7 methods to help you hear chord changes

Are you counting beats or unable to memorize the chord changes?  

Are you unable to hear when the chords change?

These are common problems the beginner faces; I faced the same exact challenges when I was learning.  The greater your ability to hear the chord changes, the less you need to rely on memorizing and counting.  The less you rely on memorizing and counting, the more this frees up your mind, allowing you to concentrate on other important things such as dynamics and expression.

How to hear chord progressions

I can seriously relate to your frustrations because when I started I couldn’t hear the difference 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’ll 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, in fact, if you aren’t messing up then you’re working on material that you can already hear and it won’t help you increase your hearing abilities.  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, and don’t 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 seriously predictable; the more in tune you are with the patterns and know their names, the better guess you can make.  I like to think of Theory as a statistical probability.  If something you’re hearing is above your current levels, theory allows you to INCREASE YOUR PROBABILITY of being right!
  • 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 improves.  Many times people give up on this aspect because they have trouble playing the wrong things so much.  Stay with it.  I must say, I learned more at jams then I did at home playing alone.  Also, keep in mind, those that don’t have a local bluegrass (or jazz) jam nearby, just play with other musicians, whomever you have access to.  It doesn’t even have to be the exact time of music you are practicing.
  • Sing Bass lines-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.  Have trouble singing and playing at the same time? Instead of trying to strum all four beats, strum half-time, or, only on beats one and three.  Often the melody guides you into the chord changes, if there is a step down or a flatted note, that is telling you something about the chords as well.  Melodies usually consist of chord tones so understanding your CHORD TONES can help you take the melody by the hand.  For example, a sustained C note usually indicates a C chord and not a G chord for a song in the key of G.  An F# note in a bluegrass song usually indicated a D chord in the key of G (If it’s just a 1,4,5)
  • 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, you’ll be able to hear the chord changes in no time.  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-An arpeggio is a fancy way of saying the notes in the chord one at a time.  It translates “broken chord.”  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.  Once you can do the notes in order (G-B-D), try moving them all around (G-D-B) and so on.  You aren’t trying to be a singer, you are trying to get it in your musical mind, and if you can sing it, you can play it (AND HEAR IT!).  Notice how much I’m focusing on the CHORD TONES in this blog? Chord tones hold the key for increasing your ability to hear the chord changes.

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. 

Anything that requires you to compare a sound to another sound to get an answer (for example, this song melody is a perfect fifth, so ok, I have the answer), is starting you on the wrong path.  Hearing has to be instant, a reaction, only by making errors until you can recognize them like you would any color.  If you see the color green, you don’t say, oh, this is what blue looks like, this is what red looks, so it must be green.  You just see the color green.

Hearing chord changes must be FAST

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 Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.

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