How to Identify Chord Progressions By Ear While Playing

Adults Can Learn to Identify Chord Progressions!

Some of my adult students wonder if it is too late for them to develop a keen musical ear. They are concerned that they’ll never be able to hear chord progressions in real time, while playing. One in particular wants to be able to jam with his friends, and follow along by ear on songs he hasn’t learned yet. He doesn’t want to be scrambling through online chord charts that might be incorrect anyway. He wants to sit down with his pals and learn the chords on his guitar while they are playing.

Happy rock quartet jamming out.

But fear not! It is not too late to open your ears and build your ear abilities! As adults, we often suffer from this myth: We can’t learn things later that many people learned earlier in life. We are more likely to rush through foundational skills in an effort to get to the more advanced and practical stuff. With ear training, this is especially important: We can start later in life, and we also need to master foundations like hearing and singing the major scale before going on to more advanced material.

Identifying Chords In Real Time, While Playing

Here is a simple technique designed to get you into the thick of a jam session. This approach is one of many, and it’s for when the other people in the group know the chords, and you want to follow along, keep up, and hold your own! (Remember, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

So, you could say this is a jamming and improv practice that gets you immersed in music making quickly, even if you feel like you don’t know what you are doing. The slight trade-off is that you will not be playing full chords right away. Instead, you’ll be improvising your own part that goes with the rest of the music. It’s great for sitting in and following a long.

Triads Contain Either do or ti, But Not Both

This isn’t entirely true, but it’s close enough to make this technique useful.

This Works Best If…

  1. You can distinguish do from ti easily. (You’ll be using your instrument to do this, and if you don’t think you have this down yet, you’ll get better at it as you go!)
  2. You understand what chords belong to the key you are in.
  3. You know which of those chords contain do and which ones contain ti.

Before the song starts:

  1. Find out the key. (aka, “Where is do?) For this, we’ll be in the key of C.
  2. Find do on your instrument. If I’m playing guitar, I’ll find that note on the high E-string or the B-string.
  3. Separately through the chords that you know that contain do those that contain ti in that key.

Triads Containing do

In a major scale, the do triads are
C (containing do-mi-so)
Am (containing la-do-mi)
F (fa-la-do)

keyboard diagram with chords containing "do" in the key of C-major

Triads Containing ti

and the ti triads are
G (so-ti-re)
Em (mi-so-ti)
B° (ti-re-fa)

(This leaves out only the ii chord, D-. So we’ll put a pin in that one for now.)

keyboard diagram with chords containing "ti" in the key of C-major

You’re only a half-step away from the right answer.

Now, when you hear a bandmate play a chord…

  1. Determine if it contains ti or do. You can do this by playing either one on your instrument. If you hear it in the harmony that surrounds you, you’ve got one out of three tones!
  2. If it contains do, you’ll know that it is either a C, A-, or F chord. Play one and listen if it works. (You have a 33% chance of being right!)
  3. If it contains ti, you’ll know that it is either a G, E-, or B° chord. Play one and listen if it works.

When I’m in a casual jam session playing ukulele (not my main instrument), I use the fact that the chords come around and around, following the form of the song. I rock out on one string, performing the above test, using that one string as my ear-guide… playing either do or ti. And as I do that, I’m quickly memorizing the way the chords follow one another through that section. After a time or two through that, I’ve pretty much got it.

The more I teach ear training, the more I find that different strategies work better in different contexts. This is a strategy that I think works pretty well when I’m in a live jamming environment, where I need to learn the chords without interrupting the flow of the music, and where I can be in the background of the musical texture until I feel confident.

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