Just to give a bit of context; say I'm playing a song in a certain key, F major. and let's say I'm playing the I IV V chords. I'm playing a song I learned by ear, right now it happens to be bicycle built for two. But I've been doing it so I mainly remember the chord shapes and their sound. But I don't try to remember the chord names that I play.

But should I make an effort as I play to know the name of the chord as well as the scale degree? So, I might think to myself "now I'm playing the IV which is a B flat major" as I'm playing it.

Would the only benefit of this be so that I can play the same song on another instrument?

  • 1
    Don't 'make an effort'. That's not what you need to be thinking about when playing. But KNOW it. Because you're a musician.
    – Laurence
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 0:41

5 Answers 5


Actually, the benefits would far surpass that. They would include being able to increase your playing-by-ear, transposition, and even improv skills.

I suppose theoretically, you could still play quite successfully by ear by knowing what Keys make up the IV chord in the key of F, even if you don't know the name of that chord. However, it just makes sense and is more helpful to go ahead and learn what the IV chord is, in every key.

This will help immensely in gaining the skill of transposing on the fly, something as a church accompanist that I have to do quite regularly. Once you know that one line of a song follows the progression I-vi-ii-V-I, for example, you can literally play it in any key, as long as you know what those chords are in that key.

If for whatever reason, you really don't want to learn the chord names, you should definitely learn the scale degrees. As mentioned, learning the scale degrees in every key and knowing what they sound like (For example, I to IV has the same sound/feel in every key, even though the pitches are different from key to key) is the essence of playing by ear and transposition, and is a crucial skill for improv/arranging/composition.

  • some good points here. I'm definitely more aware of scale degrees of the chord (I,ii,iii,etc.) than the actual chord names and I agree with you it seems to be more important. I try to play songs on different keys and I find the chord names don't really help me as much as just knowing what chord number I'm playing.
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 14:11

By learning it from one end to another, all you're really doing is learning that one song. There are too many people out there who do just that. And they can't transfer that across to other situations.

By understanding what's going on, especially in your position as a beginner, you'll begin to learn what Bb followed by F sounds like, and for now, maybe, just use two particular chord shapes for those, so when the same occurs in other songs, you'll be able to use the same plan. And that same thing will occur - and keep on occurring.

Now's the time to analyse what you're doing, for the future. And not just learn each piece in isolation. It will also help when playing different instruments. And not only for the same song. Realise what I>V sounds like. Find it in just about any song. Find out which chords/harmonies constitute a I>V change in all keys. I get fed up when someone tries to explain a new song and goes through 'It's got E, A and B7 in it, and there's another chord, but I'm not sure.' If they could say 'This is in E,' that'll generally do. We should know which chords are likely in a certain key! There's the added bonus that you will be able to speak to other musos in their language!

Be aware there's a V/V chord in 'Daisy' too !

  • so I think you're saying that you'd rather have other musicians tell you what key a song is in and then just talk to you in roman numerals. ie, "We're playing in G and the progression is I–V–vi–IV".
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 14:20
  • @foreyez for the record, a lot of musicians do actually do that when speaking, because it's quicker to say out load. Country musicians even write their lead sheets that way
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:40
  • @foreyez - Often, I prefer to be told nothing! It depends with whom I'm playing. In the past, I've been told something is in such and such a key, only to find actually it's not. Other times a key or its sign is enough. Other times I'm reading lead sheets. But while I'm playing, the I -V-ii-IV idea is flashing through my head. And if something is embryonic and likely to be eventually played in whatever key, the RN method is the best.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 14:18

It will help you understand what you are playing, make it so you can talk about what you are playing with another musician and yes, so you can translate that info to another instrument. It will also help you if you decide to start reading music.

  • So I guess the main benefit is so I can communicate it outside of my instrument, so to another musician or to another instrument.
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 0:36
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    Yes but also in your head. It will help forge a path between what you hear, what your fingers are doing and what is happening musically.
    – b3ko
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 0:42

I'm going to part from all other answer I read to this question as of today.

Although I fully agree with all of you guys, and as far as I am concerned, I would always endeavour to know the names of the chord I'm playing and their degree in the scale... I think there is a point missing here.

Here's my point: it's really up to you and what you're after!

If you're a big music passionate, like so many of us seem to be on this community, I'd say: YES, you should positively do the effort of knowing every chord name and degree in the scale.
But let's not just sit here: chord substitution, arpegios in every position, improvise over chord changes, knowing a few examples of songs that share the same chord progression...

If you're goal is to have fun, have a good time with some friends or on your own... well, bless you with it, it's a super healty way to have fun, and who knows what may come out of it!
If knowing chords name and degree is your idea of having fun, GO FOR IT; if you think it's borring, who said you had to?!


Interesting question. I've been playing for decades and I improvise a lot when I play, including reharmonizing on the fly. When I'm in the groove with the band on a piece we've played many times before, I rarely think of the chords, I just hear the sound I want in my head and my fingers move there.

But when I need to work out an arrangement with the bass player or the lead player I have to know the chords so that we have a common vocabulary. And if something isn't working out, I have to be able to articulate exactly what's wrong.

This is even true when you're reading sheet music. If you're a fluent player who is sight-reading, you don't think of the names of the notes on the page, you just see them and you play them.

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