I'm getting pretty good at transcribing melodies, but chords are really difficult. This may be because the underlying harmony is mixed in with the bass as well as other instruments. It also may be because the chords don't "stand out" as well as the melody.

I know for some songs like blues, I can hear the typical 12 bar I IV V, but if you were to play me a just a single chord from that, I would have a hard time figuring it out what it was. Just pecking away until something sounds right. And I miss passing chords also. Mind you I listen to mainly blues and rock which can be heavily distorted to begin with.

What are some suggestions for getting better at this ? Thanks

4 Answers 4


Recognising a single chord out of context is for those with absolute pitch really. Recognising a chord from a three chord song with reference to another should be straightforward.

With I IV and V, if the song is on one chord, there's a 50:50 to guess with. Let's say it's on I. Choice - IV or V. both as far as each other away from I, often IV sounds like things have gone up, and V sounds like they've gone down - or up even further! On IV, choice I or V. I has gone home again, V moves only a small amount. On V, chances are it's I next (circle of fourths), or it drops a little to IV.

Use the bass, as often it's playing the root note of the chord - it's pretty well what bassists are expected to do in mainstream!

Get used to the sound of the three majors and three minors that are part of a key's family - as in C: C Dm Em F G Am. They will be the mainstay of chords for a lot of songs, as in it's a waste of time trying an F#m chord in the middle of a song in key C. Don't worry about the 6ths, 7ths, 9ths etc yet - they all have basic triads as their foundations, so just learn to identify them as triads.

Have a go at playing the chords to simple songs without reference to written music. Most of the time, the main melody note in a bar will be part of the underlying harmony, so there's one note out of the three.


What might help:

  1. Learn lots of songs, so you are exposed to popular chord progressions
  2. Learn new chords, simply get a chord book and try to learn as many as you can

This way your ears get more attuned do "existing range of possibilities" which considering blues and popular music is not that wide.

Now to the method:

  1. Find highest note first
  2. Find lowest note
  3. From there if you're not sure where to go, try to play to different possibilities of notes in between, try chords you already know and you might be able to identify a match

If you'll keep repeating this process and applying it to many different songs you'll for sure get better with practice.


if you were to play me a just a single chord from that, I would have a hard time figuring it out

This may be about recognizing the chord root versus any chord tone. With groping about for any matching tone you have three tones (four with seventh chords) that you could match. But then you have to figure out which chord tone it is. I think you want to be able to identify the root.

You could do some training by playing chords then singing the various chord tones. You could start with going up the chord singing root, third, fifth. For an additional challenge you can try to pick out the third or fifth first instead of the root.

It might feel like vocal training, but it's really about trying to make your ear more sensitive to specific chord tones.

You want a more sensitive ear to go with the good tips provided in the other answers.

  • yeah just listen for the root because then you can add a perfect fifth on top of it, and then add either a major or minor third depending on what the chord quality sounds like.
    – user34288
    Feb 20, 2019 at 18:33

Since you can transcribe melodies and you know about I, IV, V etc., I assume you can find what key a song is in. Excellent. And you say that you can peck away until something sounds right, which means that you hear chords at least a little bit. Excellent. You're almost there. The only thing left is practice.

The question you ask yourself when playing by ear is, "What would I have to play to sound like that?" And the palette of possible answers to try comes only from practicing. Practicing means, play songs by ear, without any visual reference material. Sing or whistle and play chords with your instrument.

Use the three chords of the major key: I, IV and V, and the three chords of its relative minor key: vi, ii and iii or usually III (major). These are enough for incredibly many pop songs. Whenever you feel that the chord might change, try the other five possibilities, almost always one of them is the right one. Repeat. You'll get better at it.

It might help to play all songs in C major / A minor, regardless of what key the original song is in.

Don't listen to only blues and rock. They often play tricks with tonality, flirting and mixing major/minor, jazzy stuff. It's better to play really syrupy pop songs which use strong chord roles to their maximum capacity. Old music. Things that your grandparents used to listen to. ;)

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