I've seen/listened to people playing the piano where someone will start singing a song or name a song or whatever and after a little while they'll pick it up and start playing the correct chords to the song, even if they don't already know them (like, they know how the song goes and what it sounds like, but not the chords).

I've tried playing along to some songs on YouTube, and some of them I pick up after a few tries while others I can't seem to figure out even though they sound like they should be simple.

So the question is, how do I figure out the correct chord progression for a song as I'm playing it, assuming I know what the song's supposed to sound like?

4 Answers 4


Here are some of my thoughts, I hope you find them helpful.

Laurence Payne is right, practice is the most important ingredient here.

You indicated that you view "transcription" and being able to pick up a song "in real time" as it's happening as a different skill. While there are some small differences, in my experience they are largely the same skill.

In my personal case, I started out by laboriously working out songs by ear. As I child I would sit in front of the piano trying to work out nursery rhymes and christmas carols (just the melodies of course). In my teens, I really wanted to play "feeling good"; I liked (and still do) the song a lot, and it sounded doable. Anyway, there wasn't that much available on the internet in the mid 2000s like there is now, and it took me weeks and weeks and weeks to get it right (or right-ish).

I'm now in my 20s and I often play new songs by ear as I hear them at jam sessions, playing with friends etc. I will go into to details about what the process of picking up a song on the spot is actually like, but the key point is, I absolutely got there by practicing doing it more slowly.

For my personal journey this included mainly:

1) Working out existing music by ear (initially a very laborious and difficult process, my main incentive being I had no other way to do it). If your ability is up to this, then get into the habit of doing it for every single song you learn, or at least making a good attempt before looking up a transcription.

(As a side note, just playing games where you try and recognise chord types from hearing them is also useful.)

2) Writing music. The process of trying to put melodies and chords in your head onto an instrument helps you to learn to pick up others' music too.

3) Soloing. I fell in love with the blues in my teens, and while the paint-by-numbers approach of learning scales and playing from them can help you get into it, eventually you get to the stage where you're playing what's "in your head" i.e. you know what it's going to sound like before you play it. I believe this is called audiation, and again this comes with practice.

4) Sight-singing. I read music, if you do to, trying to count the steps between notes in your head and sing a melody before you've ever heard it is sort of like "backwards" working out by ear and I'd recommend it. Eventually you can sing any interval directly without mentally counting up a scale/half steps. Then, conversely it's much easier to know what notes are from hearing them, much like how speaking a second language and understanding a second language go hand in hand. (Sightreading the rhythm part less important for this but also valuable)

Now, your musical tastes and areas of practice might differ (it of course isn't necessary to like blues or read music to play by ear, these are just good examples). The point is that the common denominator is training your ear through lots and lots of practice, this is the most important thing.

The above is the answer to what you "should do" in order to get to the stage where you can pick up songs very rapidly. The rest of this answer is just to give you an idea of what the roadmap ahead will look like if you do go ahead with this effort, what you might gain from it, and some of the practicalities of playing by ear "on the spot". It might be useful or interesting to you, but the key information is up there^^^.

So one thing having a "good ear" gives you is an immeasurably greater understanding of all other aspects of music; you start to see inner workings of the music you play, and listen to.

People will tell you that music theory will help you to work out songs by ear, and while that's true, what they often miss out is that working out songs helps you understand music theory. The more you work out, the more you will start to recognise patterns. In a way, this is what most of music theory is, and you'll get a lot of it for free just by learning from music itself (and depending on your favourite genre, there may well be a lot of content that classical music theory doesn't particularly cover but nevertheless follows patterns and shapes).

You can get to a point where, when hearing a song you almost transcribe it automatically. When I listen to the radio in the car for example, if it's a relatively simple song then I'm mentally tracking the chords and notes being played involuntarily; much as when you see a written word, you can't help but read it. Because of this, you just start to notice patterns in music everywhere.

This means that, in addition to being able to use your ears to work out songs quickly, once you hear a few bars of a song, you already have a reasonable guess about what kind of things are likely to happen. Sometimes you'll see the tune unfolding in a particular direction and see what it'll do before it even gets there. And even if you don't see it before it happens, once it's happened you "get" what it's done, so it's not hard to remember when it rolls back round to that part. It's just like how "sdgfjdslkjoa fogj apekg" is impossible to remember but "The red book" is impossible to not understand. You make sense of it in terms of your existing framework of meaning.

In this way, when you work out a song by ear, you can also often reduce it to its most important parts, know which are the bits that are most important for the skeleton of the song, and what's more there for "decoration". If I tell you a joke, and you want to tell it to someone else, you're not going to recount it work for word, you're going to remember the key concepts that make the joke word, and fill the gaps with what works.

Every now and again a bit of a song will really surprise you. In these cases it can be much harder to pick out an exact chord or run of notes at the first listen. It might be something harmonically, rhythmically, or melodically complex, that you're playing in an unfamiliar idiom, or something that is just straight up unexpected in that context. Or it might be that your brain for some reason just can't pick out a particular chord, or run of notes. In practice, if you have some experience playing within a genre, there are often ways to play something inoffensive that will bridge the gap between the holes in your understanding.


Experience and training. Take a song you find tricky, transcribe it. A program that can loop sections and slow down playback is a great help, there's a good one called Transcribe!


