I have no problem identifying instruments, the different role they play in a song, the scales and modes of a song etcetera etcetera. I even understand harmony and the logics and theories surrounding it, I can identify the key of a song with no problem, however, when listening to songs, I CANNOT hear or identify the chord progressions in that song. Maybe I’m listening for it in the wrong way, or in the wrong place but I have been struggling with this for 2-3 years to NO AVAIL! I even posted previous questions regarding this and I still was unsuccessful with even the most thorough and insightful feedback and input from the users of this site! I’ve become so frustrated with this I can CRY!!!!!!!!

Please help! This by far is the most challenging aspect of my music theory development!

  • It would be helpful if you mention some of the ways you've tried to hear progressions. @Albrecht Hügli's answer is quite good, and you may also get some more specific suggestions based on what you've tried and what you haven't.
    – Aaron
    Jul 25, 2020 at 23:32
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Chord progressions
    – user70304
    Jul 26, 2020 at 0:20
  • 1
    Can you at least find whenever the tonic is used (or changed)?
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 26, 2020 at 12:47
  • which instrument do you play ?
    – BiAiB
    Jul 27, 2020 at 8:55
  • Curious to know, two years on, if any of the advice here has helped you.
    – Aaron
    Jul 20, 2022 at 0:03

7 Answers 7


First of all you should learn to identify what the bass is playing. This is not the pure chord progression but you can guess what it could be. If you sing the triad built on the root and it fits to the harmony, the bass plays the root and the assumption is correct. If not, the bass plays an inversion and there are a few possibilities.

If you analyze songs and their chord patterns from sheet music you will find that there are not so many different chord progressions, and that most songs use the same progression!

If you play and know some standard models like the I IV V I and its variations, the blues schema, I vi IV V, I vi ii V and its variations, the subdominant cadence I I7 IV iv ... you will identify them in all similar songs.

Look up for a list of the most usual chord models and compose your own songs in this progression. This is the best way to learn and internalize these progressions. And if they appear in another song you will recognize and identify them.

So play songs as many as you can, google by chords or play by ear and find the harmony by trial and error. Make your own cataloguization of songs with identical patterns. It is a long way but it will lead us to success.

Don't forget to play and practice the circle of fifths, a sequence of secondary 5ths or ii-V7 (you find them also in Bach's Preludes and other Baroque music.)


What sort of music are you listening to? Anything other than guitar-based popular music may not be based on a chord progression at all.

And a lot of current 'songs' are based on chords, but not 'progressions' as we've learnt them. (As witness the number of questions here asking 'how does this work?' and the convoluted attempts to find some logical reason for a random 'progression'. The truth is that any succession of chords - particularly when they're of the same harmonic density - can 'go' well together in today's musical world.)

If it IS a 'chord progression' sort of piece, listen to the bass line. The roots of the chords will very often be prominent. Then, here's a trick. Rather than trying to hear what notes ARE in a chord, list the ones that AREN'T. Get one of the programs that loop a section, maybe slow it down, isolate a chord and find the notes that definitely DON'T fit when you play them against the recording. It can narrow the field of possible chords a lot! And maybe don't worry too much about naming chords. Just write the notes down. Parsing them as 'chord symbol' names can wait.

  • Hey @Laurence thanks for your response! So IT IS possible for songs to NOT have a chord progression at all? I’m asking this because maybe the music and songs that I’ve been listening to don’t have chord progressions at all which is why I’m probably unable to identify it. Please get back to me regarding this comment. Thanks again!
    – BLG
    Jul 26, 2020 at 11:45
  • If you've been listening to 'songs' (like not 'classical' music) it's a fair bet that they were conceived as chords. Though there's some weird 'soundscape' stuff out there as well :-) Let's not try to make a Theory Of Everything though. I've expanded my answer a bit. Perhaps you could expand your question with examples of the sort of song you're having trouble with.
    – Laurence
    Jul 26, 2020 at 15:12

A big majority of pop-type songs use diatonic chords mainly. Those are chords made up from the notes in their scale. Knowing the 'chord families' will be of great help.

There are 3 major and 3 minor chords in each family. I, IV and V being major, and ii, iii and vi being minor. So, in, say, key C, the majors are C, F and G, the minors Dm, Em and Am. Were it a minor key - use vii as the tonic - the other 5 will remain the same as quoted. Each key will have its own set of 6, and without knowledge of those, you could be searching randomly amongst any of the 24 majors and minors. There is viio, but that occurs so infrequently, I'm omitting it for these purposes.

