Theory Made Easy 18

Hearing Chords

Analyzing songs/tunes

Following on from the last lesson here are some tips as to what I do when working out the chord sequence of any song/tune. Regardless of the style of music I'm analyzing I use an acoustic guitar tuned normally ( pieces that are in altered tunings aren't covered here) and a CD player with pause and rewind I don't have ' perfect pitch ' or any other special attributes - this a skill anyone can learn.

Step One

Get in tune with the track

Not all music is recorded at concert pitch and it is very difficult to spot notes and chords if you're even a bit out of tune - It's worth spending a bit of time playing along with the track using just your top E string to try and spot some notes to get this string in tune - when you have done this stop the track and retune the other strings to your top E

Step Two

Listen to the bass

- this means either the lowest guitar note that you can hear or the note that the bass guitar is playing.
This is likely to be the root note of the chord you're trying to find - with experience you get to spot when a chord has an altered bass note [ a slash chord ] .
Most chords are rooted on the proper bass note.

Step Three

Major or Minor

Having got the root note of a chord established [ C say ] I then try playing a small major chord [notes C and E ] along with the track - if that sounds wrong I'll try a small minor [notes C and Eb ]
Most chords are either major or minor [ '5' chords by definition aren't major or minor but quite often they are an abbreviated version of a chord which is ]
If both major and minor sound wrong or ' not quite right ' then I assume it's a ' sus ' chord of some kind - I would therefore try a Csus4 or Csus2 along with the track.
If the chord doesn't seem to fit any of these then it is probably either a diminished or augmented chord.
I would try Cdim or C+

Step Four

Find any extensions/alterations

Assuming that I've correctly identified the chord as a C major of some sort but a straight C major still doesn't sound right I would then start looking for extensions.

" Is it a seventh? [ C7 ] " is probably the first question - closely followed by " is it a Major Seventh ?[ Cmaj7 ] "

Try these and if one seems to fit try some further extensions just to see if C9 sounds more correct than C7 or Cmaj9 sounds more like it than Cmaj7.

If none of these make a complete fit try some alterations - the most common being flat 5 - C7b5 or Cmaj7b5 for example. Another commonly used alteration is the sharp 9 - C7#9 for example.

If you're into jazz there are quite a few others to consider but with experience you can spot some complex chords just by the context they appear in i.e. the other chords in the piece and the structure being used.

Trial and error

This may all sound very complicated and long winded [ so much easier just to get the tab off the net! ] but if you're serious about music this is a great way to sharpen up your ears and gain insights into theory , chord construction and songwriting.

[ by the way a lot of tabs on the net are wrong ]

Like most areas of music the more you do it the easier it gets.

You are unlikely to successfully work out a piece of music straight off - it is a process that accumulates from experience so don't give up if your first attempts at this are unsuccessful - getting things wrong is part of the process !

Chord Families

I find it useful to think of five families of chords for analysis purposes - these are , in order of usage ;


Any chord with a major third - [ except an Augmented chord ]
I'd subdivide this category into Dominant Seventh and Major Seventh types. [e.g. C7 or Cmaj7 ]


Any chord with a minor third - [ except a Full Diminished chord.]


Any chord with a second or fourth instead of a third


This is really just one chord i.e. a full diminished chord but it needs its own separate slot as it is different to all other chords in its effect.


Like the diminished this chord has its own character so it's useful to regard it as a separate class of chord - any sharp 5 chord could fit in this category.