I am pretty comfortable with playing melodies by ear, but when it comes down to the next level, chords and chord progressions, i fumble pretty hard. I tend to pick up the 3rd of a chord and play it as the 1st, and it messes up everything.(example: C-E-G, Cmaj, to E-G#-B, Emaj). Also chord progressions just can't make any sense! I have done my research and I know about some 'popular' progressions but in the real world it just doesn't work. The chords seem all over the place and i can't put my finger on what the progression is. Do i just keep at it, listening to 4chord songs and tryig to find the tonic, chord progression and chords? Or is there a more lucrative approach?

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    @Aaron FWIW I don't think the answers to that question are particularly comprehensive - it would be nice if we could get more answers/replies from different perspectives.... Jan 17, 2022 at 17:51
  • @topomorto What do you see in terms of gaps in comprehensiveness or perspective?
    – Aaron
    Jan 17, 2022 at 18:00
  • @Aaron hmmm... perhaps it's hard to go into a lot more detail from a general perspective - There are more specifics you can go into from the perspective of certain styles&genres, such as types of chords to listen for, typical motions and cadences, etc.... maybe the ideal from a reference POV would be to have a bunch of 'how to work out chord progressions in XXX style' questions, but I guess we're unlikely to get them. Jan 17, 2022 at 18:12
  • @topomorto I'm on board, and it seems like the perfect self-answer opportunity. Or at least post a question as a test-case to see if it gets some good answers. A community wiki could be added to the canonical question to point to the more specific variants, too.
    – Aaron
    Jan 17, 2022 at 18:48

1 Answer 1


Let's stick with, for now, the 6 main chords used diatonically. I, ii, iii, IV, V and vi - omitting the not-so-common viio.

Establishing the I is the most important start, and we're looking for the chord that sounds like the piece has come 'home' - to a place where it could end satisfactorally.

Back to the start of the piece - which most often is I. Contnue listening until you hear a change. Obviously it's not I after that, but there's a chance it'll be one of the other 5! You say you listen to the 3rd in a chord. that's good, because that will tell whether the next chord is major or minor. If it's major, there's a 50:50 guess - it will be (in diatonic land) either IV or V. Often IV feels like it's gone up, while V sounds like it's gone up even more, or down.

Next change, if major again, will be 50:50 again.

For minors, there's a 33% guessing chance, but by actually playing I>ii, I>iii, I>vi, IV>ii, IV>iii, IV>vi etc., you'll get the 'feel' of where each change goes.

There's another idea I use with students - put dots (full stops, not notes!) on a paper, 4 per line, for as many lines as needed. Establish the sound of chord I, and, as you listen to the piece, count along, and put I in each bar that sounds like it. Then establish what V sounds like, and fill in the V bars, until it's complete.

Of course, all this works best with simple triadic chords - I maj7 can often sound like iii and so on.But it's a good start point. And the more one does, the more experienced one gets.

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