You say you can fing a key. That's a good start - it gives you the other 5 chord choices quickly. Most pop-type songs will start on the tonic, so if you can tell if that's major or minor it's a great help.

As Albrecht says, the bass note is very helpful. Bass players often play one on one. That's the root note on the first beat of a bar. A really good guide as to what the chord can be called, letter wise. Don't worry about inversions - they won't change what the chord is - Am is still Am in root, 1st ot 2nd inversion.

A good move is to write out the bars on paper, 4 er line, and while listening, put in the tonics as you go. Keep that 'feel' in you, and each time you hear a tonic bar, write it in. Listen to any bar after a tonic bar, and decide (if tonic's major) whether the next bar is major or minor. If it's major, then there's a 50:50 as to IV or V. Not bad odds! Even if it's minor, there's a 33% chance of guessing correctly.


The suggestions to first transcribe the bass line and the melody are spot on. This will often provide the framework of the chord progression, which, along with one's knowledge of music theory, will help work out the chords being heard.

Also learn to identify by ear individual chords in each of their inversions. A systematic way to approach this is:

  1. Learn to reliably identify each of the four basic triads in root position: major, minor, diminished, augmented.
  2. For each of the basic triads, learn to identify each of its inversions. I recommend not mixing chord-types at this stage, just identifying for each type which inversion is being played.
  3. Finally, be able to identify all four triads in their inversions when selected at random.
  4. A similar procedure will work for seventh chords (major, minor, dominant, half-diminished, fully-diminished).

My experience is that hearing chord extensions and alterations (9ths, #11s, etc.) comes from having a good enough sense of the basic chords and then working with the bass/melody transcription method. Extensions will come up enough that one learns their characteristic feel as they are encountered over time.

EDIT: A quick search for "chord ear training" gave as the first result a site that appears exactly designed for the process described above.


  • For most pop type songs, diminished and augmented chords will not feature, so being able to identify the sound of those is less important. The sevenths (yes, not triads!) are more relevant - and more common.
    – Tim
    Jul 26, 2020 at 5:33

In my experience, the ability to identify chords goes hand-in-hand with the ability to produce chords by ear. Through playing-by-ear exercises, the question "which chord am I hearing" is transformed into "what would I have to do to reproduce this chord". This cannot be achieved in one step, you learn to identify each chord role and type separately. First you learn to play two-chord tonic/dominant songs by ear, then three-chord songs tonic/subdominant/dominant, etc.

In your question you don't say what sort of songs and progressions you have trouble with. Maybe they're complicated and advanced songs which you cannot produce and identify by ear, before you've first learned to produce and identify simpler and more elementary songs.

Surely there must be something that you can hear and distinguish? The difference between tonic and dominant chords? A song or progression that only has C major and G major chords, can you reproduce that by ear? If yes, then how about songs that have C, F and G? If yes, then can you do C, Am, F, G? If yes, then how about C, Am, F, Dm, G? Etc. etc. There's a difficulty hierarchy you have to follow step by step. You cannot get all the way from zero to virtuosity in one step.


There is a lot of good advice here already. I have one piece to add: keep sight of the "big picture." Often we can tie ourselves in knots as we try to hyper-analyze small details of chords and progressions, but if we've already identified the broad outlines of where the music is going, we can more easily explain the minute details. To use an architectural analogy, if you want to know "what's the purpose of this 2x4," instead of looking closely at the piece of wood, you need to first be aware that the walls hold up the roof and rest on the floor, and then think about where the 2x4 is within that structure.

If we're trying to identify "chord progressions," then we're probably playing by the general rules of tonal harmony (as does 99.99% of the music we make and consume). That means that (as Heinrich Schenker would tell us)everything boils down to "I - V - I." Everything is on a journey away from the tonic, the "home," to the dominant, and back to the tonic. So look for the big V. The big V, mind you, not just every little V. Look for cadences: the punctuation at the end of musical sentences or clauses, the punchlines of musical jokes. These are the "supporting walls" of the musical structure. Find these, and then they'll help make sense of the details in between.


Read about music theory,chord progressions, and finally ear training.Play as many songs as you can.

  • 1
    Hi, Samar, and welcome to the site. You'll see, after reading a few answers, that we try to be as specific as possible with answers. Yours is rather brief, and lacking in detail which could be helpful to not only the OP, but any who read later.
    – Tim
    Jul 26, 2020 at 9:56

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