attention on the root, hear it, then sing it. Then play the triad, focus on the 3rd, hear it and sing it. Play the triad, focus on the 5th, hear it, sing it. Then start over at the root and keep doing it over and over.

By constantly shifting your attention this way you’ll soon realize how different each one of these chord tones sounds and that each actually has its own color. By hearing these colors, you can instantly pick out any chord tone you wish.

The opposite of this would be hearing the root of the chord and then hearing the interval to the chord tone you want to sing. For instance, if I want to hear the major third chord tone in a major seventh chord and I first hear the root and then sing a major third above it to find the major third, sure I’m singing the major third of the chord, but I’m not hearing the unique sound of the chord tone.

This is so important I’m going to repeat it. If you’re hearing the chord tones by first hearing the root and measuring the intervallic distance to a given chord tone, you’re doing these exercises wrong.

The goal of these exercises is to instantly hear the color of the the chord tone you wish to hone in, not to hear an interval between the root and the chord tone. This idea may seem confusing at first, but keep practicing. Each chord tone does have its own color and the more you work on them, the more each uniqueness will reveal itself.

Explore chord tone colors

Once you’re comfortable with major triads, add the major seventh to the chord (1-3-5-7, in the key of C it would be C-E-G-B) and work on hearing the color of major seventh chord tone, followed by singing it. If you’re having trouble, use the trick of repeating the chord and chord-tone as I illustrated earlier.

After the major 7th, you can continue along up the chord to the 9, the #11, and the 13th. And you needn’t play them on the piano to hear and sing them. For example, perhaps I’m learning to hear the sound of the #11 on a major seventh chord. I could play the notes C-E-G-B (a C major 7th chord) and then hear & sing the #11 without including it in my piano voicing.

When you do get this far, rather than moving to other chords, review all the major chord tones for  a while, perhaps several weeks. I actually think that once you reach this point, things become easier because now you have quite a few chord tones to compare to one another. Another analogy to seeing color will convey this abstract idea.

Imagine that the only color that existed was red, so you never spent much time learning to see color. Everything’s red. What’s there to see? It all looks the same. But then somebody tells you that other colors exist if you learn to focus your attention on them. Because you’ve never focused your attention on color in our imaginary world, that’s going to be quite a feat.

Suppose you start to see green. Then you can go back to red and say…ohhhh…it’s different than green. And then as you learn more colors, more differences between each of them become apparent, creating a definitive idea of what each color is. That’s essentially what we’re aiming to do with chord tones.

There’s many chord tones to practice over many chords, so here’s a suggestion to approaching all these chord tones. Start with hearing the unique colors of each of the lower chord tones (1-3-5-7) in each of these chords

  • Major 7th
  • Minor 7th
  • Dominant 7th
  • Half Diminished 7th

Then work on the upper chord tones of each of the above chords (9-11-13. Remember, in a major and dominant chord to raise the 11th)

Then work on these various alterations for each category:

  • Major 7th alterations – #5
  • Minor 7th  alterations – #7
  • Dominant 7th alterations – #5, b9, #9

Working through all these chords is quite a task. Start simply and build a strong foundation. Don’t be in a hurry to work on all these chords. If you spend a lot of time developing the ability to hear the unique colors of each chord tone on a major 7th chord, you’ll pave your way to hearing the unique color of any chord tone in any chord.

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