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What Chord is That?

One of my recent articles, The Music Building, described the seven chords which arise from the seven notes of the major scale, and how they form a fixed relationship with each other. You may remember that I likened each key to an apartment layout, with each chord representing a particular room. I went on to describe all music as a twelve story apartment building, one floor for each key, all floors identical in layout. I should have mentioned that certain floors of the building are rarely visited in the world of guitar. E flat for example, is much less frequented than A, or G or D or E. Still, the layout is the same and you should force yourself to familiarize yourself with these "unfriendly" keys. E flat (D sharp), D flat (C sharp) are a pain in the neck when first tackled. The main thing to remember is that they are no different to any other. Capos come in very handy for these keys.

This week's topic is related closely to last week's. It's about finding chords, whether you're trying to learn a new tune or writing a new tune. These days of course, the Internet is a wonderful source of information. Type a title into a search slot, and before you know it, you've got a whole tune tabbed out for you. Makes it pretty easy. But it doesn't train your ear.

"Listen, listen, listen. To some, this process comes naturally, to others it's more of a chore. Eventually though, you'll hear the piece unfold and instantly know what you're listening to."


If you're learning a new piece of music by ear, the first thing you should do is determine what key it's in. This is usually pretty straightforward -- more often than not, the One Chord starts the tune off. So if you hear an intro which is centered around, say, an A chord, you can be pretty sure the song is in A. Not always, of course, but usually. It's up to the person who wrote the song. But let's assume that it is in A. First thing your brain should do is move into the A floor of your music building -- you should instantly know what all the rooms are called on that floor. Zero in (mentally) on the seven chords: Majors are A (I), D (IV) and E (V); minors are Bm (II), C#m (III) and F#m (VI). Don't worry about the half diminished VII chord.

These are the first chords you should check when stumped. It's always easy to hear the major chord changes. Countless tunes spend a while centered around the I chord, then move up to the IV chord. It is the most common formula. It is a very recognizable change, and for good reason -- it makes great sense to the ear. It sounds right... logical. It sounds comfortable. The V chord is the resolve chord. More often than not it is played as a seventh (not major seventh), and sometimes is the sus 4 version. It says "I'm coming home...", home to the I chord. The twelve bar blues is a pure version of this.

If there are other chords in the tune, chances are they're one or more of the minors. Again, you will begin to hear them and know without even trying them out. If the chord you're searching for isn't one of the majors or minors, try turning the minors into majors and see if one of them fits. Naturally, listen for the bass note of the chord and work from it. Let's say you're in A, the mystery chord has a C# bass note, but isn't the C#m that belongs in that key -- try C#. This use of majors in place of the minors is common in song-writing. "Georgia On My Mind" and "Dock of the Bay" are good examples. Both of those tunes start on the One Chord, then move up to a Major version of the Three Chord.

Sometimes the bass note can throw you. You're in the key of A, you hear a chord that has a C# bass note, but it's not the C#m nor is it the major version... what could it be? Try an A/C#, which means an A chord with a C# bass note. Another common change. This is a One Chord with it's III note used as the bass note rather than it's usual I. (I know, too many numbers to keep track of). Don't assume that all chords use the root note as the bass note.

Then there are changes which have nothing to do with the key of the piece of music, or rather, the piece you're learning keeps changing key. This becomes more of a trial and error exercise. Again, listen first to the bass note of any mystery chord and work your way up from there. Assume first you're listening to the root note. If that doesn't work, see if it's the III (of whatever chord has that note as it's III). It may be the V, you may be hearing a chord played over the II even. Like a D/E.

Try it out...try playing a bar each of A, A/C#, D, D/E.

Listen, listen, listen. To some, this process comes naturally, to others it's more of a chore. Eventually though, you'll hear the piece unfold and instantly know what you're listening to -- which room of the apartment you're in, and which floor you might have travelled to. Remember, all music is found in the Music Building. All chords are there somewhere.

Kirk Lorange writes a weekly column for GuitarSite and is the author of the instructional book, PlaneTalk