Jazz Ear Training – 5 Tips For Hearing Chord Extensions

ear trainingToday I want to tell you how I drastically improved my musical ear by using jazz ear training. Chord extensions, tensions, alterations, color tones, whatever you want to call them, I am always interested!

I can’t write enough about this subject of jazz ear training because it’s so important for mastering jazz piano.

As pianists we have the ability to create so much color, style and sophistication just be manipulating even just one note of a standard chord voicing.

Like great painters, who know just how much royal blue to add to their paintings, great pianist knows how to stylize their harmony by adding beautiful tensions (colors) to their chords.

Understanding how tensions work and function and ultimately hearing them is what can take your playing and sound to the next level.

How do the greats take a plain old vanilla D7 chord and make it sound so deep and rich? How did Bill Evans make his two hands sound like a 40 piece orchestra when he touched the keys?

These masters have such control over their harmony and they know just how to paint with these beautiful color tones and the results are magic I tell ya!

So, how can we get control of these beautiful chords? Well, one of the first keys starts with unlocking your musical ear.

My Ear Training Story

jazz ear trainingJust a brief backstory about me. I started classical piano lessons at the age of 8 years old.

I had a great teacher, but he never introduced me to understanding jazz harmony or even more importantly, how to hear to what I was playing.

Like most young piano students, I was taught just to read notes off a page.

I developed tone, coordination, rhythm and other musical attributes but by the age of 12 I got bored and left the piano to play drums.

After I started to write songs in my late teens I quickly realized that I needed and wanted to know more about music and composition.

I was honest enough with myself to admit that I needed to get back to the piano and really develop my musicianship.

Despite my early piano lessons I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough about music theory, harmony or even ear training.

I knew if I wanted to be keep improving my songwriting I had to learn more about harmony.


berklee-ear-trainingSo, at 22 years old I enrolled into Berklee as a songwriting major (where I met Steve Nixon, owner of freejazzlessons.com).

To say that I was initially overwhelmed at Berklee would be an understatement!

I never grew up listening to jazz, other than maybe playing “Kind Of Blue” in the background because I liked the sound of it and I thought it was cool to listen to Miles.

I always thought Jazz was this far out complicated music that I would never understand.

I grew up listening mainly to pop radio and my parents never cared for jazz themselves. I was never exposed to it.

When I got to Berklee I remember being asked how to play a Db7#11 chord and feeling very ashamed because I couldn’t.  More importantly, I didn’t know what a #11 even sounded like!

There I was at an age where I should have already graduated from college surrounded by kids who were already world-class jazz players and I am there struggling on hearing chords. UGH!

Yes, I could read, I could write songs, I had strong rhythm, and I could get around the keyboard well on a technical level. But at that time I COULD NOT HEAR anything!

I knew right then and there nothing was more important than developing my ears. I wanted to hear so deeply that I would never have to listen to something more than twice to have a fighting chance to play it back.

Forget the sheet music, this was personal! I was determined! I had a lot of work to do! Thus began my journey.

Inspiration From Jamey Aebersold

jamey aebersold ear trainingI heard Jamey Abersold once talk about being able to really hear music and how having great ears is not reserved for a small elite class of musical geniuses.

Rather, it can be attained by most people with the proper amount of practice.

Like if an old friend called you after many years of not speaking, you would instantly recall the tone of his or her voice. You never forget their “sound” so to speak.

The same concept can be applied to music. If you can recognize a friend’s voice you can recognize the sounds of chords too!

We all posses the same ability when it comes to sounds and musical tones… It just starts with actively attaching our mind’s ear to everything we hear.

Hearing Jamey Aebersold say this gave me confidence that if I practiced the right exercises I could learn to train my ear too!

Since that time I’ve made huge progress in my ear training and aural skills. With inspiration and some great ear training exercises it has made all the difference!

What Jazz Ear Training Exercises Did You Do?

Here are some of the techniques that I have been using for years and still use to this day to deepen my hearing of chords with tensions. They’ve made a huge difference in my music.

While the same amount of time could easily be spent on melodic ear training, I will focus on harmonic jazz ear training in this article.

I will also focus mainly on Dominant 7 chords since there are so many cool ways you can alter them to change their sound.  #9, b9 ,#11, 13 etc.…

Please keep in mind that these same exercises can be applied to any type of chord though.

There are limitless ways of attaining this, but I found that for me, these methods really helped me hear a lot more!

Lets get started training our ears!

1.) Isolate The Tension/Tensions

Here’s the first exercise you can do.

  • From there you can start adding basic tensions in the right hand one at a time. Play this over and over. Play repetitively at a slow quarter note tempo and try to get used to their sound.

This can be a sterile exercise, and not very musical, but it’s like the bicep curl at the gym. The growth will happen with every repetitive rep.

jazz ear trainingRemember, you are just playing these to hear what they sound like for your ear, not to sound like a pianist.

I would recommend you start with the Dom 9 chord first. Next, you can practice hearing the Dom b9 chord. Then move on to the Dom #9 chord, then #11, and so on.

Really be able to hear what these tones sound like deep within your musical ear. They should start to sound like a familiar voice.

If it takes you more than 30 sec to hear each one, then do not move ahead and continue burning the sound into your minds ear.

Caution: Do not move ahead to something more challenging out of frustration. Just be where you are and stick with it!

Add more when you are ready to take it on.

Work your way up to all available tensions on the Dominant chord, where all alterations are present. This is not easy but the rewards are amazing!

jazz ear trainingI still have to slow things down and isolate certain chords when listening to the greats from time to time.

