7 methods to help you hear chord changes

Are you counting beats or memorizing chord changes?  Are you unable to hear when the chords change? These are common problems the beginner faces and I faced the same challenges when I was learning.  The greater your ability to hear the chord changes the less you need to rely on memorizing and counting.  This frees up your mind, allowing you to concentrate on other important things when you are playing such as dynamics and expression.

I can seriously relate to your frustrations because when I started I couldn’t hear the differences between G, C and D.  I remember people looking at me in jams because I was playing the wrong chords at the wrong time.  I’m here to help; however, I won’t sugar-coat it for you, it won’t be easy and I will plainly tell you that a great deal of this is what I call “Learning by Error Correction.” Prepare to make mistakes and lots of them.  You must go into this understanding that you are going to mess up a great deal and in fact, if you aren’t messing up then you are working on material that you can already hear and it won’t help you progress.  Here is a list of things to begin tackling in your weekly practice routine to increase your CHORDAL hearing abilities.

  • Play along with recordings of songs you have never heard or don’t know-This trains your ability to spontaneously react/adapt to what you are hearing.  I have a list of two to three chord songs below.  Pick songs from the list and referenced recording and attempt to play along.  For more songs you can google “Two chord songs”        Here:  3 chord songs to help train your ears                     I spent an hour each day playing along to recordings of various bands when I was learning, this is the period of time I experienced exponential growth in my ability to hear and play.  It’s one of the most important things you can do.  Start by only strumming, plucking out the chords to the songs, do not worry about the melodies.  Once again, get ready to choose the wrong chord, over the course of months your Accuracy will improve.
  • Theory-Theory isn’t so you can impress someone with book knowledge.  Theory is meant to increase your hearing abilities.  It allows you to make educated guesses about what you are hearing.  For example, if you know the I,IV and V chords are G,C and D in the key of G and they are the most common chords then that’s where you will begin your guessing.  You’ll know not to guess say a F# to start with.  If you hear a minor sound and know that an E minor, Aminor, and B minor are the common minor chords in G major you won’t guess C#minor.  Music has patterns, many are predictable, the more in tune you are with the patterns and know their names the better guesses you can make.  I like to think of Theory as a statistical probability.
  • Go to Jams-Like playing along with recordings this forces you to SPONTANEOUSLY react to the things you are hearing and seeing.  By the process of gradual error correction your ear gets better.  Many times people give up on this aspect because they have trouble playing the wrong things so much.  Stay with it.
  • Sing Basslines-Another method that might help you hear chord changes is to sing the bass notes/roots to common chord progressions.  For example, in the key of G practice singing a G to a D and then back to a G.  Really listen and pay attention to what it sounds and feels like.  Then add another chord in, perhaps sing G to C to G to D.  This gets the sounds of the chord roots moving in your ears.  Sing any common chord change you run into.
  • Practice singing and humming melodies to songs you already know while strumming chords.  Instead of trying to strum all four beats, strum half-time, only on beats one and three.  Let the melody guide you to when the chords change.  Melodies usually consist of chord tones so they often guide you to when the chord changes.  For example, a sustained C note usually indicates a C chord and not a G chord for a song in the key of G.
  • Record yourself playing random chords in the key of G (Start with G/C/D), putting a pause between each one.  Then play it back and see if you can guess which ones you play by trying to match the sound.  Always start a recorded session by strumming a G first to establish the key center for your ear.  Yes, you will get a lot wrong at first.  However, I can GUARANTEE you if you do this enough your ear will improve.  This has the benefit of allowing you to determine the speed of the chord changes as in a jam or on a recording the chords can change very fast.  On a recording there are distractions from other instruments or the chords are difficult to hear, due to this beginners might want to begin with this approach.
  • Sing Arpeggios-For example, Sing the notes of a G chord individually, note by note (G-B-D) and then sing a C chord arpeggio (C-E-G), then back to the notes of a G chord.  Doing this will build the ear to hand coordination you need when hearing something and reacting.

All of the material on this list takes time, months of work in some cases.  Your goal is to hear a three chord song and know what the chords are by feel/spontaneously reacting.  Your goal is to gradually reduce your errors by correction.

The things on this list are largely things that cannot be taught in a classroom setting, there are no secrets/shortcuts, just a lot of trial and error and an attitude of being okay with making lots of mistakes.  If you pick at least two items from this list and implement them into your weekly schedule I guarantee that you will see an increase in your hearing abilities over time. This will propel your musicianship forward exponentially.

Please ask questions, leave comments about these methods if you would like to do so.  I’m here to help on the banjo journey.

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Jody Hughes Written by:

I am a full-time banjo and acoustic guitar teacher, performer and composer. I have performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry and The Ryman Auditorium. My interests include developing educational materials for the advancing banjoist and composing Original Music mixing my background in Bluegrass, Jazz, Classical and Latin Music.

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