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There's this guy on youtube that I'd watch, he has a channel called 'Jazz Theory'. Anyway, one profound thing I heard him say is that you're not playing by ear until you can hear the numbers in anything you listen to.

And by numbers, what chord number is playing (I-VII), what melody number is playing (1-7). So as you're listening to music you constantly hear the different numbers being played. I think this is very useful.

So as an example, if I take the chords of the major scale. There's 3 major chords (I, IV, V) and 3 minor chords (ii, iii, vi) and one diminished. The diminished chord isn't used as much as the others. The root chord is easiest to hear as everything resolves to it. And it's relatively simple to hear if a chord is major or minor. However, sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the ii and iii, and the major chords IV and V. Although the V is easier as it sounds like it wants to resolve to the I.

I have a harp and sometimes I'll just randomly pick a chord or note without looking and try to figure out what number it is within my scale.

I'm still practicing this and I'm trying to think of ways to be better at this. But I was wondering, for those of your that can hear numbers. Do you have any tips or exercises on how you did it?

  • 1
    This is called "aural skills" or "ear training." If you attended a conservatory, you'd take classes dedicated to this skill for at least 2 years. There are many educational approaches, so this question is a little broad. But overall it's all about active listening. One of my colleagues learned this skill by forcing himself to transcribe an entire series of jazz standards by listening, playing on the keyboard, and writing it all down with pencil and staff paper. I learned it by composing a ton of songs in various styles. – John Wu Oct 19 at 5:45
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    Eventually, the number part fades, and one hears an interval, or a couple of chords, and plays them straight back. Rather like looking at music, recognising a G, then playing it. The middle part goes, and we see a note and play it without conciously thinking 'it's a G.' The idea is good, and works for a lot of people. As ever, lots of repetition. – Tim Oct 19 at 7:04
  • I challenge the question's unspoken assumption: that "hearing the numbers" is a useful skill the OP needs to acquire. If you can understand chord sequences or tunes, or if you can even repeat tunes or series of chords you heard, then who needs proof that you know the numbers? Knowing the numbers requires additional cognitive load to "verbalise" something about the music you hear. You'd need this skill to communicate your ideas to others (e.g. when writing an answer to a Music.SE question) but I dispute the idea that you need to be able to do this while playing or listening to music. – Rosie F Oct 19 at 8:22
  • Long before I went to a conservatory I tried to accompany songs by the I-IV-V cadence and also when teaching little children guitar my first goal aside of showing the chord patterns was that they "hear" when to change and also get a sense for the form of the songs. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 19 at 8:43
  • the question may be related to this: music.stackexchange.com/questions/90436/… – Albrecht Hügli Oct 19 at 8:52
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Relate the intervals and chord progressions to melody fragments and songs that you're familiar with, and let your brain's pattern recognition do the work. That worked best for me, and it seems to be the most common heuristic for ear training among the other people I've asked.

To use my own examples: Minor third is the Brahms lullaby, minor 2nd is the Jaws theme, down a fourth to the 5 below root is like a polka bassline, 3-2-1 is three blind mice, up a major seventh I cheat a bit and include the octave from the beginning of the "over the rainbow" melody, 1-3-5 I just hear the major chord triad, 1-4-5 is Blitzkrieg Bop, and so on. When you relate the interval distance to the melody you can already recognize in a split second, then you've got workable relative pitch.

For chord progressions, the general wikipedia article on "Chord progression" and the "See also" links at the bottom cover the common forms. From the root to the basics of dominant/subdominant with I-V and I-IV and I-IV-V, to all the common 4-chord ones like the Let It Be and Stand By Me variants (I-V-vi-IV / I-vi-IV-V) (these two wiki lists are some good unintentional comedy, and obligatory link to the classic "four chord song" routine from Axis of Awesome). And that's just two examples of the super common chord progressions, you also have the "Rhythm Changes" (I-vi-ii-V) from "I Got Rhythm" which covers most of the jazz songbook along with the ragtime and stomp, and several others if you go down the rabbit hole. Once you can identify the 1 chord within a progression from how it feels when it resolves, spotting the others is just intervals again with extra notes helping your pattern recognition for songs you know.

Warning: After you develop enough of these associations, you won't be able to turn it off -- you'll be subconsciously "hearing the numbers" when you hear music anywhere.

  • * songs that you're familiar with, and let your brain's pattern recognition do the work.* that's what I mean: These patterns are the schemes and the fisher mans net with wich we are "fishing" information in our universe. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 19 at 8:37
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Learning by doing:

Sing and play along. (Most important: listen to the bass.)

  1. Many children songs use only the tonic and dominant: I-V. As you may know they begin and end at the tonic (home chord).

  2. progressively you can choose songs using also the subdominant. Here you can learn to differ between dominant and subdominant (e.g. Blues and Rock).

  3. Next step will be to identify the secondary dominants that arise in the semi finals and bridges.

  4. There are some typical chord progressions like the subdominant cadence, the “fifties progression”, the 1625 progression and its variations. By practicing these patterns you will recognize them when they are used in a piece.

Some tips:

  1. Look for sheet music of songs you know and like under images, chords for piano, guitar, lyrics with chords. Transcribe the chords into the numbers. Play the chords by letters, by numbers, by heart, and

  2. Play along to songs slowing down the tempo of youtube videos, search for the chords, (by trial and error), stop the video, notate the number, etc.

  3. Listen to sonatinas and sonatas in C or G major. They have typical patterns (look up the sonata form: exposition..

  4. Write your own arrangements in numbers using the patterns and play them. Invent your own melodies that fit to your patterns.

I’ve posted here some lists of songs using chords in a progressive form. You’ll find them if you look up under chord progression, songs ...)

I’ll try to find them and post the links).

Well, this is the last one containing some song titles:

enter link description here

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