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  1. #1

    Sheet Music How do you figure out the chords to a tune by ear?

    I have a good ear for hearing intervals, rhythms, and melodic dictation, but hearing chord progressions is my weakest area of ear training. I've never figured out the changes to a tune by ear. Right now I'm learning All of You (not All of Me), and listening to Miles' version from Live at the Blackhawk. I transcribed and wrote out a whole chorus of Paul Chambers' bass line, but still can't determine the chords. Sometimes P.C. plays a 3rd or a 5th on beat 1 and not the root. Am I on the right track? What's your process for figuring out changes by ear?

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    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
     
  3. #2
    Once you can recognize chord quality (whether a chord is major, minor, or dominant) the things to do are to listen to the bass, which is often on a chord root at the downbeat (or if not the root, a chord tone), and listen to the melody, which more often than not lands on a chord tone at strong points. Also, once you know lots of tunes, listen for familiar patterns that many tunes (or parts of tunes) are based on - blues progressions, rhythm changes, stepwise descending or ascending bass,etc. Any of these can give clues as to a tune’s chord changes.
    Last edited by cmajor9; 01-22-2019 at 04:44 PM.

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  5. #4
    You'd be lucky to come up with the exact same chords that the original composer used which is one reason for the differences in the chords used on lead sheets from different sources.

    However, putting chords under melody notes is really what you are doing. This is chord melody.

    You have the melody. You know the key signature. You put a chord under the note (melody on highest string).

    Start out using chords diatonic to the key signature which is easy for melody notes that are in the key.

    Understand chord substitution and use it. For example in the key of C these three chords are subs: CM7, Em7, Am7. Then you have tritone subs, etc.

    Generally, chords that share two chord tones are subs.

    For non-diatonic (chromatic) notes use extensions and chord subs or just leave them as passing tones.

    To get the hang of this work up a chord melody on your own.

    And use your ear!

    A handy resource: Chord Namer
    Last edited by Drumbler; 01-22-2019 at 09:43 AM.
    "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing." - Socrates
    “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” - Alan Wilson Watts

  6. #5
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    First, make sure that your guitar is in perfect tune by using a tuning fork A-440 concert pitch.

    You might have to adjust the pitch after that a tiny bit up or down to be in tune with the recording depending on whether you are listening to a record player, cassette tape player, or DVD player.

    Then, find the bass note for each chord and then the melody note for that same chord and play them together.

    This will give you the "physical area" on your guitar neck where the chord will be played.

    Finally, see if you can fill in the rest of the notes between the bass note and the melody note taking into consideration whether the chord sounds like a major, minor, dominant 7th, or diminished chord to you.

    Hope this helps!
    Steven Herron
    Jazz Guitar Tabs - Solos, Tabs Books, Instruction DVDs + Video Lessons

  7. #6
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    +1 on the process Steve outlines.

    But just to add that like most things in music it is not really that difficult, it’s about practice.

    It’s like riding a bike. If you just pick up a bike and watch as a very few ride by, it would seem impossible. You get confirmation the first time you try and crash that it IS impossible. But if you keep doing it, and keep doing it, and keep doing it, eventually it becomes as natural as walking.

    The question is are you willing to put that much effort into it? We all have limited time and energy for practice. Is this where you want to put a ton of energy?

    I tend to be a little OCD about my practice. I’ll spend months on one area of playing several hours a day. Transcribing cord voicings got its turn. But eventually I felt like it didn’t yield much in my playing. Knowing exactly how someone else harmonized a melody wasn’t as useful as knowing how to harmonize it for myself. I stopped doing it, and like any discipline I no longer can do it very well.

    I’m sure transcribing chords helped me in the long run, but FWIW I didn’t find a big place for it given the time and energy it took to become even a tiny bit proficient.


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  8. #7
    Good advice from all here and I'd give a +1 to each response. Bass/melody are definitely the key.


    Midnight Blues

  9. #8
    For me ,

    It's not about transcribing actual voicings
    used on a recording so much

    It's about hearing the distinctive changes
    going on in the tune
    You start where you are
    Can you hear the change to the IV chord in a blues ?
    Can you hear when a tune goes to the relative minor
    III7 to vi ?

    I base things on the major scale intervals ie functional harmony
    Jump in , the more you do , it gets easier !

    It's a great skill to have on the bandstand
    when you can hear the changes without a lead sheet
    I get a big kick out of it when I occasionally get it right ...

  10. #9
    For a standard with harmony based around the cycle of 4ths ("functional harmony", I guess) you may be able to figure out the changes by figuring out the bass note first, trying to hear major, minor, 7th, diminished, or augmented, and getting the note on top. Try to hear the movement of the harmony. There is usually some logic, or you wouldn't be interested in the tune. That said, pop tunes of the 30s are easier than Wayne Shorter tunes.

    Sometimes the bassist won't be playing the root, so you have to hear an implied root. In those situations it sometimes seems easiest to start from the top note in the chord and work down.

    Here's a safety net. Get Amazing Slow Downer or similar software. You can isolate a fraction of a second and loop it, to get the chord you want ringing.

    Finding the highest note may be easiest. So put that on the E string. Now, there are only a handful of notes that are simultaneously playable on the B string and you can try each pair of notes. Find two notes that work and then look for a third one on the G string. Keep going until you're close.

  11. #10
    This is what I do to train my ears for chords:
    Online Ear Training with Intervals, Melodies, Jazz Chord Progressions | IWasDoingAllRight

    Go to chords section. Select a few types of chords. Configure so it plays the chords in random order, random key. Hear a chord, try to arpegiate what you heard vocally and with your instrument. Chords are played harmonically.
    You can initially choose root position for simplicity. First determine the chord quality. Then try to sing the root. Then the third. Then all the chord tones. Once you get good at this try different types of chords, inversions, nail the chord without arpegiating first etc.
    It would be a lot harder to transcribe chords off the records, if one can't comfortably to this first in this controlled set up.

