Learn to Hear Chords - The Chords Haven Way



I have met people who hail ‘hearing chords’ as a superpower. No it’s not.


Spawning bone claws from your knuckles is. Generating massive laser beams from your eyes is. But ‘hearing chords’ is not.


At most, it is a skill that requires great dedication to learn. But the key is… it can be learned.


In this 'manual', I’ll be sharing 10 moves (hiyak!) that will help you to advance your craft of 'hearing chords'.


Enjoy. *martial arts greetings*


#1 Start with the melody


There’s an old saying that goes: one must learn to walk before learning to fly.


While the advanced goal of learning to play by ear is to be able to work out the chords of a song, one must first learn to figure out the notes in the melody.


Start by transcribing the melodies to your favourite songs. To ‘transcribe’ means to figure out and write down the notes to a piece of music. It need not be in standard musical notation.



Transcribe the melody of Pachelbel's Canon in D. It is a good exercise for the piece starts off with a simple melody that transforms into slightly more complicated phrases later on.


For a greater challenge, select an unfamiliar piece of music so that you will recruit more of your hearing in the task.


#2 Hum the note


For beginners, you may be stumbled by how fleeting the notes actually stay in your mind.


You hear a note and the very next second: what was the note again?


By humming out a note, you can prolong the retention of the pitch in your mind such that you can match it to a note on your piano or guitar.


Even for veterans, humming out a note can be useful for fast-playing riffs or when multiple notes are played all at once!


#3 Figure out the key


The very first thing that I do when working out the chords to a song is to figure out the key!


How? By playing a few notes of the melody and noting the sharps (♯) or flats (♭) present.


The next thing that I do, which is probably frowned upon by expert musicians, is to use the magical Capo to transform the key of the song to either C or G major.


Why? ‘cos the chords in C and G major key are easy to play!


Key (Major) Notes Capo/ Transposed Key
C No sharps or flats ---
C# A# C# D# F# G# Capo 1 - Play C
D C# F# Capo 2 - Play C
D# D# G# A# Capo 3 - Play C
E C# D# F# G# Capo 4 - Play C
F A# Capo 5 - Play C
F# D# G# A# Capo 6 - Play C
G F# ---
G# G# A# C# D# Capo 1 - Play G
A C# F# G# Capo 2 - Play G
A# A# D# Capo 3 - Play G
B A# C# D# F# G# Capo 4 - Play G


#4 Note the patterns


In contemporary/ pop music, we often encounter patterns i.e. 20% of chord progressions are used in 80% of the songs.


An awareness of these patterns/ phrases will enable you to predict chords, cutting your work by half when working out the chords to songs.


Here's one that I remember fondly from my early years:


lC lG lAm lEm lF lC lDm lG l


Another common sequence used in contemporary music is that of ascending or descending bass lines.


lC lG/B lAm7 lAm7/G l
(bass descends from C → B → A → G)


lDm7 lC/E lF lG l
(bass ascends from D → E → F → G)


#5 Practice transposing


To transpose a song means to play a song in a different key. For that, you will need to 'shift' the chords accordingly.


It is simple. Just move the chords up or down by the number of semitones involved.


Example: transposing the chord sequence shown earlier from the C key to the D key i.e. raise 2 semitones (C → D, Em → F#m since there is only one semitone from E to F) gives:


lD lA lBm lF#m lG lD lEm lA l


By transposing known sequences, you will become more familiar with the common chords as well as patterns associated with different keys (See #4).




Transpose the chord sequence from the C key to the G key.


#6 Figure out the diatonic chords


For a particular key (scale), there are chords that sound ‘right’. This chords are called diatonic chords.


Figuring out the diatonic chords for the key of a song can help in narrowing down the possible chords in a song.


Diatonic chords can be found using the formula (for major scale):


1 2 3 4 5 6 7
major minor minor major major minor diminished


Example: The diatonic chords in the C major scale are:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7
major minor minor major major minor diminished
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim


#7 Find the root (bass) note


You know I’m all ‘bout the bass ‘bout the bass... No treble.


This is the single most helpful move in the figuring out of chords.


Very crudely put, the root note is the ‘letter’ we use to name a chord. So the root note for an A minor chord is A. The root note is often (but not always) played as the bass note.


Figuring out the bass note and matching it your list of diatonic chords will often lead you to the identity of the chord.


Example: For a song in the C key, a bass note of D is detected. By checking with the list of diatonic chords, the chord is likely to be Dm.


Note: A common exception to this ‘rule’ is that of slash chords. For slash chords, it helps to remember the sequence of ascending/ descending bass runs.


#8 Tune in to the 'feeel'.


Different types of chords invokes different ‘feeel’. A simple distinction is that of a major and minor chord.


Try playing a major chord and then the minor counterpart e.g. A major and A minor.


Do they sound different to you? How exactly? The general saying is that major chords sound happy while minor chords sound sad.


Now try playing other types of chords (major 7, 7, minor 7) and tune in the 'feeel' for the different types of chords. Once you acquire the 'feeel' of the different chords, you will be able to make more precise identification of chords.


#9 Level up with 'clean' songs.


To build sensitivity in your hearing, I would suggest working on 'clean' songs.


So what are 'clean songs'? 'Clean' songs are those where the accompaniment or background is relatively clean i.e. acoustic or unplugged songs.


For such songs, the sequence of notes involved in each chord can be more easily detected which aids in the identification of the chord.


Example of 'clean' songs:


周杰倫 - 晴天


周杰倫 - 彩虹


田馥甄 - 小幸运


Richard Marx - Can’t Help Falling in Love

韦礼安 - 有没有


梁文音 - 哭过就好了


孙燕姿 - 遇见


张惠妹 - 解脱

蔡健雅 - 陌生人


范逸臣 - 除此之外


胡彦斌 - Waiting For You


梁靜茹 - 情歌


If you still find it impossible to hear the chords, here's a cheat code! Find the karaoke version of the song, switch to the channel where there’s only the background music (a.k.a minus 1) and knock yourself out.


Through repeated exposure, you will acquire a heightened sensitivity to the different pitches. You will then be able to sieve out interfering music and focus on the notes that make up the chords.


#10 Cross-check with reliable sources


In my earlier days, I would often cross-check my work with that from more reliable sources e.g. sheet music.


That allowed me to correct certain inaccuracies in my hearing and also identify certain chord sequences that had eluded me before.


Personally, I would credit #10 as the step that brought a quantum advancement to my craft.


So when you work out the chords to a song, you may want to cross-check with a somewhat reliable source: (*cough cough*) chords-haven.blogspot.sg.


That's all folks! The ball is in your court. *bow*.


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