When Oscar Peterson is burning at 240bpm it can be a struggle to hear what he is doing. It’s frustrating, I know! Remember, this is a life long practice!

Part 2 Of This Ear Training Exercise

  • The 2nd addition to this exercise it to play these voicing’s in all 12 keys with tensions into a sequencer.
  • software ear trainingRecord them at a slow tempo, in all 12 keys! (Great transposition training here too).
  • Loop this recording for 2min and bounce as an mp3.
  • Label the MP3 Dom7#5 chord (for example) and listen to these on repeat away from the keyboard when you are driving, walking around, or even when asleep.

This is a great technique to burn the sounds into your soul.

2.) Understand How Chords Function!

Understanding that chords work relative to each other, and how they function in relation to each other is one of the greatest ways to improve your ear for chords. In fact, this is essential part of jazz ear training.

So you can play a B minor 11. This is great! But where is it coming from or how does it function? How does it relate to the overall chord progression when you hear it or play it?

Try to “macro- hear” when listening. (2-5 of the 4 chord… to a 2-5 of a 6 chord with its related 2 chord for example.)

Try to observe and listen for common motions in harmony. Chord progressions like 2-5-1, 1-4-5, jazz blues chord progressions, common jazz turnarounds, etc.

Also, remember the more you alter your dominant chords the more the chord wants to function as a 5 chord.

This altered 5 chord will want to resolve to the 1 chord. (The Dom7#11 is the exception to this rule.)

I found that having this theoretical understanding can help a lot when I am stuck on what a pianist is playing and I can’t seem to hear it out.

Use theory to your advantage, it’s an added edge in training your ear!

(If you want to learn more about altered harmony check out Steve’s lesson on the altered scale.)

(You can also learn more about altered dominant chords by checking out this dominant jazz piano chord lesson)

3.) Think Melodically And Sing

jazz ear t rainingNo, you don’t have to sound like Frank Sinatra to utilize this technique! If you are like me and do not sing too well, it’s ok!

I am just really talking about matching pitch of the tension to further burn the sound of it in your musical being.

I didn’t implement this technique till much later, but honestly I wish I did sooner.

In taking exercise #1 above a bit further, try to match the tension with your voice out loud when playing it. This can really help to further cement your hearing of the tone.

Play just the third and seventh of your dominant chord in your left hand (this is a tritone by the way).

Sing the tension over your tritone. Try to sing or match the pitch while hearing how the tension wants to function. Like a #9 followed by a b9 followed the root over a C7 chord for example.

Sing the Eb to Db to C root. Tensions have tendencies, whether they want to resolve up or down. Where do they want to move to? Hear and sing these tendencies.

This helps to think of harmony in a melodic way. Also, many times on a lead sheet when you see a tension on a chord it’s often the melody!

This can really help you understand how to hear these color tones when you sing them out loud. If you want to get better at jazz ear training it’s important that you study how melodies are built. Learn the melody!

4.) Jazz Ear Training Through Patterns

Try to hear the patterns in music. Chord progressions are usually built on sequences, many of which we have heard time and time again.

1 6 2 5 1, 2 5 1 6 , 1 4 5, etc are such common progressions, but when we start out it can still sound like dozens of chords in a row.

Go back to that macro thinking we discussed earlier in the article.

Try hearing 2 5’s as a harmonic sequence not just individual chords.

After identifying which sequence is being used then you can go back and dissect each chord and listen to what the player is doing over the 2chord, then 5 chord etc.

Is he/she playing a 2minor7b5? A 2minor11, a Dom7th b9 #11?

Listen for the bigger chunks, and not just chord by chord. This makes hearing less daunting. Never forget your theory when in a jam!

By the way, speaking of the 2 5 1 chord progression, if you need a place to start with your jazz ear training that’s a great chord progression to start with.

5.) Active Listening

ear trainingOnce you get bit but the “listening bug” there is no turning back. I suggest that you always actively listen no matter where you are.

Try to hear the harmonic movement of a TV commercial when you are lounging around on the couch. You do not have to be in front of the piano.

Try to transcribe the chords of the pop song that you hear being played over the speakers as you are buying your groceries.

Come up with fun ways that challenge you to hear anything and everything at all times. Take your favorite songs and do not use the sheet music but rather find out what they are playing simply by ear.

This technique also helps to ensure that you won’t forget what you played. Reading music does not intrinsically help you remember anything.

When you break a piece down to its elements by ear you end up owning it and it becomes engraved in your musical being.

Final Jazz Ear Training Thoughts For The Day

There is so much that can be written on this subject of ear training . Like I said before it’s truly a lifetime study. It does take time, but I know the results are guaranteed when you put forth this type of effort.

I am still using these techniques daily and as soon as I get cocky I put on something that makes me feel like a beginner again.

It’s ok, start where you are and deepen your ears each day and you will be amazed what you can start to hear!  Best of luck, and happy listening!


brett epstein la songwriterThis was written by Brett Epstein. Brett is a Los Angeles based pianist, songwriter and music  producer. Brett studied in Boston at the Berklee College of Music where he majored in Contemporary Writing and Production. His songs and productions have been featured on many TV shows and feature films, as well as performed by national recording artists. Brett gigs with many jazz bands around the Southern California area. 
For more on Brett you can check out his wikipedia page: 
or connect with him on Facebook. Facebook.com/brettepstein
singing photo above courtesy of DavidMartynHunt on flickr.


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Steve Nixon