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How can you tell the chords of a piece of music if you can only hear bass and melody? There are a lot of possibility that it can be more than a single chord..Also, would be better like this.. To have a bass, melody and vocals without strumming the chords on guitar or playing block chords on piano? Because to me it sound dull and boring sometimes if you write a song like this..but in the same time it feels there is no runaway from that because I always feel like something is missing when I don't play the block chords!

closed as too broad by David Bowling, Dekkadeci, Richard, Dom Feb 11 at 15:44

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Yeah, I'd split this into two questions: "How can you tell the chords of a piece of music if you can only hear bass and melody?" and some version of "would be better like this.. To have a bass, melody and vocals without strumming the chords on guitar or playing block chords on piano?" Even then, I fear the second question would be closed due to being primarily opinion-based. (The preview of my answer to the first question is that you can only make best guesses as to what the chords of such a piece are, and there may be multiple valid enough interpretations of the chords of the same passage.) – Dekkadeci Feb 10 at 8:17
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    It sounds like you're assuming that every piece of music "has chords", but why start from that assumption? Chords are almost always an abstraction/simplification of the harmony of the piece, and in some cases they may not be a helpful abstraction. – topo morto Feb 10 at 11:04
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This question brings up a recurring misconception about chords.

the chords of a piece of music

What chords are you talking about? Chords don't even exist until you play them. There might exist some expectations for possible chords, but it's just your imagination drawing from your cultural background. By playing chords you fill the empty parts of the picture with details, taking away or reducing the possibility or need for imagination to do its thing.

Why do we play chords instead of single notes? To more strongly and quickly explicate things, to set the scene for harmonic motion, to set the tonal center, to set up expectations, to set a "for dummies" interpretation framework. Chords leave less room for imagination, compared to single notes. Chords are really like for-dummies harmony explication devices that are used when single-note lines are not effective enough to deliver the desired strength of harmonic feeling within the given time constraints and the listener's skill level. :) With one or two chords, you can instantly change the listener's idea of harmonic context to something completely unexpected.

Nobody said that you have to play chords at all. Chords are not a law of nature, and a requirement for proper music, even though studying music theory might sometimes lead you to that conclusion. But being skilled in chord-playing is a good tool, it's a means for reasoning about what happens with the single-note lines, or the bass and melody notes you're talking about. You can think about chords, but then don't explicate i.e. play all of the notes you thought about. It leaves more room for the listener's imagination.

If you know what you're doing and know how to place and accentuate each note, you can deliver a lot of harmonic context with even single-note lines. If you can play as much as two notes or voices at the same time, you've got a very powerful arsenal for painting harmonic landscapes. Three simultaneous voices, and the sky is the limit.

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I think I'll stick with the non-metaphorical world and answer the question I think you actually asked: since chords have (at least) 3 notes, and the bass has (usually) one and the melody has (usually) one more, how do you find that third "missing" note to fill in the actual chord? (Note: often you can 'hear' this chord when just hearing the bass and melody, as it is so evocative of a simple chord progression that the chord seems obvious.)

Well, first find out the key of the piece. You can figure this out by ear (always the best way) or mechanically by figuring out what notes are playing and in what key they belong. Beware that sometimes there are notes that don't "belong" to the key of the song, you'll have to go by statistical preponderance here.

Then here's a trick: if the bass is not moving stepwise (i.e. in a certain direction by major or minor thirds), it's probably (but only probably) playing the root of the chord. Then if you know the melody and the key, there are a limited number of notes that third note could be (unless it's out-of-key, as I mentioned), so you can sort of figure it out.

Knowing music theory and common chord progressions like I-vi-IV-V helps A LOT. Having a trained ear so you can "hear" the implied chord helps a lot too. That comes with experience. Sometimes you just gotta find a a recording of the song, and bang notes on the piano until it sounds right.

That's music for ya.

  • But this is limited, for example if the song was 4\4 and the chords is playing 4 times, the melody being played is more than one note (not in the same time), same with bass ( more than one note..not in the same time)..then it can't be seen as a chord consisting of two notes (one of melody and one of bass) and just missing the third note.. – Ashraf Taha Feb 11 at 0:48
  • It is limited, I agree. It's just the beginning of a strategy that might or might not help a beginner. The real answer is to have so much knowledge of music theory and so much experience listening to music and so much talent that it becomes natural to you, but you gotta start somewhere. What you're describing is a melody with neighboring or transitional notes, and really it's the ear (and knowledge of the key) that will pick up which is which. – prooffreader Feb 12 at 11:45
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The bass is usually just the root of the chords, especially in pop.

For example in the following video the guy plays Forever Young by Alphaville, look at his pinky on the left hand, or just listen to the bass notes, on the chorus starting at 1:02:

C G A F G D F G

And then to know if they're minor or major, you just need to know which ones correspond to which using the diatonic chords of the key, which happens to be C major. The diatonic chords are: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim. So the chord progression is:

C G Am F G Dm F G

Sometimes in other songs the bass chord could be inverted, so the pinky might not be the root. But you'll still hear the overall chord if you listen.

