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In need of help figuring out songs by ear.


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  • In need of help figuring out songs by ear.

    I've got figuring out solos, and melodies down, but chords on the other hand... I can't figure out chords by ear to save my life! Any tips on doing this?

  • #2

    I'f I'm stuck I try to pick out one tone at a time - usually I can tell if that one tone is in the given chord.  Then build it up from there.  Maybe try starting from the highest or lowest note in the chord and build inwards.

    Multiple award winning blues/rock/country at http://www.zeyerband.com or http://www.reverbnation.com/zeyer.Check my solo (instrumental rock) projects at: http://www.reverbnation.com/vincedickinson"Music is like the English language - it's just full of rules that need to be broken or you aren't hip.""It doesn't take talent to upgrade your playing. It takes patience" - Kenny Werner


    • #3

      Note by note, as BydoEmpire says.

      Find any single note that sounds OK with the chord, that blends with it.  The more of those you can find, the more you'll zero in on what the chord is. (Most chords only have 3 different notes.)

      What melody notes are over the chord? Most of those will probably be in the chord?

      Listen for the bass: that's probably the chord root (not always, but most of the time).  If you can't hear the bass, use software to raise the octave (I use Transcribe, which is excellent for many other transcription tasks).  When the track is played an octave higher, it turns into chipmunk music, but the bass comes out loud and clear in the same register as guitar.

      Once you have a bass note, you only have to determine if the chord is major or minor. (There are other possibilities, but those are the main ones.)  A little key theory will help you there. Eg, if the key is A, and the bass is B, the chord is most likely to be Bm, not B major. 

      Again, be aware that exceptions are always possible. Test out your first guess, and if it sounds wrong it probably is.

      If it's only slightly wrong, maybe the chord has some kind of added note, like a 7th, or sus4 or sus2.

      Knowing how keys work should be helpful in most cases.  Finding the key is about listening for a note and chord that sounds like the gravitational centre, or "home" of the song.  In most songs, the key chord is the first and last chord, which makes it easy.  If the first and last chord are different, the last chord (that the song finishes on) is the best bet.

      Once you have that chord, you should have an idea of what all the other chords are likely to be.

      So if the key is A major, you should expect to find D and E, maybe F#m or Bm, maybe G (a common borrowed bVII chord).  Other possibilities would be C#m; C or F (in heavy rock); B(7); Dm.  The last 4 are not "diatonic" to A major, and have a distinctive sound, but are still quite common.

      The more complicated the song, the more sections it has, the more likely you'll find other chords. Perhaps there's a modulation (key change) in one of the sections.

      The bass line is still your prime guide here.  Listen out for bass lines that move up or down a scale, because these will probably not ALL be chord root notes.  Where a bass pumps away on one note for  while, that's a pretty safe bet to be a chord root.  Where it "walks" up and down an arpeggio, the note on beat 1 is probably the root.  If it descends a scale slowly, one or 2 notes per bar, some will be chord roots, others are most likely the 3rd or 5th of the chord at that point.  Occasionally a bass might play the 7th of a chord, but not for long.

      IOW, there are several strategies:

      1. BASS. Chord root? or (more rarely) 3rd, 5th or 7th? What chord type might it be?

      2. KEY. What chord would you expect it to be at that point? (out of the set of chords in the key) Tip: if a chord sounds surprising or dramatic, it may be a "chromatic" chord from outside the key: many possibilities, but only a few common ones (bVII, bVI, bIII, minor iv, major II, III or VI).

      3. MELODY. Add these notes to the bass note. What chord do they suggest? (Not every melody note has to be in the chord, but they should offer good pointers to chords you can then test out.)

      4. EAR.  Play along with the track, using whatever guess(es) the above three sources suggest.


      I strongly recommend software assistance, such as: http://www.seventhstring.com/

      This not only allows things like raising the octave to hear the bass, but looping single chords so you can play along until you find something that matches. It will also - of course - slow down to make fast passages easier to hear (although that's rarely necessary for chords).



      • BydoEmpire
        BydoEmpire commented
        Editing a comment

        A couple weeks ago I was trying to figure out the chord progression for "Great Gig In The Sky," which is inherently a littel tougher for me since it's a piano part and my ears aren't as good with that.  So I had it down, except for the very first chord.  I knew it was a B minor of some type - B-7?  Nope.  B-b5? Nope.   B-7b9?  I was trying different inversions... Nope... after a couple of minutes, take a step back, listen... oh, it's just a plain old B minor, no 7th, nothing.  Simple.  Sometimes the brain gets in the way of the ears.  I just *assumed* it had to be something more complicated than it was.