Harmony Ear Training Exercise 5: Chord Progressions

Now that you know how chords fit with melodies, I’d like to explain a common pattern. In a lot of music, there is a repetitive pattern of three or four chords. Often this pattern is repeated for the whole song while different melodies and lyrics are put on top. The sequence of chords is sometimes called the “chord progression.” For example, a common chord progression is C, G, Am, F. You can play this sequence of chords over and over, and sing or play different melodies on top, and this is the basic structure of a typical modern pop or folk song. There are many different chord progressions to choose from, some more complicated than others, and infinite possibilities for the melody. The art of experimenting with this structure is a very worthwhile pursuit.

Learning to identify chord progressions by ear gives you the ability to improvise and play by ear using chord progressions. I learned how to identify chord progressions by ear through a long process of playing many songs. I did not set out to be able to identify chord progressions, but after years of playing them, I noticed that I could learn them by ear. I will try to break this process down so you can learn this skill faster than I did. For now, we’ll focus on chord progressions that stay within a scale.

Before Learning Chord Progressions by Ear

First, I suggest you simply play a lot of chord progressions. Find an instrument you can play chords on (piano, guitar, and ukulele are good options), and learn songs with simple chord progressions. Most modern pop and folk songs have simple chord progressions, so find some songs you like and learn the chords. You can find the chords to most songs on the internet, as well as tutorials on how to play those chords. While you play the chords, listen closely and take note of where the chords fall in the scale of the song. You might be playing a G major chord, but is it the one-chord? Or is it the four-chord? Or maybe the song is in a minor key and G is the six-chord? Where does G fit into the scale of the song?

Just like we looked at scales in terms of numbers, you’ll need to analyze the chords of a song in terms of numbers or roman numerals. For example, you might be playing a chord progression that goes G, D, Em, C. You might learn another song that goes Bb, F, Gm, Eb. If we look at how these chords relate to one another, we see that these two chord progressions are the same. Both of these chord progressions are I, V, VIm, IV progressions. Realizing that these two chord progressions use the same pattern allows you to learn what this pattern sounds like. (The song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey uses the I, V, VIm, IV pattern in the key of E major.)

If you’ve learned a chord progression, but don’t know how to figure out where the chords fit in a scale, go back and read the sections titled “Chords in the Major Scale” and “Chords in the Minor Scale”. If you still have trouble figuring out where the chords fit, it’s possible that the chords don’t all fit into one scale. Take note, because that’s an ear training challenge that should be tackled once you are comfortable with learning chord progressions within a scale.

Once you are confident of where each chord fits in the scale, you can play chord progressions while asking yourself “What does it sound like when we go to the four-chord? And the six-chord?” And so on for all of the chords in the scale. In this way you can get used to how these chords sound in relationship to each other. If you keep doing this for long enough, eventually you’ll be able to learn chord progressions by ear.

Strategies for Learning Chord Progressions by Ear

If you’ve played a lot of chord progressions, and you know where they chords fit within the scale, it’s time to start learning them by ear. Find a song you think has a simple chord progression (again, folk and pop are safe bets) and try to figure out the chords without searching for the chords on the internet. There are a few different approaches you can take to this.

In this process, we are trying to get accustomed to how the whole chord sounds, regardless of inversions. To do this we have to learn what the chord sounds like as a whole, rather than picking out specific notes in the chord. Even though there are many different ways to play a one-chord, they all sound like a one-chord. When I’m listening to a song and figuring out the chords, I don’t know which inversion they are playing. I just know that it sounds like a one-chord.

Another tool that can help you learn chord progressions by ear is to listen for the bass note. If the song has a bass guitar, listen for that. You can use your melody ear training skill to figure out where the bass note fits in the scale. Usually, the bass player plays the root of the chord on beat one. If you know the scale of the song (and if the chords stick to the scale), you’ll easily be able to figure out the chord that fits with the bass note. But this method isn’t fool-proof. It can be hard to hear the bass note, especially for people who are not used to playing or singing notes that low. And, the bass note is not always the root of the chord, so you might find yourself on the wrong track. It is good to combine this method with other methods.

You can also find clues to the chords by listening to the melody. Remember that melody notes usually fit with the chord. So if you can figure out a melody note, you know that the chord probably has that note in it. The advantage of this method is that the melody is the easiest thing to hear in a song. The disadvantage is that the melody doesn’t always fit with the chord. Notes in the melody that don’t fit the chord are usually de-emphasized, but not always. The melody can provide good clues, but it’s not an exact science.

Finally, if your knowledge of how chords are constructed is good, then you can try to hear individual notes within the chord. If you are listening to a song with acoustic guitar strumming chords, you can listen closely to the guitar and try to find one or two specific notes they are playing. You can then use your melody ear training ability to figure out where those notes fit in the scale. Then you can use your knowledge of chords to figure out the possible chords that use that note. If you hear the guitar playing the third note of a major scale, then you could guess that they might be playing the one-, three-, or six-chord. If you hear the third and first note of a major scale at the same time, you narrow it down to either the one-chord or the six-chord. I would recommend this method only as a last resort.

To summarize, when you are trying to learn a chord progression by ear start by listening to the overall sound of the chord to see if you recognize it as sounding like a one-chord, or any other chord you are used to. If you are still unsure, listen for the bass note. The bass note on beat one is usually the root of the chord. You can get more clues by checking the melody to see which chords would fit with the melody. If all of that doesn’t work, try to listen closely to the instrument that is playing the chords. Try to hear individual notes they are playing, and put those notes together to make a chord. Simple, right? It will get easier over time.