Any tips or strategies that you guys would like to share on how you determine the chord progression in a song or a musical composition ? Though I understand chord progressions and the musical theory behind them, I have problems actually determining or hearing the chord progressions when I listening to music.

  • what problems specifically? can you hear basic progressions like IV V I? Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 14:23

5 Answers 5


Having spent many happy years playing along to the radio and t.v., just doing that is my first recommendation!

Once the key of a song has been established, life isn't that difficult. Initially, listen to where a song feels at rest, at home, could end there. That chord at that point is usually the root/key chord. Nine times out of ten, it'll be major.

I don't do this, but you may find it useful. Set out a number of 'bars' on a paper, maybe four per line - that's often the pattern music follows. As the song plays, put 'I' in each of the bars that you think sound like 'home'. They come quite frequently - bit like us, they like home!

That leaves empty bars to start to fill. Let's examine options - in diatonic songs. I, IV and V are the majors. ii, iii and vi the minors. Listen to the song again, and you'll hear when a chord in one bar changes to another in the next bar. If it's after a 'I' bar, and it's another major, there's a 50:50. It'll generally be IV or V. V most often takes the harmony straight to I, so there may be a clue in the next bar. To me, IV sounds like it's gone up a bit, V like it's gone up a lot, or down a bit. (That's all to do with intervals, not up for discussion here).

If a missing chord sounds minor, there's a 33% chance of merely guessing. Agan, though, by listening to it from the preceding bar and following bar aspect, there are clues. If it sounds similar to I, then it's likely vi. Similar to IV - ii, similar to V - iii.

Notice I leave out the viio as it's not used very much at all in pop songs.

The fly in the ointment for me is when we move from triads to four note chords. iii can sound uncannily like Imaj7. That's where John's method of listening to the bass comes it - although it's a good idea all through - as the bass is almost duty bound - in songs - to play root on most bars, usually on beat one.

That's a starter for you. Use the radio, CDs, etc. At least nowadays, there's no need to re-tune for each song, as there was in the '60s...

  • Great advice, something I have done a lot over the years and wish I had mentioned myself! This has the added benefit of learning to groove and lock in with a (hopefully) solid track. Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 14:45

Without knowing whether having problems means it’s very difficult for you or you can’t do it at all I would suggest focusing on the bass and the melody. Try to figure out the bass line or root movement of the bass and the melody of a song first. Work no more than 4 or 8 bars at a time. The combination of these two things will give you some insight into what the key and harmony is. Draw up a basic road map of the bass and melody notes so you can see how they relate to each other. From there try and determine the quality of individual chords, do they sound major or minor? See if the melody notes offer a clue. An F bass with an A melody note will likely be some type of F major chord for example. Keep in mind that sometimes the bass doesn’t play the root of the chord but in those cases it’s usually the 3rd or 5th.

Play and learn the sounds of simple chord progressions like 1-4-5, 1-6-4-5, 1-6-2-5, 2-5-1-6, 1-4-6-5 and see if you can begin to recognize these patterns in songs you already are familiar with.


LISTEN to the song. Over and over. Maybe slowed down, and in short sections. (There's a little program called Transcribe! that has all the tools you'll need in one convenient package, I highly recommend it.)

Work out the bass note. Work out the other notes in the chord. Tip - it can be easier to tell what notes AREN'T there! Narrow your options.

A knowledge of music theory helps by suggesting what the possibilities are. But be careful - you may encounter a chord that ISN'T within your current knowledge. If you only know triads and sevenths, or you think all chords in a song should be in one scale, you're going to hit some obstacles!


Depending on what kind of music you like and whether you are working up an arrangement of a particular song, or attempting to duplicate an already released song, or even attending a jam session and wishing to participate, there are a few different methods to decide which chords to play. Figuring chords for a Jazz piece can get pretty advanced and it usually requires a pretty good understanding of how harmony works. Arranging can also require a solid background in harmony and ear training to have a sense of what sounds good and what fails. Jam sessions allow us to see what others are playing and that can help us to know which chords to play ourselves, but we need to recognize immediately the fingering patterns that other players are inclined to use when chording. This can take a while to get the hang of it. Personally speaking, the method that was most helpful to me was to just play along with the stereo. I quickly learned to figure which key the music was in and from there I understood there were 7 main triads to choose from. After a little trial and error I began to recognize what fit and what didn't. After working on this method for a while I began to anticipate where the chord changes would happen and which chords to use when they changed. I started hearing the changes before they actually happened. I've continued to develop from there, but that's the description of how it worked for me.


There could be all sorts of chord substitutions, extensions, etc that create deviations from the norm. But western music is really pretty simple. The most common movements within a key are I-->IV and back, and I-->V and back, also in there is IV-->V and back. If you play an instrument I'd recommend playing these simple cadences over and over and finding examples of classical and modern music that use them. You question could be interpreted in one of two ways. The first being how do you hear chords. If you can identify each chord as it comes, A-7, Db7(b9), C^o, etc, then you have the "progression". The other interpretation is how do you identify the structure of a song as you listen. In this case I would say the goal is to listen for a few seconds and be able to say "Ah, that's a 12 bar blues" or "Rhythm Changes! again?". The reason these are slightly different is (1) that identifying the chords doesn't necessarily id a progression from a set of famous or common progressions, and (2) there are many variation of common progressions that perhaps don't deserve separate names. There are 100s of ways to play the 12 bar blues but most of us would just say "Ah, that's a 12 bar blues" regardless of the variation.

Other than a good amount of ear training I'd recommend the following.

  1. Learn to recognize the circle progression, just moving up 4ths diatonically from I back to I, I-->IV-->vii-->iii-->vi-->ii-->V-->I. This contains a string of ii-V's in it as well as common cycle extensions like iii-->vi-->ii-->V-->I.

  2. Lear the same in Harmonic minor. Learn to recognize the minor ii-V-i, etc.

  3. Pay attention to the most common changes mentioned in the beginning of the answer, I-->IV, I-->V, etc in major and minor keys.

  4. Listen to the melody. Typically a progression supports a melody. If the melody like starts on the I then seems to jump after a while there is likely a "change". In most classical western music we choose harmony notes based on the melody and what chord tones form the key are prevalent in a phrase. Ideally, you should be able to glean the progression from listening to the melody, melodies contain changes.

  5. Become familiar with the most commonly used song architectures, like 12 bar blues, 8 bar blues, Rhythm changes, circle of 4ths, etc. There is a hand full in Jazz that are in any book. Classical music too has common sets of changes or song styles.

It's a matter of pattern recognition so if you devote some time to memorizing basic patterns you are in a good position to identify a large chunk of a progression quickly then focus on the outliers. For example not every 12 bar song is the blues. There is a specific architecture. There is a move from I to IV at measure 5, then back to I at measure 7. In the last 4 bars the V will make an appearance and there may be a "turn around". So as you listen to a blues tune you pick up the main features on a first listen. A composer may have wanted to move into the IV with a few extra chords before it in measure 4. Based on an understanding of music theory the choice will most likely be contained in the circle of 4ths (or 5ths). Cycle extensions typically come out of the circle progression.

Lastly, get familiar with substitutions and functional harmony. This helps to simply things.

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