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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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C6b. Chords in a Score

Grade Six Music Theory, Lesson C6b. - Identifying Chords in a Score

Let’s now look at some real life examples of chords in scores.

This is a chord from Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, played by the woodwind and horn.

We will examine the chord marked by the box.



The prevailing key is B major. (You need to see a bit more of the score to work that out for yourself, so just take our word for it this time!)


>>> First, write down the letter names of all the notes which are sounding (at concert pitch). 


The flute and bassoon parts are easy in this extract. Generally flute parts will always be easy, but make sure you are comfortable reading the tenor clef for bassoon parts. Bassoon parts often switch clef (from bass to tenor in most cases), so watch out!


There is no oboe contribution in this extract. Oboes are easy instruments (to read, not play!) too, as they also play at concert pitch.


The clarinet part is a little harder. Clarinets come in many sizes, with the Bb, A and Eb being the most common. It’s not unknown to find a part for clarinet in C (i.e. non-transposing) either. In this case, we know that the clarinet must be a transposing instrument, because it’s using a different key signature. But is it a clarinet in A, Bb or something else?

Start by looking at the key signatures in use. The clarinet is using a key signature of G major, whereas the non-transposing instruments have E major. This means the written notes are a minor third higher than they sound (because E-G is a minor third). So, a written G in the clarinet part equals a concert pitch E. All the notes in the clarinet part sound a minor third lower than written.

Make sure you understand this concept, because sometimes the excerpts don’t mention which kind of clarinet is being used, and with instruments like the cor Anglais the transposing pitch is not usually written because it’s always the same (cors Anglais are always in F).

You can also remember the phrase “C that you see = concert pitch key” to help you.

For example:

C that you see C that you see =

- concert pitch Bb on the Bb clarinet
- concert pitch F on the horn in F
- concert pitch D on the trumpet in D 
- etc.


The horn part is also transposed. Here, you are told that the horn is in E. You will always be told the specific transposition for a horn or trumpet part, because, traditionally, brass parts are often written with no key signature. Because C (horn part) = E (concert pitch), you need to transpose the notes up a major third. The written G is a concert pitch B.

With brass instruments, you can’t work out the transposition from the key signature (as was done with the clarinet above) if the key signature is left out.

So, these are the notes for each instrument at concert pitch:

  • Flutes: B, D#
  • Clarinets: B, F#
  • Bassoons (Fag.): D#, F#
  • Horns (Cor): B, B

We have the notes B, F# and D#. Stacked as closely as possible in thirds, they make the triad of B major.
The lowest note is in the bassoon part – F#. Therefore, this is a second inversion chord.
The full description is: “Tonic chord of B major (I) in the second inversion.”


Here’s another chord from later in the same piece, this time played by the string section:



This time, you have enough of the score to be able to work out the prevailing key as well. We need to do that first:

The key signature of two flats means we should start by assuming the key is either Bb major or G minor.

The double bass plays G-D-G-D in the first two bars, which would be the root of the tonic and dominant triads in G minor (G minor and D major). In the fourth bar however, B natural and A flat are introduced – and they appear again in the 6th bar. In the 7th bar there is an A natural (no accidental). If we look at the notes in use (from the 4th-7th bars) and lay them out in order, they are:

Ab – A – B – C – D – Eb – F – G

These are all notes from the C minor melodic scale. The Ab appears in the descending scale, and the A natural and B natural are in the ascending scale. At this point then, the prevailing key of the music is C minor.

Next, work out the notes of the chord. They are C, Eb and G. These are the notes of the tonic chord (i) in C minor.

Finally, we check the lowest note of the chord, to work out what position it’s in. Don’t forget that double basses are transposing instruments at the octave, so the note you see written actually sounds an octave lower. (It doesn’t make any difference here, because it’s the lowest notated note anyway, but that isn’t always the case). The lowest note of the chord is Eb, which is the third of the chord.

So, this chord is a “tonic, first inversion minor chord in the prevailing key of C minor”.

As you can see, identifying chords at this level requires knowing more than just how chords work. Make sure you are super confident about: 

  • which instruments transpose and at what interval
  • reading the alto and tenor clefs
  • working out the prevailing key

Get into the habit of working out all the key changes in music that you are actually playing. Practice makes perfect!



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