It helps a lot if you know notation, so that you can work with the notes in the chord, not just the chord as an entity.

Hint - when you're unsure what notes are being played in a chord, it can help to first work out what notes AREN'T there.

After you've laboriously worked out a few songs, it starts getting easier. Promise!

  • I was referring more to "picking up" the chords "in real-time" i.e. as one is playing, not if one is transcribing a song. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 14:21
  • @MichealJohnson it's exactly the same skill, just more developed. I started out by laboriously working out songs by ear. For context, I'm in my 20s and I regularly play songs by ear as I hear them at jam sessions, playing with friends etc. However, in my teens, I wanted to play "feeling good", and it took me weeks and weeks to get it right. If I heard that song for the first time today, I'd could do it "in real time" as you described it. This came with practice in transcribing songs, and in soloing/writing (in both, a large part is struggling to put what is in your head on an instrument).
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 15:35
  • @MichealJohnson Once you get good at "transcription" you'll be able to play any melody you can sing, recognise intervals and chords and their relationships to one another, and at that point, when hearing a song you almost transcribe it automatically. When I listen to the radio for example, if it's a very simple song I involuntarily transcribe it in a way, much as when you see a word you know, you can't help but read it. This ability comes with ear training. Essentially, the more you do it, the quicker you'll become.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 15:38

Knowing the key of the song and then knowing the "family chords" of that key will help you a lot in figuring out the next chord. Experience will help you a lot, and also training your ears to familiarize how a chord may sound (together with its family chords) no matter in what key the song is in. Some folks are really talented, those who play by 'ear' they instantly are able to play and 'guess' the chord no matter in what key.

  • I'm reasonably familiar with most of the basic chords used in a particular key. Specifically I, IV, V and the sevenths thereof, plus the II, III, and VI minors. Don't know a thing about augmented and diminished chords, and get lost whenever chords from another key are included (e.g. when a D-major chord is used in the key of C-major). Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 7:05
  • As for me, I only know the basic chords. I haven't really memorized any chord progression to any songs, except for specific intros/solos. But when we play together with my band, I instantly know what the next chord will be, be it in any key (different singer = different key). I'm not sure what really contributed, but I was with my band for more than a decade already. Experience maybe, or influence since most of my band members play by ear. Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 7:21
  • What my mentor(also from the band) have taught me, is to familiarize how a chord sounds with regards to family it belongs. There are only a few songs which include chords that are not entirely part of its family chords, usually the chord adjacent to the root chord can be included giving a unique but rich tone that also harmonizes with the tones within the family chords. Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 7:31

Like others said, "experience, experience, experience". The key of the chord doesn't really matter, you need to learn what the fourth sounds like, and the fifth, etc. You need to grind these chords into your head until it becomes second nature. Then you will be able to identify the chords that you hear. But bear in mind that you can learn the fourth and the fifth, but you will still need to get the key signature by ear or from the people that you are playing for.

  • I realise that the key is less significant than the intervals between the chords. The thing is, I get simple chords like IV, V, minor VI, minor II (sometimes), minor III (sometimes), but it's the more complicated ones that I don't get - diminished and augmented stuff, sixths and major sevenths which I tend to confuse with some of the minor chords, and so on. And songs where the chords are more unusual (e.g. a piece in C major using a D major chord, or whatever). And I'm useless with following the correct bassline and chord inversions in a song. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 17:35
  • @MichealJohnson Thanks for your comments, now I'm analyzing what I do when I work out music in a way I usually don't :). With regards to your specific example of a D major in C; that's almost always going to be a modulation to the dominant, which sounds like this. Usually the way to "spot" a II or II7 is the "pull" to the V. Having said that, you are never going to have the feel for any possible chord in context. Unless you're going to only be playing music that's predictable and familiar, there are always going to be surprising chords.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 10:53
  • @MichealJohnson it's for this reason it's also super useful to learn how chords sound outside of their context. Some chords have really clear colours, like maj7, min6, major, minor, diminished. Sure, when playing through changes that fit familiar harmonic patterns, you'll be hearing chords in relation to a key centre. But sometimes, there will be something that's either completely atypical, or outside your past experience. A song in C major might just have an Emaj7 for no good reason, for example. You're not going to know what IIIbmaj7 sounds like, why would you?
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 11:14
  • @MichealJohnson In this instance, you have to isolate the chord from the context. Play it in your mind just as-is, as a set of notes, and try and recognise the chord colour. Once you spot "oh, it's a major 7th" or "it's a hendrix chord", or "it's a minor triad", you then just find the root, and mentally count the interval to the key centre (or previous chord). With practice you can do this pretty quickly, and so long as you know what a chord sounds like "on its own" (some are harder than others), then you'll be able to pick it out and place it back in context.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 11:14
  • As long as there aren't too many surprises in a song, then you can just do this process when a surprising chord comes up, and the rest of the time rely on your comfort zone. If not, then it's going to be a "sit-downer". Do I know what chord this is? If not, can I painstakingly mentally arpegiate it, or sing notes at it until they fit? If not, is there a transcription somewhere so I can finally get the answer, and commit the chord to my memory?!?! This is why, when I started playing Latin music, at first it took me way longer to pick up. Not always more complex, just unfamiliar harmonically.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 11:15

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