Learn a Song’s
Chords by Ear

Your Goal

To identify chords in a song by
1) Hearing bass notes
2) Understanding chord families.

Now practice using one of the songs below.

Don’t peek at the chart!


Listen to the song and…

1. Identify key by finding the chord that makes the song sound “done”.
2. Use cheat sheet to find six chords in chord family.
3. Now listen to beginning of song and identify bass notes played at chord changes. They’ll probably be root notes of one of the chords in the chord family.

Then look at the chart and…

Check your work.

Brown Eyed Girl

Van Morrison

How nice of Van and his band to start the song with just the bass line. Thanks, man! If you’re having trouble hearing the bass in these other examples, start here.

On the flip side, the bass player doesn’t dilly-dally on his root notes. You’ll need a quick reflexes to pause the song at the right time, and keen ears to hear the note for a split-second before it changes.



Love Story

Taylor Swift

If the bass notes in “Brown Eyed Girl” changed too quickly for you, you’ll like this one. The bass player ONLY plays root notes for the entire song, and the chords change slowly.

The bass enters at 0:32.



Island in the Sun


This is a great example of a song that would be hard to decode without the two superpowers you now possess. Why? The main guitar riff uses chord voicings played higher up the neck than standard open chords, and they lack bass notes. But those high voicings actually make it EASIER to hear the bass notes, which is what you’re supposed to be listening to anyway, right?

The bass line kicks in halfway through the intro.



How’d it go? Anything frustrate you?
PLEASE let me know.

Comments 5

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  2. Thank you Rob, great lesson.

    I tried Brown Eyed Girl first and figured out it was in the key of G by playing bass notes and realizing that the song seemed to keep coming back to G and then would go back and forth between C and D. When I checked my results against the chord chart, I realized I missed the Em in the last line of the verse.

    As for Love Story, I pulled out the G note early, but quickly realized it didn’t feel like the key of G. Then I found the A and D notes and consulted the chord chart and pulled out more chords from the key of D.

    Island in the Sun was interesting. I found the E in the bass and started noodling in the key of E but that didn’t work. After awhile, I checked out E major vs Em and then realized that it was Em. Did the same with the A note in the bass and also saw that it was minor too. Then worked through most of the chord changes after playing through the song quite a bit.

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      So fun to hear about your process! One big question I had when I was designing the lesson was, “Should I include the bit about chord families, or is that too much info?” After all, it’s a LONG lesson. But whenever I figure out songs, it’s always a combo of listening and using theory. It just seemed like an essential tool.

      So I’m happy to hear that you used that info to help figure things out.

      Thanks so much for writing.

  3. Hi Rob,

    As an intermediate player this was pitched just right for me. Being able to learn a song by ear is one of those things that I know I ought to be able to do, but somehow, I have generally given up and started looking up the online tabs or lessons. One of the issues is having the confidence to believe that I can do it.

    I managed pretty well with all three of these songs and surprised myself, I guess I got them over 90% correct first time, however, it did take a lot of listening. Listening to the bass definitely helps once you get tuned into it. I was also pleased to see that I could distinguish the minor chords quite easily, that may seem obvious to a lot of people, but I’ve never been that good at it.

    I personally think the chord family information would sit well with this exercise.

    Many thanks for a very useful exercise.

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