Great questions, @Asuryan. And I love that you are so dedicated to your music practice. It’s a pleasure to discuss these topics with musicians who are so focused and self-reliant. And I really appreciate all of the great advice shared here by @mem and @DavidW.
It sounds to me as though you’re already on exactly the right path. Recognizing Chords by Ear is certainly an interesting next step, but so is just spending more time improvising over IFR Jam Tracks Levels 1 and 2 as @mem and @DavidW described.
Let me just add my own perspective on one question that you raised which is the difference between a chord and a harmonic environment. I think it’s very helpful to return to the definition of a harmonic environment and to treat this definition with the kind of formality that we find in mathematics. The definition really contains the answer to your question if you take this definition very literally:
A harmonic environment refers to the way that all of the notes sound when a given note is acting as the tonal center. For example, when we say the “second harmonic environment”, what we mean is the sound of all seven notes of the major scale when we’re feeling note 2 as the tonal center.
That last phrase is what settles the question of chords vs. harmonic environments. It call comes down to when we’re feeling note 2 as the tonal center. This is subjective but it’s influenced by the structure of the music. If a song spends a long time in the 1 chord and only briefly moves up to the 2- chord before immediately coming back to the 1 chord, most people will continue to feel note 1 as the tonal center the whole time. This is what @DavidW was explaining about songs and chord progressions. In this example, we will experience the 2- chord as a kind of suspension or something out of place in the background, but we will still feel note 1 as the tonal center. What is the consequence of this? The consequence is that the sound of the individual melody notes doesn’t change. You won’t be tempted to call note 2 your new “note 1” because you don’t FEEL it as note 1. You might be able to recognize that note 2 is the root of the chord that’s sounding in the background, but it will still sound like note 2. So even though there are chords changing in the background, most people will continue to hear the notes as they sound in the first harmonic environment because they are continuing to feel note 1 as the tonal center the whole time.
But what if we don’t just pass through the 2- chord momentarily? What if we stay there a long time, so long that we actually forget about returning to the 1 chord? Then we will all eventually start feeling note 2 as the tonal center. And you’ll notice that the sound of each melody note has changed, and now they all sound like what we call the second harmonic environment. This is when you are likely to feel torn between calling the root note “2” versus calling the root of the chord your new “note 1”. But even though the tonal center has now shifted to note 2, there is still great value in continuing to call it “note 2”. Just because the tonal center shifts doesn’t mean we should change the names of the notes.
One of the keys to the success of IFR is the ability to separate these two ideas in your mind. If you are limited to the primitive analysis that every tonal center must always be called “note 1”, then you are condemned to a life of endless key changes. Your model works well to analyze the notes of a single chord or measure in a piece of music, but it’s a terrible model for understanding the entire song because every new tonal center must be treated as an isolated world in its own key. This is why we bring all of these sounds onto a single tonal map in IFR. But there is still the question (and there will always be the question) of where to overlay that map onto a song. Even if you are convinced of the value of having a single tonal map, you can still have doubts about which note of the song should be defined as your “note 1”.
You astutely pointed this out in the opening to your question when you said that you understand that neither interpretation is wrong (note 1 vs. note 6). And you are absolutely right about that! If you prefer to think of the root of a minor song as being a “note 1”, that’s totally fine. You just miss out on some of the simplicity and elegance of IFR, because now your tonal map must be built with a “minor scale” using several altered notes, and you’re going to encounter other chords with names like the following:
2 minor b5
But what are these chords really? They are just the seven chords of the major scale, just with somewhat more complicated names. But even these less elegant names could be workable (even preferable) to you if you really like the benefit of calling your tonal center note 1. So if a song’s tonal center stays on note 6 for the entire time, then I wouldn’t criticize you for adopting the system of names above.
Here’s the real problem. Most songs do not, in fact, stay in a single tonal center the whole time. And if the tonal center itself changes, now you need a NEW set of seven names for the seven chords! So it’s really not much better than the primitive analysis of calling every single chord your “1 chord”. In other words, it’s no harmonic analysis at all. You’re not getting to benefit from the simplicity of the song’s construction. Your model has introduced complexity where there was none.
This is my basic pitch for trying to encourage everyone to embrace the simplest definitions of the chords, which are closest to the origin of these concepts. The 1 chord will always be the 1 chord. The 2- chord will always be the 2- chord, etc. But this implies nothing about the tonal center. That is a separate issue which is not only subjective but it’s also ephemeral. This is ultimately why we do not want to tie our vocabulary to the tonal center. You can’t build a mathematical system on top of passing sensations. Your most basic elements must be permanent and durable. Those passing sensations of tonal centers and attraction are very real, but because they are temporary they should not alter our names for the notes and chords.
Sorry if that response was too long. But it’s a subtle topic and you’re asking great questions. And you’ve invested so much serious thought and effort into your practicing that I wanted to honor your question with a proper response.
Incidentally, this video will walk you through a musical demonstration of the phenomenon I described above where staying in the 2- chord for a long time will cause us to feel it as the new tonal center:
I hope that some of this has stimulated new connections or clarity for you. If you want to discuss it further, please feel free to post more. Thanks for the great question! - David