Figuring out what the chords are in a song can be a tricky pursuit. If you’re looking to find out how to play a particular song on your instrument, whether that be a guitar, piano, ukelele, etc. then finding the key center of the song can make the process much easier.
If instead, you want to play a melody or a solo over a song, knowing what the chords are can also help you tremendously in writing an engaging melody by using chord tones.
Understanding how key centers work is a very valuable skill, especially when playing in a band with other musicians. You don’t want to have to look up what the chords to a song are on the internet every time, and with practice, you won’t even have to.
Figuring Out The Key Of The Song
The first step in finding out the chords to a song is to know where you’re at in terms of the key, or the “tonal center”. The tonal center of a song is the note or chord that just feels like home. This is the best way to describe the feeling of the tonic or “home chord”.
If the song has a clear ending, more often than not it will end on this chord. The root note of this chord will be the key that the song is in. A lot of times too, the tonic is established by the first chord in a song as well.
For instance, let’s take a look at the song Blackbird by The Beatles. It opens with the chord G major, and you can tell this by listening to the lowest note in this chord, which is a G.
You can also tell that it’s major and not minor. Minor chords intrinsically sound sad, and major chords sound happy, to put it simply.
Another thing that will give you a clear indication of the key of the song is the melody. In Blackbird, the first note Paul McCartney sings on the words “blackbird singing in the dead-” if you listen to it, is the same note as the lowest note in the chord over which he is singing, which is a G.
It should be fairly obvious that this is the key of the song because it just feels like home. On the words “of night,” he sings the note D, which is also in the key of G. D is the fifth of G, meaning that if you go up the G major scale: (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) D is the fifth measure in the scale.
Listening For Chord Changes
It’s important to note that when you’re figuring out the chords to a song, you should do so whilst at your instrument, preferably piano or guitar as you can play chords on these instruments as well as single notes. Find a recording on the internet of the song you’re trying to figure out.
Videos of live performances can be very helpful too as you can also see how the song is being played as well as hear. Take your time and listen to the bass note in the first chord. Try to find this note on your instrument, and then make a note of what note it is on some manuscript paper.
Normal paper is also fine if you don’t have music manuscript paper to hand. Then play on and listen to when the chord changes, then do the same.
Try to hear if the bass note goes up or goes down. Or, does it stay the same? Once you’ve done this a few times, restart the song and try to play a major chord starting with the first bass note.
Does this sound right? If so, great! If not, try a minor chord. You can work your way through the song in this manner, and this technique will be sufficient for songs with simple chords and bass lines.
For something more complex, such as a jazz standard, you might need some more expertise and knowledge to work out these chords by ear.
When listening out for the chord changes, it’s also good practice to count along with the beats of the song. Chord changes typically occur after bar lines, meaning if the song is in 4/4 or “common time”, as most pop songs are, chord changes will typically happen after 4 or 8 beats.
Try counting “one, two, three, four, change, two, three, four” in time with the song. If it fits, you’ll hear that the chord change happens on the second bar.
Chord progressions almost always repeat themselves in pop songs, so instead of writing out every chord, just make a note of where it repeats. Paying attention to where the chords repeat is an important step towards understanding how the song you’re trying to learn is structured.
Understanding Common Chord Progressions
It takes a lot of practice to be able to identify chords just by hearing them, but learning some of the fundamentals of music theory will help you in a big way towards this goal. It should give you an understanding of how key centers and chords work.
Many songs use the same chord progressions or variations of the same progression.
The best way of understanding this is using the roman numeral system. The numbers represent which degree in the scale you’re using. Almost all songs consist of the chords I, IV, and V.
In a major key, these are the major chords. For example, in the key of G, the I chord would be G major, IV is C major and V is D major. The other chords, ii, iii, and vi are minor and are always written in lower case.
In the key of G major, ii would be A minor, iii would be B minor, and vi would be E minor. The VII chord is diminished, but this chord isn’t so common in pop songs so let’s not worry about it for now.
Before You Go…
Hopefully, this has clarified some confusion you may have had about chord progressions, key centers, and how to conceptualize common chord progressions.
Remember, this is a skill that requires a lot of time and practice, but it will eventually become second nature. The important thing is that you have fun playing music!