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Identifying chords

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We have looked at triads and chords in a lot of detail. Let's look at one key skill: the ability to quickly identify and describe chords (and the underlying triads).

Describing chords

Chords are named after the underlying triad, and we have examined this in detail in Introduction to harmony and Functions of harmony.

Make sure you are familiar with the Roman numeral system of describing chords and triads, in which V is a chord or triad on the 5th degree of the scale of the key in which the music is written.

Always make sure that you write the key next to your Roman numeral analysis, so that someone else reading your work knows to which key you are refering when you write V, as shown here:

from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor, with analysisfrom Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor, with analysis

Reducing chords

In order to be able to begin describing chords, you need to be able to reduce them to triads (as shown in Chords), and to recognise and reduce dominant seventh chords.

Dominant sevenths are covered in The dominant 7th, and the reduction of chords is also discussed in Chords.

Identifying the key

In order to successfully name a triad as, for example, Vb, you need first to know what the key is (the 5th degree of which scale?) This won't always be given and therefore you must be able to identify the key for yourself.

This topic is discussed in Identifying the key.

Identifying chords

Now that we have covered the prerequisites, let's get on with identifying some chords!

The best way to do this builds upon the process for identifying the key for a piece of music (see Identifying the key), and is as follows:

  1. Key: What is the key of the music? Looking at the key signature will give you two possibilities (a major and a minor key) straight away.
  2. Reduce: Reduce the chord to its underlying triad.
  3. Inversion: Is the chord in root position, first inversion, or second inversion? A root position triad consists of two thirds; a 1st inversion triad has a third below with a fourth above, and a 2nd inversion triad has a fourth below and a third above.
  4. Degree: On which degree of the scale (of the key you've already identified) is the root of the triad? Watch out - if the chord is not in root position, the root note will not be the bass note!

Following these four steps, you should be able to identify name any chord based on a triad as, for example, "A chord of Vc in E flat major" or "A chord of iva in G minor".

An example

Let's step through an example question:

Q. Describe the first chord in the extract as I, II, IV or V, and indicate whether the lowest note is the root (a), 3rd (b), or 5th (c)

from Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 14 no. 1, 2nd movementfrom Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 14 no. 1, 2nd movement


Following our four-step approach as above:

1. Key: No flats or sharps - C major or A minor. No raised leading note for A minor, and it begins with C in the bass, so C major.

2. Reduce:

Reduction of the chord in questionReduction of the chord in question

3. Inversion: The intervals are a 3rd and a 5th above the bass, so the inversion is root position (a)

4. Degree: The bass note C is the root of the triad, and the key is C major, so the degree of the triad is I.


Our correct answer, therefore, is: Ia

Another example

Here is a slightly different question that uses the same process: instead of identifying a specific chord, we have to locate a specific chord within the music.

Q. The extract is in E flat minor. Identify a tonic chord in 2nd inversion (Ic).

from Bach, Preludium VIII BWV 853 from The Well-Tempered Clavierfrom Bach, Preludium VIII BWV 853 from The Well-Tempered Clavier


First, what notes does a triad on the first degree (the tonic - I) contain, in E flat minor?
E flat, G flat, B flat.

Second, what would the bass note be in 2nd inversion? (Ic)
B flat


The only chord which matches, and our answer therefore, is on the second beat of the second bar as shown below:

Answer: on the second beat of the second barAnswer: on the second beat of the second bar

Some tips

It is very likely that there will be a question in your music theory exam that asks you to identify several marked chords within an extract of music, and also to give the inversion of the chord.

This question will ask you to "describe" each chord as I, II, IV or V, and to "indicate whether the lowest note is the root (a), 3rd (b), or 5th (c)" (just as in the example above).

In other words, you should identify the chord and describe it using the Roman numeral system. Normally you will be given the key signature of the extract, which should make correct identification considerably easier.

It is worthwile to check your answer by writing down the triad that you have described in your answer on a piece of manuscript paper, and checking:

  1. ...that the bass note of the triad is the same as the bass note of the chord in the question, and
  2. ...that all the notes in the marked chord are present in the triad.

If your answer does not pass both of these steps, either your whole answer is wrong, or your triad is wrong, and you should try again.

Another type of question will give you the description of the chord, and ask you to mark it in the music. For example, you could be asked to mark a chord of IVb, or Ia, etc. The question will give the Roman numeral notation and also the description of the chord in words, e.g. "a subdominant chord in first inversion" or "a tonic chord in root position", etc. You will normally be given the key.

For this question, I recommend that you:

  1. Write down the specified chord as a triad on an piece of manuscript paper. Take special care to get the inversion (and therefore the bass note) correct.
  2. Next, look for all instances of the triad's bass note in the question's extract of music.
  3. Finally, for each of those instances, check to see if all the notes of the chord at that instance are in your triad. If there is an extra note, keep looking elsewhere in the extract, but if all the notes in the chord are present in your triad, then you have found the answer.

There may sometimes be several correct instances of the correct chord but you only need to find one - unless, of course, the question requires you to identify all of them, so make sure you read the question carefully!


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