how do you guys figure out chords in a song by ear?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by rich2k4, Feb 21, 2009.

  1. rich2k4

    rich2k4 Supporting Member

    Mar 5, 2005
    this is one thing (out of many things) that i think would really take me to the next level guitar wise.

    i like to transcribe stuff by ear from time to time. mostly solos

    if its a blues tune, i already know the chords and the format.

    but i am also interested in jazz/rock fusion stuff, and i don't know the chords that are being played underneath the solos. so, this leads me to learn the solo, and not really get anything from it, other then building chops.

    what are some good ways to start getting me used to recognizing chords in songs by ear?
  2. JimmyD

    JimmyD Member

    May 19, 2004
    Listen for the bass line. 95% of the time they will play the root at some point in the measure so you have a great chance to build the chord quality from their.

    Beware the Slash chord like G/A etc. That can twist your ear a bit though it's an easy sound to hear. That chord above is used as a 5 chord in alot of pop type music.

  3. james russell

    james russell Silver Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2006
    Northern CA
    I agree. If the chord is not obvious, then I listen to the bass, and the quality of the chord (Major, minor, Dominant, Dim, or Aug). Once you have the chord type and root, then you can go for finding the extensions that make it purty.

    You have to be willing to invest some time in trial and error, but it's a skill that develops over time. You get faster and more accurate from practice (like most things worth doing). Transcribe everything you like and your ear will get better and better.

    Also, expand your chord vocabulary by learning tunes with chords that are new to you. When your vocabulary is bigger your ear hears those sounds as being familiar, and you recognize them in other contexts.

    Keep at it, it's a very worthwhile skill which will make you a better muscian in every way.



    P.S. I've been transcribing tunes by ear for forty years, and I feel like I've always got lots of room to improve. And it's a blast. It just feels so good every time you find new musical moves.
  4. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

    Jan 4, 2002
    The Greater San Jose Metroplex
    Sometimes the melody is outlining the chord, too. It's not a sure thing, especially in fusion-y kinds of music, but it's place to start, anyway.
  5. tjmicsak

    tjmicsak Member

    Aug 17, 2008
    Webster, NY
    This is also a listening process. Every chord in it's various voicing and inversion is still unique in sound. You just have to recognize them over time by ear and if it helps play them back over and over while picking out each of the composite notes and add them to your suspected chord until it matches. Try to hear the differences in how the same notes sound on different strings as well.
  6. stevel

    stevel Member

    Apr 6, 2008
    Hampton Roads, Virginia
    You might also try some "slow downer" or "trancribe" type software.

    While it's "cheating" to a degree, it gives you the time to develop your ear.

    What you can do is repeat a note, or chord - you loop it and it will play over and over - and while annoying, it makes it easier to pull out individual notes.

    It also helps to really know your chords!

    You can sit there and pick out a chord note-by-note, but if you pick out an Ab and an Eb, and you know that the most likely chords to contain those notes would be Ab major or minor - then you can check if it's C or Cb present. Then if you know the Ab7 types of chord, you can check to see if there's a 7th present, and if so, which type it makes.

    Obviously, if could be Fm7 or EM7, but you'd look for F or E to be present that helps you out.

    You should also obviously play the chords - if you get used to the way a 7b9 sounds, or an augmented chord sounds, they'll be easier to pick out (i.e. less trial and error). The more chords you have in your ear, the easier it will be to recognize that sound - especially in guitar parts.

  7. Lucidology

    Lucidology Member

    Aug 14, 2006
    Monterey, CA
    I too always start with the bass line(s)...
    Knowing that the bass isn't necessarily the root of the chord ...
    And sometimes realize it's just a pedal tone groove for the chords moving over the top ...
  8. JonR

    JonR Member

    Sep 24, 2007
    Basically, what stevel said... ;)

    ...and don't forget the melody! First thing with any transcription is write out the melody, the "head" of the tune.
    Then the bass line. These two together will point to the likely chords, or at least limit the options. And you can always listen for the odd note in the backing too. (As well as experimenting by playing along of course.)

    The chords are likely to be more clearly enunciated in the head than in the solos, too. Often in solos accompanists strip down the harmony somewhat to free soloists a bit more. And the bass might start walking around - although it will still usually hit the root on beat 1.

    In solos, when a chord isn't clear, solo phrases can help, because they may outline arpeggios. (Although some soloists will do this more than others...and some won't do it at all.)

    Here's the software I use:
    doesn't give you answers, but does help you listen, like an aural microscope ;) .
    (Actually it does suggest answers for chords, but I wouldn't trust it - it's chord-guessing function is the only non-wonderful part of the program.)

    Be aware that in jazz fusion, chord types can get very complex. You might get 9#11s, maj7#11s, 13sus4s, altered dominants, slash chords of various kinds, etc. Also be prepared for the chords not to fit in one key (for long). This is probably the hardest kind of music to transcribe!
    (Maybe cut your teeth on something more mainstream first...?)
  9. stevel

    stevel Member

    Apr 6, 2008
    Hampton Roads, Virginia

    I think I'm stealing, er, borrowing, er "quoting" that phrase for later use!

  10. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

    Apr 12, 2005
    we eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of beer

    Sure about that? Although it maybe a I7 IV7 V7, do you know the actual voicings being played? A lot of times it's easy to get the chord movements/function, but sometimes you're not really playing the tune unless you're playing the actual voicings. IMO this would be a good place to work on your ear, as you already know the changes.
  11. Austinrocks

    Austinrocks Member

    Feb 10, 2007
    I generally get the key pretty quickly just playing along on the gutiar does an F# work does a Bb work, really simple to do, so I know the major and minors chords that will work for that key, bass lines or just listening for the chord progressions, if I am not sure I will play on the E string to get the bass.
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2009
  12. funkycam

    funkycam Member

    Dec 3, 2005
    El Sobrante CA
    what everyone else said about the bass line.
    & then there are progressions that are used again & again.
    looping software can be a great help if you have a weird chord. just set it to loop on that .8 of a second of the chord.
    you can build up from the root too..minor, or major 3rd. dom 7th, alt etc

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