Trying to learn chord progressions by ear. Reading from multiple sources to listen for the root and so on.

I tried searching for this question and couldn't get it. But do I actually listen after the function of the chord? Like how the ii would be a substitute of IV, and iii of I. Like the actual function of the chord?


4 Answers 4


Answers to this question generally involve mentioning the things that one should do to identify chord progressions like listen for bass notes, chord qualities, typical chord progressions and patterns and inversions.

The thing is: how does one learn to and actually be able to do that? The answer is by being hands on. Play a chording instrument. Use it to play all the things you want to be able to recognize like bass notes and lines, chords, inversions, simple to advanced diatonic and non-diatonic chord progressions, etc. Absorb the sound from your fingers to your ears. It is much easier to recognize the sound of something like a chord progression if you have already experienced what it sounds like on your instrument.

Another great thing to do to develop this skill is to listen to music with instrument in hand. Play along with recordings and try and figure out what is going on by playing along. This gives you instant trial and error feedback to what you think you hear. You eventually become faster and more accurate at figuring out what is going on in a piece of music.


The general approach is a combination of identifying the bass notes, chord qualities, and inversions. Being able to hear chord function is also helpful, but, especially in jazz and rock contexts, chords don't always follow expected functional patterns, and modulations, tonicizations, and secondary chords can make identifying function tricky. However, if one knows the bass, chord quality, and inversion, the rest can be figured out analytically if necessary.

  • With chord quality you mean if its minor, major, dim etc? That's quite easy and not so much for help, as the chords I'm struggling with is the ii, iii and vi (in major triads) all minors. But isn't it bad to rely on the bass note? What if the chord is rootless or inverted? I still wanna hear those by ear after some training
    – music5475
    Jul 11, 2023 at 23:17
  • @music5475 You're right; my answer was incomplete. One must also be able to recognize which inversion of the chord is being heard. If one hears a minor chord in first inversion with F in the bass, then you know it's a D minor chord. If you're in the key of C, you then know it's a ii chord, and if you're in the key of F, you know it's a vi chord.
    – Aaron
    Jul 12, 2023 at 0:49
  • I am not so sure that thinking of chords like most people do is akways that good. We also need to think of voice leading. Jul 12, 2023 at 11:10

I'll approach it from a different angle.

You already know the difference in sound between majors and minors. Set out an empty chart, four bars on each line is usually good. Listen to the song through, and establish the key - or even use RN instead of a letter, but obviously use I as the root.

Follow the chart as the song plays, and each time that I chord is heard, mark it in the appropriate bar. Back to the beginning. Listen through again, and mark the remaining bars as Major or minor. As you go through next time, there's a 50/50 chance of the M being either IV or V. By comparing those against I, you'll soon become adept at recognising which is which. I feel that IV is 'higher', V is 'lower' or much 'higher' - in 'feel' rather than in pitch.

Now for minors - your bete noir. The most used has to be vi, with its association with I - it has two notes in common, after all. By now, you should really be doing what John suggests - trying out all the diatonic chords on a real instrument - keyboard is first choice, guitar second. Mainly because the piano keyboard sets it all out graphically far better than guitar.

Simply play I>vi>I>vi lots to establish the small change between the two. Back to the beginning of the piece, and with ears attuned to vi, fill them all in.

ii will feel 'higher than I, and, somehow, iii will feel 'lower', as it contains ^3 and ^5 of I anyway, with ^1 'dropping' for iii.

Bottom line is lots of practice, playing each chord against I initially, then mixing two different diatonic chords, to hear what interaction is happening.

Next get used to hearing a triad (4 note chords come much later), and sing the root note of each. I don't feel that listening to an inverted triad for recognition is much different from it, in root position. In fact, with no bass, and multiple instruments playing, chances are it'll be heard in an inversion anyway.

Of course, knowing which 3 majors and 3 minors belong to each key is paramount. Without that knowledge, you'll be stabbing in the dark, and trying wholly inappropriate chords, which wouldn't fit in any case!


The best way to train your ear for identifying chord progressions is yo hav to learn the most usual progressions together with a couple of some standard songs or music pieces like (e g. the cadences, sequences, patterns like the BLUES, the subdominant cadence, the Romanesca or the I-vi-ii-V and its variations, etc. You will then be able to recognice these patterns in other songs without problems.

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