Learning To Play Chords From A MIDI File

Jazz musicians seem to be very adept at quickly recognizing what chord is being used at any given time in a piece of music. It would be nice (it seemed to me) if there were an exercise a musician could do, to teach that skill.

My idea of providing that exercise, was writing an application that would play a chord, and have the user quickly identify it, keeping track of the user's accuracy and quickness in identifying the chord.

It turned out that I didn't need to write that app, because the KeyMusician Keyboard already provides that capability!

The method of learning to play music from a MIDI file by 'matching the dots' also works for learning to play chords. It's just bit more complicated, as you would expect with multiple simultaneous notes. It can also be done entirely 'by-ear', with only audio cues, and it keeps track of the learner's progress.

This article tells you how to do it.

Before we get into the “how-to's”, we need to explain some things about chords, and how they are played on the KeyMusician Keyboard. So if you don't already know this material, here is a quick music-theory lesson regarding chords.

Normally (on the KeyMusician Keyboard) you play chords using the numeric keypad.

Here is a screen-shot of playing an F-major chord, in the key of C-major (or A-minor), using the modal chords system:

It's very easy to play this chord. Simply hit the numeric keypad “4” key (the one with the “F”) label in the keypad window, then press the “0” numeric keypad key (the “Play” button), and the chord starts playing.

Normally you don't see the notes of the chord – it just plays. But if you click on the “Chords” tab of the main KMK window, and play a chord (using the numeric keypad), it shows you the notes of the chord, as in the annotated screen-shot below:

To keep things simple, we are using the key of C major, which has no flats or sharps. In this case, the column of letters immediately to the left of the music-keyboard diagram tell you the letter-name of each note.

In the key-signature of C-major, the first note (the lowest note of the scale) is a “C”, and it is considered the first note of the scale. The “notes of the scale” numbers show you the notes of the scale, numbered 1 through 7.

An F-major chord has (at least) three notes (called a triad). It can have more notes and still be F-major, as long as all of the notes have the same letter-names as the notes shown. The letter-names of an F-major chord are F, A, and C.

The notes of a chord are also referred to by their interval numbers, annotated on the left. For the interval numbers of a chord, you start with the bottom (root) note of the chord, counting it as “1”, and then count up notes of the scale from there, including only notes of the chord. So this chord, described by its interval numbers, is “1”, “3”, and “5”, which means it includes its 1st, its 3rd, and its 5th.

If the chord is not a slash-chord (or an inversion), the lowest note of the chord (the root-note of the chord) is the name of the chord, or the note on which the chord is built.

In this case (it's neither a slash-chord nor an inversion), the lowest note of the chord has a letter-name of “F”, so it's an F-chord.

Okay - that's fairly easy to determine, but how do we know if it's a major, minor, diminished, or suspended chord?

If there are no accidentals in the chord (a flat, sharp, or natural sign immediately to the left of the round part of the note), simply determine the name of the root note of the chord, and look it up in the “Num-Keypad Chord” window (using the modal chord system), as in the following screen-shot:

A letter-name name of a chord by itself, in this case “F”, means “major”, so it's an F-major chord (as also indicated by the “Play” button).

Chords built on the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes of the scale (also referred to by the note-number of the scale, as a Roman numeral), are major chords.

Roman numerals are used to refer to chords in a non-key-signature-specific way. Notice that the numbers on the numeric keypad correspond to the Roman numerals.

In any key-signature, an “I”, “IV”, and “V” chord, (a triad) built using notes of the scale only (no accidentals), is a major chord.

In the screen-shot above, the chord letter-names followed by an “m” are minor chords. So any chord whose root-note is the 2nd, 3rd, or 6th note of the scale (an “II”, “III”, or “VI” chord in Roman numerals) is a minor chord. This works in any key-signature.

Finally, a chord built on the 7th note of the scale (a “VII” chord in Roman numerals) is a diminished chord.

In addition to the normally-present three-notes of the chord, you can add the “7th” interval, the “9th” interval, the “11th” interval, or the “13th” interval.

For example, here is the Chords performance pane, showing a C-major-7th chord, in the key of C:

A C-major 7th chord

A C-major-6th chord would be similar, except that in place of the 7th interval (which is a B in this key-signature), it would use the 6th interval (which is an A in this key-signature). The following screen-shot shows a C-major-6th chord, in the key of C:

A C-major-6th chord, in the key of C

The 9th, 11th, and 13th chords normally also include the 7th, with an additional top-note interval of 9th, 11th, or 13th added.

Slash-chords make this more complicated, in that the note-name beyond the slash is added below the other notes of the chord, so in this case, the lowest note of the chord is not the root-note of the chord. Instead, the next-lowest note-name of the chord is the chord-name (root-note name).

