Are chords divided amongst instruments or are they played on one instrument? I read an article online when searching for tips on hearing chords changes that read:

" The most direct way to figure out a chord progression is to focus on the roots of all the chords. In other words, listening to what the bass player is doing. Often, for horn players like myself, when we listen to chord progressions, our ears go straight to the upper structures because that is what we’re accustomed to playing. By making yourself focus on the root of each chord, it will be much easier to identify the movement between chords."

This left me under the impression that a each note of a chord is played on a different instrument and that I should focus the most on the bass notes (bass line) because they're the root notes of the chord except in the case of inversions

4 Answers 4


"Are chords divided amongst instruments or are they played on one instrument?"

Either and both, depending on what they ARE being played on! If there's only a piano or only a guitar, it plays everything. If there's a string quartet, the chord is the sum of the single notes cello, viola and the two violins are each playing (let's not quibble over double-stops for now).

In some styles of music there's a 'rhythm section' that largely takes care of the bass line and chords. And yes, if you need to work out the chord sequence, the bass is a very useful place to start.


With simple harmony - triad chords, for example, when there's an instrument there to play chords on, that's usually its job. Guitar piano/kbd comes to mind. Other instruments which generally play single notes will play notes from the underlying chord, often.

In most cases, the bass is expected to represent the bottom, with the root note. Although it will also play any of the other notes from the chord, and always the note after the slash in 'slash chords'.

So, listening to what's happening in the bass line is a good place to start. It often won't say major or minor, that's where the other instruments will help.

Be aware that in big band music, often there are complex chords, containing 5,6,7 or more different notes, making the job of recognising particular chords, especially those with changed notes (b5, #9, et al) very difficult.


I would expect in an orchestra, chordal harmony would be accomplished by separate instruments except when there are pianos, organs, guitars or other instruments which are able to play harmony by themselves. This is not so much the case in most basic rock, country, bluegrass, and other types of music that employ instruments that can play chords. Even so, lead parts, horn parts, bass and others combine to become harmony in some fashion and that's what chords are. Ear training and being able to recognize intervals has been what helps me recognize which chords are part of a progression.


The notes of a chord are distributed among voices. More than one voice is able to played simultaneously on piano or guitar (and occasionally on string instruments.) Piano and guitar are able to play all the notes of the chord. The chord needs to be heard as a whole among all the voices. The bass often plays the root of the chord, but chords are so often in inversion that relying on the bass to determine the root of the chord is too simplistic. In a walking bass line in a jazz piece, for example, the bass is all over the place and does not always hit the root note on beat one, even if outlining a chord completely.

If you want to get better at hearing chord progressions, I suggest you learn how to form chords on the piano. I don't mean that you have to get good at playing them if you are not already a pianist. Learn how to identify the notes of the chord and play them in root position and all the inversions and then sing the root note. This will help you to hear where the root note is, even if the chord is in inversion. The root note will help you hear the movement between the chords. Ideally, you want to be able to hear it no matter in which voice it is located.

  • "Piano and guitar are able to play all the notes of the chord." -- One is often required to leave some notes out of a chord on guitar, since most of us only have four fingers.
    – user39614
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 13:58
  • What I say is true for basic triads and 7th chords. Any more than that is not really pertinent to this discussion.
    – Heather S.
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 16:06
  • I don't see how you get that "any more than that is not really pertinent to this discussion." There is nothing in the question to suggest that only triads and seventh chords be considered. In fact, the quote in the question mentions upper structures. Not the end of the world, but your statement was a little bit wrong, hence the comment.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 0:35
  • It is true that past 7ths a guitarist has to leave out some notes. I would say that listening to inversions of triads and 7ths is the way to start being able to identify the root of a chord. After that is mastered, go on to more complex chords. But since the first poster was asking about being able to hear the root, I didn't see the need to get into more complex chords.
    – Heather S.
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 10:40
  • "past 7ths a guitarist has to leave out some notes" -- not always. Off the top of my head, there are some common 9th chord voicings that don't require any omissions. For voicings with more than four notes one can use the thumb to fret a bass note, or use a barre, or use open strings, or use the side of the first finger to add extra notes.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 14:14

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