For me, the hardest part of being a beginner musician is the sheer amount of information that you have to pick up. A lot of great musician’s play completely by ear, but I’ve always found it helpful to have as much knowledge as possible to augment the natural talent level of my ears.
One of the most helpful articles I’ve found is A Simple Trick for Identifying Keys and chords on guitarists.net. I have a pretty solid understanding of the theory behind chord construction, but counting thirds by stepping through the appropriate scale still takes me some time. By memorizing the technique specified in the article, figuring out the notes in almost any chord is child’s play.
I’m always nervous about good resources dissappearing, so I’m going to post a bit of the article without permission:
A couple tricks here… If any of you learned to read music, you will notice that the pattern of thirds are exactly the same as lines and spaces… so you will see the E G B D F A (Every Good Boy Does Fine Always) as well as F A C E… so an easy way to remember the musical alphabet in thirds is to think of these two acronyms for memorizing the names of the notes on the staff as a trick to remember the musical alphabet in thirds.
Now, this trick only gets you the Letter of the notes… not the quality/accidental i.e. sharp, flat or natural. So if you were to want to know a D major chord, do not assume it is D F A, because that is actually D minor. How do you know which notes are sharp or flat etc.
Guess what… there is another trick… now please note that this trick is ONLY to find major chords. from that knowledge you can figure out any other chord type.
Here it goes…
Any chord with C, F, or G as a root are called “Natural Chords”. This is simply because whatever the accidental the root has, the third and fifth will have as well.
so C major would be: C E G
F would be: F A C
G would be: G B D
C#: C# E# G#
F#: F# A# C#
G#: G# B# D#
Cb: Cb Eb Gb
Fb: Fb Ab Cb
Note how the accidentals of the third and fifth are the same as the root.
Now, the next group are chords with D, E, or A as the root. Now with these chords, the root and fifth will always have the SAME accidental… but the third will have an accidental one higher than the root or fifth. What do I mean by this? It is as follows:
D F# A
E G# B
A C# E
Db F Ab
Eb G Bb
Ab C Eb
D# Fx A#
E# Gx B#
A# Cx E#
The only root left is B. The third and fifth are one accidental higher than the root. So…
B D# F#
Bb D F
B# Dx Fx
(note x = double sharp).
So if you memorize the patterns of R 3 5 as well as your pattern of accidentals, you can now quickly name any major chord based on any interval.
Definitely a must read if you don’t already have every major and minor scale memorized.