  12. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by BigNick21 View Post
    I have a good ear for hearing intervals, rhythms, and melodic dictation, but hearing chord progressions is my weakest area of ear training. I've never figured out the changes to a tune by ear. Right now I'm learning All of You (not All of Me), and listening to Miles' version from Live at the Blackhawk. I transcribed and wrote out a whole chorus of Paul Chambers' bass line, but still can't determine the chords. Sometimes P.C. plays a 3rd or a 5th on beat 1 and not the root. Am I on the right track? What's your process for figuring out changes by ear?
    "I've never figured out the changes to a tune by ear."

    I hope what I have written makes sense and is helpful. From your standpoint it may be hard to understand because I have taught myself for five decades having exclusively figured out the changes by ear to every tune I have ever transcribed, composed, practiced, rehearsed, or performed (including the countless ones I was hearing for the first time on stage in over 10K hours of performance).

    There is a reason that the primary advice underlying all things jazz is "learn tunes". What that short advice does not elaborate on is really what it means to learn a tune. Sure, it means learn to play it, learn a few versions of it, be able to play it in different keys, etc., but fundamentally what it suggests you achieve and acquire is a grasp and internalization of the harmony (the progression changes) - which more than anything else means recognizing the changes - the sound of the changes in harmony from chord to chord. After really learning one song, you will recognize those changes in harmony in other songs, and then others from that song, etc.

    This is not about recognizing names of chords or Roman numerals, but recognizing how these changes sound. Recognizing the sound of harmonies is a Gestalt - an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. Trying to build it up from its components by hunting for chord roots, determining the chord type, voicing, trying to assign the matching theory lingo for that harmonic move... that's fine, but too slow and insufficiently informative.

    Recognizing harmonies is like recognizing the face of a friend, and is just as natural and effortless. I like this analogy because you know your friends' faces despite different viewing angles, different lighting, different expressions, different states of movement, different distances... same way that the harmonies occur in different songs, within different contexts of style, pace, key, instrumentation, interpretation, voicing, etc.
    "Bent my ear to hear the tune and closed my eyes to see."

  13. Transcribing jazz chords is not my strongest skill set, but my basic approach is to find TWO notes that work for the chord. Then try major, minor, dominant, and diminished chords that have those two notes. I'll also try sus4 chords, 9th, b9th, #9th, 11th, 13th chords, and finally "put-your-finger-here chords" (just crazy voicings I've never used before) until I find the one that seems to be it.

    It's a lot of trial and error, but the more I do it, the more efficient I've become at it. But I still have a long way to go. I really admire musicians who can listen to a tune and call out the chords on the fly as they go by.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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    My blog: Guitar Planet

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  14. Ears are for sure the best way to learn tunes, but if you're just starting out, mid-career Miles might be too big a challenge, If you dig trumpet players, have you checked out Chet Baker's trio with NHOP and Doug Raney? Give the group a listen and see how you do figuring out the changes. This is the first record that popped up oj Youtube, there's at least a few more. Best wishes for your music!

    PK


  15. #14
    This has also been my weakest ear area for a long time. I can hear and play melodies extremely quickly, but have always been a bit slow when it comes to hearing harmony. I am now pretty good at it, but it was a hard fought skill.

    As a bassist myself, one thing I will mention is that Paul Chambers, one of my favorite bassists, is one of the worst bassists to transcribe when you're trying to learn to hear harmonic changes. As you note, Paul makes some truly odd note choices, often plays out of tune in the upper register, etc. Go with Ray Brown or Sam Jones or Ron Carter and get to Paul later.

    For "training wheels" for learning jazz tunes, start with aebersold recordings. the musicians are all laying out the changes very clearly (that's their entire job on these things) and you can easily check yourself when you're done.

    If you're like me, what you'll find is that there are some sections of tunes you can clearly hear what is happening, and others where your ear isn't familiar enough with the sound to hear it. there's something happening, but you can't put a label on it. When I'm learning the changes for a tune, I write out a lead sheet and write in all the parts I can hear clearly. I'm then left with some amount of bars where there's ambiguity to my ear. For the bars I don't know, I then do this:

    1) Write out melody - this is helpful because there's a finite amount of chords that go under any given note. If it's an old standard tune, most of the tune the melody is gonna be a chord tone of some kind.
    2) Write out the bass line - use a recording where you can clearly here the bass and the bassist isn't being tricky. any vocal rendition is a good source, aebersold is a good source, etc.

    usually with these two things you can figure out what chord is being played, by trying each chord that could possibly fit. Also working backwards or forwards from the sections you *can* hear will help.

    It sounds tedious, and it is at first, but, the good news is you can absolutely learn this skill with a little work.

  16. #15
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    learn standard diatonic theory to start, then apply it daily. you'll soon be able to take the chords down as the tune plays, unless it's way outside diatonic structure, then you'll really need to be able to hear clusters and such, which takes quite a lot of listening.

  17. #16

    How do you figure out the chords to a tune by ear?

    Start on simple arrangements of simple tunes with slow tempos and gradually work to the more complex. If you can’t easily figure out changes of folk songs, I’d start there. As others have suggested, start with bass and melody. I grew up with a turntable. When I was having trouble hearing a note within the chord I’d lift the arm at the end of that chord and try to sing or hum the note I was hearing, find it on the guitar, then try to play along with the recording up that point to see if it sounded right. Keep doing this with increasingly more difficult tunes and you’ll gradually get better. Or you might even hit one of those breakthrough points where virtually overnight it gets much easier.
    Last edited by KirkP; 01-28-2019 at 02:13 AM.

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