A technique I often use to yield a more powerful-sounding chord, is to repeat the root-note of a chord (2 taps), making its octave-lower note a slash-chord note, is shown in the following screen-shot:

F-major-7th/ F Chord, which is a more powerful-sounding version of F-major-7th

Another thing that can complicate this, is using inversions of chords.

Inversions of chords, are chords using the same note-letter-names as the chords already explained, but in different order, going from lowest chord note to highest chord note.

In some key-signatures, the application uses different inversions of the same chord, to keep the chord from being either too high, or too low for a good sound.

To keep this simple, I'm using the key of C.

Okay, enough of the music-theory lesson. Let's learn to play chords by playing a MIDI file and matching the dots.

To do the exercise, download the MIDI file of the link below, by right-clicking on it, and choosing “Save Link As” (or something similar) from the pop-up menu that appears in your Internet browser.


The following screen-shot shows the “Loch Lomond” MIDI file (from the KMK Songbook or the above link) loaded into the MIDI Player/Recorder:

The “Channels” text-box above shows which MIDI channels are used by the piece. In this case, channel 2 is used for the chords. The “Playback Device” drop-box is set to “(none) - Display Notes Only”, which will cause the chords to display in the Chords pane, and be played using the current chords pane instrument.

In the “F1 (Help/Setup)” pane of the main KMK window, select the modal chords system, as in the screen-shot below:

In the main KMK window, click on the “Chords” performance pane, and make sure its MIDI channel is set to “2” (using the spin-control), as shown in the screen-shot below:

Next, we need to modify the “Learning Metrics” window to look like the following:

Note that the “Wait” check-box is selected, so that it will wait a long time for you to match the notes before proceeding.

If you just want to hear (and see) the chords in the MIDI file as it plays, clear the “Wait” check-box, so it won't wait for you to match the chord notes.

Assuming the MIDI channel in the Chords pane of the main KMK window is set to 2 (and the “Wait” check-box is clear), you should be able to click the “Play” button of the MIDI Player/Recorder window, and hear the chords play (with the chord notes displayed in red).

If you want to try to match the dots, set the “Wait” check-box, and click the “Play” button again. Then (knowing what you learned in the music theory information at the beginning of this article), play the displayed chord using the numeric keypad. Matched notes are green, and played, non-matched notes are blue.

Remember that the bottom note of the chord gives you a good clue of the chord name, and the MIDI file was recorded using modal chords, so it should match.

You can try several different chords until you match all the chord notes, then it will proceed.

If you want to match the chords entirely by the sound of it, with no visual clues, change the “Learning Metrics” window to the following settings:

In this case, we set the “Play-By-Ear” radio-button, and clear the “Visual Help” check-box.

If you want to hear the melody while you match the chords, set the MIDI Player/Recorder window to specify a synthesizer, such as in the following screen-shot:

Note: When using a synthesizer to play the MIDI file, the “Sight-Reading”, “Play-By-Ear”, “Audio Help” and “Visual Help” buttons of the “Learning Metrics” window will not have any effect, but you'll be able to hear the whole tune.

Remember that notes are displayed in the main KMK window performance pane only when its MIDI channel matches a channel used by the MIDI file.

You can do the same exercise using other MIDI files in the KMK Songbook. Usually they use MIDI channel 2 for chords, but not always. Try setting the MIDI channel of the chords pane to each of the channels used, and see which one has the multiple simultaneous notes.

Make sure the key-signature matches (you'll need to look at the music in the PDF file) before trying the exercise. If you don't do this, the exercise can quickly become very confusing.

So, armed with this knowledge, give it a try.

Finally, here is another exercise MIDI file for you to download and try:


In the MIDI Player/Recorder window, click its “Browse” button, browse to where you saved the above file, select it, and load the MIDI file into the Player/Recorder.

This exercise consists entirely of chords (it has no melody), using MIDI channel 2 for the chords, and is in the key of C (no transposition is necessary).

It starts out simply, and gradually becomes more complex.

Try playing the MIDI file, and matching the chords.

If (or when) it gets too hard or confusing for you, take a look at the sequence of chords below (your very own cheat-sheet, with chords of particular interest highlighted):

C-major, F-major, G-major, D-minor, C-major, B-diminished, G-major, C-major, A-minor, E-minor, A-minor, F-major, C-major, C-major-6th, C-major-7th, F-major-7th, C-major-7th, F-major-7th / D, G7th, C-major-7th, A-minor-7th, A-minor-6th, A-minor-7th, E-minor-7th, E-7th suspended, A-minor-7th, F-major-7th / F, F-major-7th / D, D-minor-7th / G, C-major-7th / C

Another thing you can do with this exercise is improvise a melody along with the chords. Give that a try too.

I hope this gives you a whole new realm of musical ability with the instrument! - Aere

Index Of All Newsletter Articles