I have been charting chords to gospel songs lately. I did fine on a few but I came up short on "Lift Every Voice" by James Weldon Johnson, version in the key of G. The intro lick is a good example: I hear a walk up of "G A G B, B A G A, G G" (emphasis on what I would consider the chord tones). These are the "loud" notes to my ear. However, the chords to the progression are obviously not what I emphasized in bold, when I play along with the recording. The closest I have gotten to these chords is G/B, E/A, G, but that still feels wrong. The verse is the same (taking the first line for example): "Lift ev - 'ry voice and sing / 'til earth and hea - ven ring", I hear as the melody of "F# G A B B B / B C D B G A", but there is definitely something else going on with the chords than what I emphasized in bold here as my instinct on the chord choices. I just can't seem to hear through the mental "mud" to discover it. Any tips to training my ear for chord roots is really appreciated. Since this song has challenged me the most to date, specific advice pertaining to it is likely to help a lot.

  • 5
    There's a vote to close, but I think this is on topic. It's not asking users to provide the chords to Lift Every Voice. (Those chords are readily available online.) The question is asking for tips on transcribing chords. Some answers to this question might be helpful.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 1:08
  • Thank you. You're right, my question is generally about how to identify chords when transcribing a song. Yesterday I had a small breakthrough by realizing that if I go down from the note I first hear by 5 or 8 semitones, I usually find the root. But this only works about half of the time. If the answer is just lots of ear training, I've taken up a software that challenges users to identify chords, hoping that will work.
    – cassius987
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:56

1 Answer 1


Here are a couple of tools that work for me.

If I am looking for the root movement of chords I play just that: disregarding the nature of the chord, major, minor etc, I play a simple bass line either on guitar or piano. I treat this line as if I were a bass player looking only for root movement.

When I think I am close I play a simple root - V bass line. This will usually confirm things. Then I can start work on the function of the chords.

Most gospel music uses pretty straight forward harmony. If I can figure out the melody I can often work out the chord changes using a 'what fits?' approach.

A combination of these methods will usually reveal the chord changes.

  • Thanks. When I posted this, I was just doing the original approach (bass line) but because bass reharmonization is so common, it could mislead me if I misheard the real chord. Moving then to I-V-I-V is probably a great way to rule out any major goof-ups in my chord choices before picking out the chord qualities. Thanks!
    – cassius987
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 15:49

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