How To Figure Out What Chords Are In A Song

One of the problems that students bring to me on a regular basis goes something like this…

I got this TAB off the internet & when I play it, it just doesn’t sound right. What am I doing wrong?” In most cases the answer to this is “believing the internet.” Just because something is typed up nice & neat and has a description saying “100% accurate” or similar, it doesn’t mean it’s right, and frankly quite often it isn’t. Wouldn’t it be much better to be be able to listen to a song and figure out, with rock-solid certainty, what’s going on? Here’s how I do exactly that…

Of course there are some songs that take no working out at all once you’re familiar with a few basic standard chord progressions. The 12 bar blues, or the tried & tested I VI IV V (like G Em C D, for example) which everyone from The Everly Brothers to John Legend via The Police have used at some point. But what about something which isn’t instantly familiar like that? How do you figure out chord progressions which are unfamiliar to you? Well, a little bit of music theory helps, but if that scares you off, then here’s a method guaranteed to work:

First of all, you’ll need a free piece of software called Audacity. If you don’t already have it, you can get it from HERE. What you’re going to be using this for is to isolate one chord at a time so you can figure them out one-by-one. To illustrate how to do this, I’m going to be using a section from a tune I recently did a cover version of, an instrumental called “Sylvia” by the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus. The section in question is the 2 bar organ break which happens after the 2nd verse, and across this 2 bar segment, there are six chords in total. If you can work something as densely packed as this out, you should be fine for pretty much anything! Click HERE to hear it & let’s load this into Audacity, here’s how it looks:

Sylvia-Organ-Break

OK, so let’s isolate the first chord in this little section of music. Listen for where the chords change & watch the cursor as it moves across the screen. Make a note of where the chord begins & ends using the time markings across the top of the screen. You can even slow the music down using the “Change Tempo” option in the “Effects” menu if this will make it easier – just select the whole thing and use the option described. Make sure you change the TEMPO, not the SPEED, as this will affect the pitch, which we obviously don’t want to do. Then you should highlight (select) that portion of the music that you want to figure out – just that chord. Here’s what this looks like:

1st-Chord

Now, here’s the clever bit… Hold down the shift key & press the space bar. That 1st chord you’ve selected with loop round & round infinitely. This will give you time to ascertain what it is.

How do you do that? Guesswork? Well… not really! Here’s a foolproof method. Begin by playing an open string on your guitar as the loop plays. Any string – it doesn’t matter, although I prefer to use one of the top 3 strings as it just sounds clearer to me. After playing the open string a few times, go to the 1st fet, then the 2nd, 3rd & so-on. What we’re listening for is a note which sounds “in tune” with the chord being looped. Click HERE to hear me doing this on the 2nd (B) string. You should be able to hear that the final note, found at the 3rd fret, sounds pretty good when played over the chord. What this means is that I’ve identified a note which is actually part of the chord. Any note which sounds “in tune” with a chord will sound that way because it is already there in the chord: an important point to remember. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Right… we’ve identified that the chord in question has a D note in it (because the note at the 3rd fret on the 2nd string is a D). Where do we go from here? Well, we now need to know which chords contain a D note. Some of these are obvious… A D chord has a D note in it, for example. As does D minor, but what others are there? Well, there are fixed relationships that govern chords and the notes they are made up of & if you know these, then it becomes a simple matter to figure it out. If this isn’t something you’re sure of though, don’t worry… here’s a list that might help you:

  • You will have a major chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 4 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 3 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note

In the case of a D note, this would give us these possible chords:

  • D major (a major chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • D minor (a minor chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • G major (a major chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • G minor (a minor chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • Bb major (a major chord 4 semitones below the “in tune” note)
  • B minor (a minor chord 3 semitones below the “in tune” note)

Now, simply try out each of these chords over the same loop as you used earlier & you can easily determine which is the correct one. Click HERE to hear me doing this. It seems pretty obvious to me that the correct chord is the second one… D minor & I repeat this at the end to make absolutely certain.

By using this method, I identified all six chord in the section of music. It goes like this:

Count

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

Dm

C

Fm

Eb

Ab

Bb

C

And HERE is how it sounds played on the guitar. This sounds pretty good when played along with the original, but on it’s own it sounds a little disjointed when compared to what we hear on the track. It’s not that any of the chords are wrong, it just somehow lacks the ascending “sense of direction” that the original possesses. This is where we start to investigate the bass-line…

If we look at the notes present in each chord (and you can do this by figuring out what notes you’re actually holding down as you pay each chord shape, or by knowing a little chord theory), you will be able to see the following:

  • Dm = D +F + A
  • C = C + E + G
  • Fm = F + Ab + C
  • Eb = Eb + G + Bb
  • Ab = Ab + C + Eb
  • Bb = Bb + D + F
  • C = C + E + G

Look closely and you should be able to spot an ascending line of notes running through these chords which goes: D to E to F to G to Ab to Bb to C. Let’s hear what that chord sequence sounds like if we put that ascending line of notes in the bass. Click HERE to hear it being played. And there you have it! This is the chord sequence from the organ break of Sylvia by Focus. I deliberately chose quite a tricky little chord conundrum for this example just to show how something which could be intimidating can be broken down into chunks and worked through using simple techniques. As long as you can hear if a note sounds in tune with a chord or not, then you have all the skills you need. You’ll never be at the mercy of the internet ever again when it comes to finding out what the chords are for that song you’re trying to learn. You can also see (hopefully) that a basic understanding of a few simple music theory fundamentals will cut down on the amount of work you need to do. You might just want to investigate those!

Of course, there are other chord types too… as well as the majors & minors we’ve looked at here. But the thing with more complex chords is that they all have quite a distinctive sound & once you learn to recognise what a diminished, augmented, or sus4 chord sounds like (to pick a few examples at random) you’ll soon find there are no chord progressions you cannot figure out. It just takes practice! It was my good fortune to find myself playing in a professional cabaret band when I was only a fledgling guitarist & I had to learn lots of diverse songs… and learn them ACCURATELY. Back then I didn’t have Audacity, but I had a CD player with a loop function & before that, I used to use a twin-tape deck to record the same chord over & over from one cassette onto another: Record > Pause > Rewind > Record > Pause > Rewind… over & over again.

It’s never been easier, with a little bit of free software, to get to grips with learning songs for yourself. And as your experience builds, you quickly gain more confidence & begin to recognise the same basic chord progressions being used again and again which, in turn, cuts down on the number of songs that need to be tackled like this. That little snippet of Sylvia, for example, will remain locked in my memory, and I’ll have no problem identifying it (or anything similar) the next time I come across a song which uses it.  This description may seem a little long winded, but that’s because I’ve gone into a lot of detail. Working out this segment of the chord sequence took me no more than about five minutes in reality. The point is, though, that you have to start somewhere or you’ll always be at the mercy of someone else showing you how to play the songs you want to play. Don’t be intimidated… give it a go! What have you got to lose?

I hope this has been helpful & until next time… HAVE FUN!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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