I write songs and play guitar but am having trouble knowing what chords to play to go with what I've recorded acapella, and then winding up with a "stiff" song which isn't anything close to what I started out with?? What can I do??


2 Answers 2


When I suggest learning some basic music theory, it can feel pretty daunting. Lessons may not be economically feasible, or the prospect of a lot of academic, math class type study seems like an opposite experience to the fun of making music.

If that sounds like you, consider seeking out someone who plays a little better than you do. Ask if he or she is familiar with the idea of chord progressions. Listen, learn and play away. It can be a pretty fast process.

I have found that learning about chord progressions is a stealth method for learning basic theory. Unless your songs are very unusual, the chord you play on the first beat of the first measure usually identifies the key you are in. Let's say it is a G chord. You might travel anywhere in the world of music for your next chord, but if you learn basic progressions you will know that it is more likely than not that your next chord will be a C or a D, with the next likely chord an E minor.

I am not going to trouble you with why that is so at this point. Find someone who knows stuff like that. Set some times to play together, and before you know it, when you are playing in the Key of E, you will be ready to progress to A or B7 or maybe C# minor.

You may not care for the blues or rock and roll. Folk music might turn you off. But if you take a little time to follow the progressions of the chords on a couple of songs in those traditions, or look at the chord sheets, you will see what I mean.

People talk about these progressions in different ways. Some use numbers, others use terms like tonic, subdominant, dominant and relative minor. If it starts sounding too complex, just ask whoever you are working with to break it down for you, and use simpler terminology. Most of the wonderful players I have a chance to work with don't deal in fancy terms, but just call out numbers when we are working out a tune. So if we are playing in G, someone yells "go to the four" and I know to play C. Stuff like that.

Now, this is music, and there are exceptions to EVERYTHING, but learning chord progressions seems like a next step you can take with the help of a friend, or the right teacher, and make pretty fast progress. Good luck, and go get 'em.


There are 2 ways to do this and I'll explain each one.

METHOD ONE: The Theory Approach

This method can be good if you understand theory. I know this will seem like a shameless plug, but I literally just put together a series on this on my YouTube account: "Playing By Ear Playlist". I'm assuming that you may not have a theory background. If you don't, and you're willing to take time to acquire one, the videos will help. It is the slower way to identify chords and keys, but it is a fool-proof method that I use with all of my students.


This method is the faster of the two, but it requires you to have a decent ear. I call it the "completing the scale" method.

Step 1: You have to know what a major scale sounds like. Practice by singing it over and over and over again so that you're intimately familiar with its sound.

Step 2: Hum the melody that you've created and then choose a note within that melody and try to sing a note above it within the scale you're singing in. Remember, at this point, we have no idea what that scale might be, but most people can intuitively extrapolate the note above a note.

Step 3: Perform step 2 again, except this time you'll want to sing two notes above any of the notes that are in your melody.

Step 4: Perform step 2 again, except this time continue singing notes above until it sounds somewhat like a major scale.

Step 5: Find the "place of rest" within the major scale. This would be the note known as "do" (pronounced "doh") (the first note of the scale). If you can find this note and identify it on your guitar, then this will be the key that you're in.

Step 6: Identify the chords that belong to that scale. For instance, if the "do" you found was G, then you're in G major. The chords associated with this key are G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor and F# diminished (don't use this one). The chords that you need for your song will be among the chords that belong to the scale.

Note: For each melody note you sing, there are usually multiple chords you can use. Select the one that most suits your song.

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