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How to Learn Chord Progressions by Ear

One of the freedoms we want to have as musicians is to be able to recognize chord progressions and learn songs by ear. Being shackled by a reliance on sheet music can be draining, and especially in styles of music like jazz which are based on improvisation, having a great ear is essential for playing at a high level.

I think all of us want to get to the level where we can hear any song and begin decoding the chord progressions. Wouldn’t it be great to hear a song and immediately start following along on your instrument?

It would give you a huge leg up as a musician. Think of the advantage you would have as an improviser. With this skill, you could go to a jam session or gig and not need to panic if you didn’t know a song being called. You could have the resources necessary to learn a song on the spot, by ear, if you had to.

But many musicians just don’t know where to start. They want to have this skill but just aren’t sure how to acquire it. That’s what today’s lesson is all about; learning the important steps you need to take to learn chord progressions by ear.

Let’s go through the steps:

1. Understand Chord Progressions.

To start hearing them, we need to understand them first. If you already understand how triads and 7th chords harmonize with major scales, and the Roman Numeral numbering system for chords, skip to step 2.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this because this lesson is geared toward the ear training side of things. But if you are new to some of this stuff, it’s important to take a quick crash course.

Here’s a chart that comes straight out of our eBook Zero to Improv:

This is the Major Diatonic Series of 7th Chords. Essentially, I have taken a concert C major scale and harmonized each chord with a 7th chord (if you want more info on this, check out this post). There is a similar chart for triads, but I want to deal with 7th chords since they are the predominant kinds of chords in jazz.

The top line is the scale.

The second line is the chord quality associated.

The third line is the full chord name.

The bottom line is the Roman Numeral association (Upper case= major and dominant. Lower case= minor).

From all of this, we can derive chord progressions. For example, a ii-V-I chord progression in the key of C is: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7.

If it’s not immediately clear to you where I got that from, take a look up at the chart. What’s the ii chord? Dmin7. What’s the V chord? G7. What’s the I chord? You can use this chart to create any different combination of chord progressions.

This is fairly basic stuff so make sure you have this concept down. If this is new to you, make sure you make this chart your friend and commit it to memory.

2. Recognize Intervals.

Now that you understand chord progressions (or if you already understood), you can move on to building up the tools you will need hear chord progressions.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to simply hear a chord progression, recognize it by name (I-vi-ii-V etc…) and transfer that knowledge to your instrument. But until you get to that point, you may need to figure out chord progressions from scratch.

In comes the fundamentals of ear training. Here’s what I consider the order of operations to hearing chord progressions:

Hear Intervals -> Hear Chords -> Hear Chord Progressions

This is where you might get disappointed if you were looking for an easy answer. While it’s not impossible to hear chord progressions without the first two elements, they are extremely helpful.

Let’s go over intervals first. Intervals by definition are the distance between one note to the next. You have a reference note (the first note being played, or bass note) and the note played afterward. Here’s an example:

This is a major 3rd interval ascending. Now there is a whole slew of ways to memorize intervals like this, the most notable being associating them with songs you know. But I won’t go into depth on that now.

When it comes to chord progressions, though, it’s important to know what intervals descending sound like too. I’ll explain further in step 4. Here’s a Major 3rd descending:

There are 13 intervals ascending and 13 intervals descending if you include unisons and octaves for a grand total of 26 sounds you need to memorize. We have a great quiz for this that can help you practice them.

3. Recognize Chords.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. What makes up chord progressions? Chords.

If you look back at the Major Diatonic Series of 7th chords, each scale tone has been harmonized with a chord. Each one of those scale tones represents a quality of a chord, whether it be major, minor, dominant, half diminished, or fully diminished.

So if we want to hear a ii-V-I chord progression it would be important to know what a minor 7 chord, dominant 7 chord, and major 7 chord sound like. But before even that, you want to know what the basic triads sound like.

Again, I don’t want to go too deep into this concept in this particular lesson. The important thing is you understand how hearing chords plays an important role in hearing chord progressions. For more on this, check out this lesson, and this quiz.

4. Decode the Chord Progression.

With the tools of interval and chord recognition under your belt, you can begin to decode chord progressions from scratch.

Take a listen to this common pop/rock chord progression:

I bet you’ve heard that before. This chord progression uses triads instead of 7th chords. Here’s what it is in the key of concert C:

So how do you recognize this chord progression by ear? Let’s break it down.

#1 Listen to the bass notes.

This is where knowing your intervals becomes really important. Go back and listen to the chord progression again, and try to identify the interval between the first two bass notes (the lowest notes you are hearing in the chord).

If you were listening closely you would have heard this:

The first two bass notes of this progression are a perfect 4th descending. This is helpful because if you can identify this as the I chord (we’ll talk about that next) You can figure out what the next chord is going to be just by knowing the interval.

Here is something important to know though. If the bass note moves ascending from the first note you hear, it’s easy to identify it. If it moved a perfect 4th ascending it’s easy to know that we are dealing with a I-IV progression.

But that’s not the case with the audio example I gave you. The interval moved a perfect 4th descending. That does not mean it’s a I-IV progression. In fact, if you sang that descending perfect 4th up an octave it would be a perfect 5th ascending. This is important.

You need to understand how descending intervals convert to ascending intervals as it pertains to chord progressions. Here are some formulas:

Minor 2nd Desc= Major 7th Asc
Major 2nd Desc= Minor 7th Asc
Minor 3rd Desc= Major 6th Asc
Major 3rd Desc= Minor 6th Asc
Perfect 4th Desc= Perfect 5th Asc
Tritone Desc= Tritone Asc
Perfect 5th Desc= Perfect 4th Asc
Minor 6th Desc= Major 3rd Asc
Major 6th Desc= Minor 3rd Asc
Minor 7th Desc= Major 2nd Asc
Major 7th Desc= Minor 2nd Asc

I hope I didn’t just overwhelm your brain there. I know that if you are a beginner at this stuff, this may take you a second to grasp. But the basic principle is that if you take any descending interval up an octave you now know what Roman Numeral you are dealing with as long as you have established the key center.

You can repeat this process by either identifying the intervals from one chord to the next or by establishing the I chord and relating each bass note to it.

#2 Establish the key center.

In the case of this chord progression, we know that it starts on the I chord (I-V-vi-IV). But how would we know that without having that information? Part of it is simply memorizing what basic chord progressions, like this one, sound like. But the other part is knowing your chord qualities.

When you hear the first chord of the chord progression, you hear this:

Often if the first chord is a major chord it’s the I chord (aka the key center). This is not always the case, but it’s a good first assumption. If the first chord is minor, then you start looking at the Major Diatonic Series and asking yourself which minor chord could it be.

Is it the ii chord? Is it the iii chord? Is it the vi chord?

If you can establish the key center and combine that knowledge with the intervals, you can start mapping out the rest of the chord progression.

Work with identifying the bass note intervals, chord qualties, and establishing the key center all at the same time. You don’t need to do one first and then the other.

Is this the ideal way to learn chord progressions every time? No. The ideal way is to condition your ear to hear this stuff automatically. It’s called ear training. But by breaking this process down you can start building up that recognition.

Start putting these elements to practice and you’ll start seeing some pretty amazing results in your musicianship.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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