How to Identify Chord Progressions in a Song

Getting the melody and bass notes right will give you 2 out of 3 notes when trying to identify chords.

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GuitarIf you visit chord progression sites – the ones that list chord charts for your favourite hit songs – you may be aware that many (shall we say most) are filled with mistakes. Whether you like it or not, being good with chord progressions requires a bit of music theory knowledge. Just because you know what bass note is being played doesn’t mean you’ve got the chord right.

But getting the bass note right is at least part of the job. If you can identify the bass note and the melody note for any given moment, you’ve got two of the three notes you need for naming chords. In most pop songs, especially these days, the bass note is giving you the letter name of the chord. But there’s often more to it.

Here’s a step-by-step for figuring out chords in a song:

  1. Listen to the song many times. You need to be familiar enough with the song that you can sing it easily.
  2. Focus on the melody. Play the melody line on your instrument, and sing it as you play it.
  3. Focus on the bass. Play the bass line on your instrument, even if you don’t play bass. Sing the bass line as you play it. This will be trickier than singing the melody, because bass lines aren’t as obvious, and some musicians find it difficult to identify it and sing it.
  4. Find the lyrics online and paste them into a word processor. Put two line spaces between each line of lyric, which will serve as room to write the chords above.
  5. Go through the lyric as you listen to the song, and underline the words where you think the chord changes to a new one. (Often, particularly in basic pop music, the chords in a song change when the bass note changes. So you’ll be marking an underline every time you hear the bass change. For a good example of this kind of song to practice chord identification with, listen to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.
  6. For each time the bass changes, you will need to identify two notes: 1) the bass note; and 2) the melody note. Be careful here. Sometimes a melody note doesn’t “arrive” at the same time as the bass. For example, in “Stronger”, the “warmer” that occurs at the end of the line “You know the bed feels warmer…” has a bass note of F and a melody note of B. But that B slides immediately to C. It’s that note C that’s the “real” note. We know this because the B lasts for a very short time, while the C is held longer.
  7. The bass note and melody note give you two notes to the chord you’re looking for. In pop music, the bass note will often give you the chord name. In “Stronger”, comparing bass and melody notes gives us the following as the first three chords: Am  F  C, which you should now write above the appropriate words in the lyric. Working your way through the song in this manner will give you most of the chords.

But there’s one other thing that can throw a wrench into the works: the possibility of chord inversions. At the end of the first verse line in “Stronger”, after the C chord, you hear the melody sitting on a G, while the bass is on a B. You know that the chord can’t be a Bm, Bdim, or B, because G does not exist in any of those chords. So what is it?

The answer is G/B (a G chord with a B in the bass). The general advice with this kind of situation, where the melody note is not in the chord suggested by the bass note, flip it around, and consider the possibility that the melody is the root of the chord.

It can speed up the process if you can identify the key of the song, because that knowledge will give you the list of chords that are native to the key. (Someone’s already done this, and you can find the list here.)

Some songwriters will use more complex progressions, and it may take longer to figure out what they’re doing, and will likely require a good set of ears to identify the chord. But in any case, the final step is always to play through the song with the chords you’ve chosen. Your ears should tell you where any problem spots exist.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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  1. I don’t think looking for the bass note and the melody note is a very accurate rule. They both usually move around during the same chord and sometimes are not even on one of the triad notes in the chord. The only way I know, so far, is to try different chords and see how they sound when played along with the song.

    • Hi Steve:

      Well, in a way you’re right… the bass note, particularly in certain genres, moves around a fair bit even as a chord remains constant (walking bass, for example). But I think it’s possible to reduce a bass line that includes many notes to the main one (often the note the bass moves to at the start of a chord. The reason why I think this is important is because there is a prevalent belief amongst people who try to transcribe chord progressions that whatever the bass note is constitutes the chord name, which of course is often wrong. So I still think finding the bass note and the melody note is an important step in chord identification. The additional step of determining chord quality makes the answer pretty obvious.

      Thanks Steve!

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  4. As with most melodies there are many ways the tune can be enhanced
    by choosing Inversions and chords that sit better with the emotion being
    sort by the storyline.

    Paul Mc Cartney has stated many times that it can be very much a case of
    trial and error Substitution By Function was very evident in the best songs
    of Lennon and Mc Cartney. There has to be a balance in each melodic
    phrase , The melodic contour of your melody must go somewhere. just think
    how boring a tune would become with no variation on the phrasal contour
    of each Stanza.


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