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How To Identify Chord Progressions By Ear?

One of the more advanced skills for a musician is to identify chord progressions by ear. However, if you’re just starting out, don’t be afraid, it can definitely be done. It does take some time to learn though. If you’re up for the challenge, here are the simple steps to do so:

  1. Know the basic chords
  2. Learn the common progressions
  3. Listen to the bass notes
  4. Try humming the notes
  5. Predicting the next chord

Know the basic chords

If you know the most commonly used chords in songs, you can have a set of choices to select from when you’re trying to identify the chords. Depending on the music genre you’re in, the basic chords may only be a few.

For example, if we’re talking about modern Pop songs, you can actually identify a majority of songs with knowing only 4 chords! That sounds ridiculous, but let me show you the chords here:

Common Pop Song Chords in C Major:

C Major (C)C, E, G
G Major (G)G, B, D
A minor (Am)A, C, E
F Major (F)F, A, C

There are roman numerals and other names to call the above chords, but in this article, we will keep it relatively simple to follow.

After you’re familiar with the chords above, try to identify the chords for the following songs:

  • The Chainsmokers – “Closer”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna – “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Maroon Five – “She Will Be Loved”
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
  • Lady Gaga – “Poker Face”
  • Jason Mraz – “I’m Yours”

One thing to note is that the chords sound different in different keys. But the intervals are exactly the same. For example, in the key of C Major, if the chord progression is C-G-Am-F, in the key of D Major, the chord progression is D-A-Bm-G. When you listen to the chord progressions though, they should feel the same even if they’re in different keys.

If you’re interested in learning more basic chords found in Pop songs, here’s a more complete chart:

C Major (C)C, E, G
D minor (Dm)D, F, A
E minor (Em)E, G, B
F Major (F)F, A, C
G Major (G)G, B, D
A minor (Am)A, C, E
B diminished (Bdim)B, D, F

At a more advanced level, every single chord listed above can have variations. For example, if a “D” note is added to C Major, it turns into a Cadd9 chord. Or if an “E” note is added to F Major, it becomes Fmaj7. They add color and depth to your chord progressions. But if you’re just starting out, we recommend just using the basic chords above to identify the chords in songs. As too many chords can be overwhelming to memorize.

Learn the common progressions

After you learn the basic chords, it’s time to familiarize yourself with common chord progressions. You see, there are certain chord progressions that the audience loves most, especially in Pop music, and so unsurprisingly they are used more often.

A good exercise is to list down your favorite songs and write down their chord progressions. Have a look, do you see any songs sharing the same progressions? Time to learn them! Once you have an arsenal of common chord progressions, identifying chord progressions by ear becomes easier. That is because you won’t have to identify each individual chord, but rather listening to the overall progression.

Here’s a list of the most common chord progressions, in the key of C Major with Roman Numerals included:

  • C-G-Am-F (I-V-vi-IV)
  • C-G-Dm-F (I-V-ii-IV)
  • C-Am-F-G (I-vi-IV-V)
  • C-Em-F-G (I-iii-IV-V)
  • C-F-Am-G (I-IV-vi-V)
  • F-C-G-Am (IV-I-V-vi)
  • F-G-Em-Am (IV-V-iii-vi)
  • F-G-Am-G (IV-V-vi-V)
  • F-G-Am-C (IV-V-vi-I)
  • Am-F-C-G (vi-IV-I-V)
  • Am-Em-F-G (vi-iii-IV-V)
  • Am-G-F-G (vi-V-IV-V)
  • Am-C-G-F (vi-I-V-IV)

Chord progressions may be shorter or longer than 4 chords. Heck, some even have only 1 chord for the whole chorus! But to keep it simple, we recommend learning these chord progressions using 3 chords first, then venture out to learn more.

Listen to the bass notes

At the most fundamental level, chords are created by playing a “triad”, meaning 3 notes played at once. In a song, the bass usually plays the lowest note of the triad (root position). So by identifying the bass note, you can then get the actual chord played quite easily.

For example, in the key of C Major, I’m playing the F Major chord, with notes F-A-C. If I can identify the lowest note to be F, and it sounds like a Major chord, I then know it’s F Major.

This technique can be used quite accurately. However, it is much harder when a walking bass is played. Since the bass is constantly moving around. In that case, you can try other techniques mentioned in this article.

Try humming the notes

If you aren’t able to identify the chord progression, try to break the chords up. What can you hear at the moment? Try humming the note. What are the other notes that form the same chord? Try humming those. If you can identify at least 3 notes, you can guess with high accuracy as to what the chord is.

I personally use this technique a lot when identifying less common chords. I usually start with the lowest note I can hear and work my way up. Of course, if you’re trying to identify the chords on the fly, you may not be able to keep up. So this technique works best if you’re in a situation where you can pause and rewind the recording.

Predicting the next chord

After some practice using the methods listed above, you should be able to predict the next chords while listening to a song. Since many chord progressions used in modern songs are the same, or with slight variations, you can do this with great accuracy.

This technique of course is quite advanced, and it will come naturally to you. So I recommend whenever you’re listening to songs, practice identifying the chord progressions by ear. Even if you’re not able to, you’re actually training your ears to dissect the sounds.

For example, if I know the song is playing the chords I-vi-IV, I know that the chance of the next note being “V” is extremely high. Or if a song is playing IV-V-vi, if the next chord is “V” or “I” I wouldn’t be surprised.

It doesn’t only apply to chord progressions with only 4 chords, but any chord progression. Try it out! Try to predict what the next chord may be and see if you’re accurate. With enough practice, if you’re listening to modern Pop songs, in particular, you should be able to predict the next chords with quite a high certainty.

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