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I have started learning to play piano (I am from a poor family and can't afford a teacher). So,I've learned some popular songs and the notes from the internet.

From there I started listening to songs and try to play them on the piano. I figured out that notes have a frequency - so I used to go up and down the frequency to get the songs played.

Now I can play the melody of any song I hear by listening to the notes. But I am am unable to play or understand the chords. All I know is that they are formed by 1st 3rd and 5th note on that scale.

How can I play chords by listening to a song or a piece of music?

10 Answers 10

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I admire your desire to learn to play in the absence of lessons and commend you on your resourcefulness in teaching yourself to play some basic melodies by listening to songs on the internet.

To advance, it would be helpful to learn at least some basics of music theory and chord theory. It is beyond the scope of the way this site works to provide everything you need to know about chord theory to get you from where you are now to knowing how to apply basic theory to determine what chords to play with the notes.

But I will try to give you some brief ideas that you can use while you are learning more theory.

When you play a song on piano, you would typically play the melody with your right hand and either a bass line or harmony (chords) with your left hand. The chords you play with your left hand will usually be derived from the melody notes you are playing with your right hand.

Generally, a chord played over a melody line in a measure of music, will contain some or all of the notes in the melody line that is being played at the same time as the chord.

Once you understand a little about chord theory and chord progressions, you will be able to narrow down the chords that could possibly be used in any given key that your song is in. From there you can often determine the chord from the bass note of the chord, which usually is the root note of the chord. So if the bass note (lowest frequency) of a chord you are hearing is a G - then it is likely that the chord is a G. Of course if the chord being played is an inversion (notes of the chord played in a different order not starting on the root), the root note will not be the lowest note.

Also, if the song you are trying to learn to play has a bass line (often played by a bass guitar), most often the bass line will contain the root note of the chord that is being played and the bass line will often start on the root note of the chord for a given measure. When trying to find the chord through trial and error, the bass line will often give you a strong clue of where to start.

One thing you should understand about chords in general, is that in most cases (with a few rare exceptions) the notes available to form the chords in any given key, will be derived from (found in) the notes of the scale corresponding to that key.

For example - if you learned to play a melody on piano by listening to the song and it turns out that all of the notes in the melody are played on the white keys and none are on any black keys, there is a good chance the song is in the key of C major.

All of the white keys play notes in the key of C major. If your song is in the key of C major the notes available to form your chords are all played on the white keys.

There is a certain set of chords that will go with any given key. Until you learn more about chord theory, you can use the chart below as a guide to narrow down the possible chords that might be used in your song. There are other chords that could be used (seventh chords, diminished chords, augmented chords, ninth chords, suspended chords and others). But this chart shows you the most common chords associated with each key.

Chord Key Chart

Once you figure out which key your song is in - you will be able to narrow down the possible chords used in the song by using this chart. Then by using your ears, you should be able to determine which of those possible chords you might be hearing at any given point. But also, take a look at the melody notes that are played or sung while the chord is playing - and in most cases the chord will contain several of those notes. It may also be helpful to note that for most songs (but not always) the first chord played will be the Tonic/Root chord (the "one" chord that corresponds to the key of the song).

To learn more about how melody notes relate to chords, click here How melody notes relate to chords

In summary - finding the correct chords for a song by listening, will often be a trial and error process - meaning you try different chords until you find the one that sounds right. Hopefully the concepts and ideas presented above, will help you shorten the trial and minimize the error.

You have a long and rewarding journey ahead as you strive to continually improve your skills on piano. Enjoy it as much as you can!

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This is a skill that may take quite a long time to develop as you need both good ears and a decent grasp of theory as well as high proficiency and confidence in your instrument of choice, especially if you want the ability to do it in real time. My recommendation would be to not try to focus too much on this particular skill itself at this point but instead keep looking up the chords for songs you want to play, and continuing to learn a decent amount of music theory. Learning a wide variety of songs this way will let you develop the main thing needed for this skill, which luckily isn't the ability to pick out individual chords by ear (something I still can't do myself) but instead recognizing the chord progressions making up the song.
This is quite a bit easier as you have a lot more data to work with, and the progressions often follow very strict formulas and conventions, especially in popular music.