  • "The bass is usually just the root of the chords." -- Careful with this; bass notes may be part of a bass line using other chord tones or walking with scalar or chromatic notes. Or chords played by a chording instrument may be rootless voicings with bass notes supplied by other instruments or even left to the imagination. – David Bowling Feb 10 at 18:59
  • @DavidBowling by usually I meant most of the time. chromaticism, non-roots, happen. but usually the bass indicates the foundation of the song. – foreyez Feb 10 at 19:00
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    Well, this sort of "usually" never quite sits right with me. Certainly in jazz I don't think that usually would apply. Maybe in folk music, possibly in pop (though that category is so broad that is not really a well-defined category). Safe to say? I just think we need to be careful with such statements. – David Bowling Feb 10 at 19:05
  • @DavidBowling edited answer to say usually for pop – foreyez Feb 10 at 19:15
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How can you tell the chords of a piece of music if you can only hear bass and melody?

First of all you have to look at the signs after the clef relating to the key of the piece. According to the final chord and some accidentals it will be determined as major or minor.

(well, I've over looked the word if we can only hear ...)

I post you here a nice piece that starts right only with the bass, then with the melody. You can try out my advises after the first 2 verses! Then compare it with the "solution" given by this interpret. (and, oh, yes this is for dummies only!)

In many cases (of pop songs, as you speak about "melody) the bass tone is the root tone, especially on the weighted steps in a bar. This will be the case in the last bar as a song ends in the tonic and begins usually with a chord in the tonic (with a few exceptions): By the final chord above the root of the bass tone you can identify the key of a piece. The tonic is the triad of the 1st degree. If the first bass note is identical with the final bass note you can be absolutely sure that this is the key note and you have identified the tonic.

Have a look if there is a progression of tonic, subdominant and dominant (I-IV-V) then you will have identified the principal chords, or whether you find a II - V progression. This means: when the bass is progressing by degrees of 4th up or 5th you can assume that it is the root note.

In many songs the bass line leads downwards in steps of 2nds: this can be a passing tone to the next chord a 3rd lower, and the seconds on the unweighted steps are considered as passing tones. You can keep the harmony of the preceding chord or you can give this note a proper harmony (then the bass note can be the 3rd, the 5th, or the 7th tone of the triad or a tetrad (also called 1st, 2nd, 3rd inversion of a chord)

Try to identify progressions in the circle of fifth or fourth, this will also help you to tell what chord has been to played (read more about predominant functions.)

Of course also the melody tones can be helpful to identify the chords (as they usually are an element of the chord. In many cases the tune itself is built on chords, the it is quite easy:

a melody consisting of:

dodododo mimimi_ sosososo dododo_ sosododo sosodo_ sosomimi sosodo_

is nothing else than a canon built on the tonic. but if you find it's boring to accompany this only with the root you can play the scale downward and you have the progression of the Pachelbel Canon. this will also fit.

All this will mean: if you have a good progression that fits the phrases well together, the melody tones can be an element of the chord or passing notes or suspended notes or approaches (chromatic or diatonic)

There are a lot of possibilities that it can be more than a single chord..Also, would be better like this.. To have a bass, melody and vocals without strumming the chords on guitar or playing block chords on piano?

You are free to coose any accompaniment as you like.

You can change also a given bass or vary the melody.

There are many compositions (e.g. by Bach or Bartok with only 2 voices)

Because to me it sound dull and boring sometimes if you write a song like this..but in the same time it feels there is no runaway from that because I always feel like something is missing when I don't play the block chords!

It is never boring to find and invent your own accompaniment and harmonization:

  • You can change the chords in each verse even if once you had decided to notate them in a certain manner.

  • You can change the rhythm, even the measure.

  • You can play paraphrases or parodies.

Yesterday is probably the most covered song of all times.

Compare the versions of:

  • Hey Jude by the Beatles and Wilson Picket

  • With a little help by my friends (Joe Cocker, Wet Wet Wet)

  • Bridge over troubled waters (S. & G. and Don Shirley)

  • Wish I knew how I feel when I‘m free (Don Shirley)

    You are free and you will get by with a little help!

And there are over 100 different performances / interpretations of „go tell it on the mountain“

  • Your answer does not answer the OP's first question, "How can you tell the chords of a piece of music if you can only hear bass and melody?" – Dekkadeci Feb 10 at 7:37
  • and what does this say: In many cases (of pop songs, as you speak about "melody) the bass tone is the root tone. ....**also the melody tones can be helpful to identify the chords (as they usually are an element of the chord. In many cases the tune itself is built on chords).** – Albrecht Hügli Feb 10 at 14:18
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    Assuming my memory is not deceiving me, you only added those words to an edit you made after I posted my comment. I've removed my downvote as a result, but an explanation of how to determine passing tones would be appreciated, as merely saying that "the melody tones can be an element of the chord or passing notes or suspended notes or approaches" does not say how to determine which melody notes are nonchord tones. – Dekkadeci Feb 10 at 16:25
  • yes, I've edited once more The downvote helped me to read and understand better what was asked. Thank you! I was assuming that the OP had the sheet music and over looked the word hear – Albrecht Hügli Feb 10 at 16:35
  • A very long answer to a rather different question than the one asked! – Laurence Payne Feb 10 at 17:31

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