How To Hear The Difference Between Two Common Chord Progressions

Many of the most common chord progressions sound very similar, especially if you don’t habitually listen tonally. With practice, you’ll find yourself automatically focusing your listening attention at the things that make the subtle differences stand out. Here is one step toward how to hear the difference between two common chord progressions.

Learning to hear and recognize chord progressions makes playing in informal settings more fun and relaxed. If you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to a chord chart, your mind will have more energy to listen and interact with the other players. Playing music offers you more accessible joy when you can feel relaxed and comfortable, listening and playing in equal measure. You want to easily enter situations where you are learning the chords on the fly while listening.

There are many ways to do this, and this guy has written extensively about it. He’s got a lot of evidence to back him up, and I encourage you to check out his work. His approaches are fueled by the same evidence-based research that have permeated ear training pedagogy since Gary Karpinski pulled it all together in his book Aural Skills Acquistion.

Listening only for root movement and chord quality may lead you astray

The two common chord progressions are these: I – IV (“one to four”) and V – I (“five to one”). Both progressions are from a major chord to another major chord, and both have root movement down a fifth.

keyboard diagram showing how the chord progression I-IV sounds the same as V-I unless you are hearing tonally.

The more acute your tonal awareness, the more common chord progressions sound distinct

Here’s the trick, and it’s really quite simple: focus your ear on do. This tone is the “tonal center” of any key. Think of it as a compass heading. You always want to be aware of do. (More about finding do.)

Inside of a tonal context, how do they differ? V-I contains ti-do. I-IV does not. Listen for that melodic motion (what Karpinski calls “salient voice leading) to give you the instant answer!

There are two deceptively simple chord progressions that are easy to confuse. You hear them all the time, but they sound identical unless you are hearing tonally. If you are only listening for intervals and chord qualities, you need to learn this simple trick to get past the difficulty. Then you’ll be hearing and recognizing them in real time!

Try this:

When you hear that tonic note, focus on it and sing it (do) or hum it. Doesn’t matter. Just lock your laser ears on the tonic.

If the any of the chords pull your voice-ear down to ti, you’ll know for certain that it is a V chord (or a iii or a vii°, but it doesn’t sound like these are in the mix of confusion for you right now).

If the chords don’t, and you can maintain the do sound in your voice-ear, then you’ll know you’re hearing a I or a IV chord (or a vi chord, but again).

So, now you can rely both on listening to the quality of the chord as you may have been doing, and also hearing what we call “salient voice leading”… noticing the hidden melodies that tell you which chords are involved.

Here’s this trick in a nutshell: Use the tension between ti and do. It will guide your ear to clearly hear the difference between these two common chord progressions.

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