When learning a song make sure to play around with it, transpose it up and down including to the key you're most confident working in (probably C at this point) and you will quickly start noticing these patterns and learn to recognize them no matter what key a piece is in.

I would recommend the web service Chordify.net which lets you import music from your computer (or YouTube) and analyzes it and shows you the chords, or at least what their algorithm thinks they are.

Plus apps like Capo that lets you slow down and transpose the music on your phone, making playing along a lot easier while trying to learn a piece. Both are very guitar-centric, with fretboard chord diagrams etc but still just as useful for piano as long as you are confident in playing all kinds of scales and chords, which as I said is the first thing to focus on if you're not quite there yet.

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I can learn songs by ear on the guitar. These ideas should apply to the piano as well.

I usually start by listening to (and trying to play along with) the bassline. For many rock and pop songs, this also gives the root notes of all of the chords. (for some songs like 7-nation army or Wang Dang Doodle, this gives you the whole song!)

At that point, I can usually "fake" the song by playing just power chords: root + fifth (+ octave).

Then it remains to determine the character of each chord: whether it's major or minor, and does it have a seventh (if so, is it a major 7 or a flat 7 (aka. (dominant seventh)).

Sometimes, the bass note will be something other than the root. So if the chord isn't any of the above types, then it may be an inversion.

If it's a truly bizarre chord like a diminished or augmented, this should be apparent in step 2, because the power chord won't sound right (the 5th doesn't belong).

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In addition to the answer posted above I'd like to add that the sequence of the chords is also not casual. So a dominant chord (a G chord if we are in the key of C major) is almost always followed by a tonic chord (C chord if we are in the key of C major). Most of the times the dominant chord preceding the tonic chord will be a dominant seventh (so adding the seventh note of the scale to the chord), which gives the melody a sense of "not-finished", like if you're expecting something else after it. The tonic chord that comes after this gives the answer to this sense of "not-finished" by giving you the impression that NOW the musical phrase is closed. If you can look in the internet for the chords of simple songs you'll find this pattern quite a lot. There are many of these patterns, also known as "cadence", but for most of the pop songs I guess the pattern "dominant-tonic" is the most used.

You should then "train" your ear to listen to these patterns, so that once you hear them you'll immediately recognize the sequence.

However these are just suggestions to ease the process, usually when I want to find the chords of a song I use my ear, of course I know which chords are more likely to be in the song, but most of the job is done with the ear....good luck!

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In addition to what the others have said - I can contribute that:

If you've been able to figure out the melody by ear, you can also figure out the chords by ear. You already know that the chord is made up of a root, 3rd and 5th (typically). Knowing some more theory will definitely make your life easier and will likely hurry along the process of being able to determine chords faster but you can also do this by ear alone!

Similarly to how you determined the notes of the melody, try to find the notes you are hearing in the chords. Start by figuring out one note that you are hearing, then find a second and a third note. If you know a little chord theory, once you figure out the notes you are hearing you will be able to determine the name, tonality of the chord and possibly the inversion that the chord is being played in (if the chord is inverted - meaning the root note isn't the lowest note that you are hearing in the chord).

Often, the most common melody note you hear is the root note of the chord. If you only know for certain what even one note in the chord you are hearing is, just try playing 3rds from that note until one sounds like it fits in the song. Once you know two notes in the chord, finding the third is no more complicated then the method you've used for finding the other two.

Remember to try playing the chord in different octaves to see what sounds the most similar to the way it is being done in the song you are trying to play.

If you want additional help outside of using your ear and the song - there are tons of online resources for theory and hearing chord progressions that you can google and I'm sure you would find helpful!

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The following is merely my experience.

My main instrument has always been the piano. Nonetheless, when I was in my teens, I began playing the bass, because I was a fan of the Police, and I couldn't play guitar like Andy Summers. But Sting's bass line, I could follow. It was like playing the melody, but much lower. So I would play along with the records on my guitar (I didn't actually own a bass until later).

Now, I played the bass line, but eventually, what I heard and processed internally was the harmony. How much of that was my piano and theory background (I have always had an interest in theory, even as a kid), and how much was continually practicing different bass lines, I don't know, but I do know that I never used my theory background explicitly while sussing out the harmony. It was always "by ear". So even if my theory background helped, focusing on the bass line made it more immediate and palpable.

