Playing piano chords by ear is one of the most beneficial skills a pianist can have at his disposal. Since chords on a piano can be played in several different places on the keyboard, as well as in different voicings, memorizing all of these chords can be a time consuming process. By learning to recognize piano chords by ear, memorizing chord shapes and positions becomes unnecessary, since you will be able to form the chords anywhere on the piano simply by hearing the notes you play. Learning to recognize chords by ear also can improve your ability to improvise music in any key on the spur of the moment, freeing you to explore your musical creativity in ways you’ve never imagined.
Develop your ear immediately. This means training your ear to hear subtle variations in the tone of individual notes and training yourself to hear intervals. Play a C major scale on your piano. The notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B and the octave C. Listen carefully as you play the notes of the scale. Close your eyes as you play them and try to assign a color to the tone of each note. This allows you to combine both visual and auditory data that can help you train your ears to hear and see the notes.
Play the notes of the C major scale consecutively, assigning these colors to the tones. Play them over and over again until you feel you can see and hear each note, then play the notes randomly. Try to recognize the notes by the colors you’ve assigned to them. It will take some time to begin to see and hear these notes, so continue this exercise as you move on to other practice.
Play broken chords and try to identify intervals between the notes. An interval is the distance from one note to another. The combination of these intervals is what gives chords their unique sounds. Start with a C major chord. The C major uses the first, third and fifth notes of the C major scale. These notes are C, E and G. The distance from the root note (C) to the other notes is defined by intervals. From C to the E is a major third; the distance from the C to the G is a perfect fifth. Play these notes individually, then play the full chord. Play the C and the E notes and train your ear to hear the distance. Do the same with the C and G notes.
Add or change notes in the C major to hear how other intervals change the sound. Start by flatting the E in the C major scale. Instead of playing the E on the white key, play the E flat on the black key before it. This changes the major third to a minor third. This flatted third note creates a minor chord. Try playing the C major with the seventh note of the C scale added to create a seventh note. The more you experiment with making different chords, the easier it will become for you to hear chord types.
Practice making chord inversions. A chord inversion is the same chord with the notes played in a different order. Playing the C chord by starting on the second note in the chord (E-G-C) creates the first inversion of the C. Play these notes individually with your eyes closed and use your color guide to identify the tones in your head. Play the notes together. Try to listen for the C chord even in this inversion. When your ear begins to hear the notes, you can play them in any order and still identify a chord.