I do have to say that I sympathize with theory students who have to work everything out in writing, memorizing sequences of half-steps and whole-steps, and minor and major thirds. It seems a grueling way to figure out how to construct a second-inversion minor seventh. Developing an auditory intuition seems like it would help in that regard, and I think playing bass lines, or at least focusing on them, helped a great deal there.

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There are many ways to learn guessing chords. But all of them are just like scaffolding: Once you get the building done, the scaffolding can be discarded, it's no longer necessary. Any advice you get will only be a trick to see you through your first attempts (perhaps 2-3 years...).

My personal way was to:

  • learn to hear melodies really well
  • learn to sing minor and major chords in all three positions, beginning from the topmost note. This is not hard, there is only six of them.
  • go over melodies in my head (usually while commuting). Each time I felt that chord should change, I would go through all six triads, trying to sing them (still in my head) starting from the current melody note and going down. In 99.9% of cases only one chord will fit, and this will be the proper chord.
  • the rest (0.01% cases) are situations when either the bass is more important than the chord itself, or the melody note does not belong to the chord. The thing is - those cases are not really a problem. Mastering them comes naturally by itself when you practice the 99.9% obvious ones.

For example let's take "we are the champions" by Queen. I imagine that the chorus melody starts with the note F (and continues with E F E C A D). The first chord could therefore be:

  • F D Bb (B flat major)
  • F C A (F major)
  • F Db Ab (D flat major)
  • F Dd Bb (B flat minor)
  • F D A (d minor)
  • F C Ab (f minor)

Just by trying to sing them all against the imaginary backdrop of the song you will see, that only F major and d minor are singable at all, and F major sounds much better.

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I really like the tutorials at justinguitar.com

He teaches the chords and them matches them up with songs. One starts to develop an ear for each chord and since most pop songs are comprised of the same chords this will help with a lot of different songs. Obviously one needs to develop a better repertoire of chords/voicings before this can apply to songs with more advanced progressions. But I think it's a good start.

I just came across http://greglloydmusicschool.com/ He is doing something similar for piano. I haven't spent as much time on that site, so I'm not sure if the same technique is transferable, but it seems like a reasonable approach.

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I agree with the spirit of one of the other answers: you need to develop a good "ear" a good sense of pitch and harmony. @Rockin Cowboy's theory approach is extremely valuable. Learn that theory! But, also exercise your ear.

Basic chord drills at the keyboard will help.

Use a variety of patterns and make drilling in all keys an eventual goal. Try mixing styles: classical, blues, pop, etc. Try looking up some of the following for ideas, look for other patterns and common chord progressions

  • circle of fifth
  • cadences
  • rule of the octave
  • 12 bar blues
  • ii-V-I jazz turnaround
  • I-V-vi-IV pop and rock

If you can read music, it should be fairly easy to find notated examples. If you can't read, you should be able to find some visual tutorials if you search persistently at youtube.com. If playing in all keys is too hard, slowly add as many as you can. Your ear needs the exercise of hearing them all.

I think it's valuable to sing aloud while doing these exercises. Nothing tricky, just the chord root or something like that. For me it feels like singing along "confirms" that my ears are hearing.

The point here is not that any of these patterns are necessarily the building blocks of any particular song (and it's certainly not to build singing skills) but it will make your ear more sensitive to pitch and better able to hear relative chord changes. Eventually you should start to hear chords and chord changes as complete "sound units."

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you should have strong ears. and strong ears can be achieved by playing as much as possible. you should try and work on solfage as much as possible.

first of all you have to understand pure notes. for example if someone plays A on piano or guitar you should be able to say that is a A note. after a while you can start to find chords that is played.

advanced people in music and musicians can start to write notes and tab as they start to listen the song for every instrument. so it is something that can be achieved. i can introduce you the book: "a new approach in sight singing" by sol berkowitz. it is some place to start.

  • How does recognising an A note help to find chords? Absolute pitch may be good for finding specific notes, and is very hard to develop, but having it certainly won't help find chords. Sight singing and solfage again are hardly going to help with chords. – Tim Dec 2 '15 at 22:59

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