Hearing the Key of the Song (for Guitar)

Rather than always looking up the chords to songs, it is important to me to help students learn to hear and pick out the key and the chords themselves.

To start this exercise, I found a couple of songs with just one primary chord. Then I led students through a process of picking out that primary chord.

  1. Guess and check through the bass notes.
  2. Build a chord off of the bass note that fits.
    Try different voicings for the chord to find the closest match.


To start, “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The only chord is D7 so students can play their open strings on guitar to see which best fits. Try a D Major chord with it (not bad), then try a D7 chord (way cool). This one also has a relatively simple guitar riff based on the D7 chord that repeats over and over and over again.


Then, we tried “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson. It is slightly trickier because the key is not an open string, it is a C. When building the chord, C Major works just fine but C7 is even better if it is in the student’s skill set. You can also work in the alternating bass line from C to G or go a step further and play with the fingerpicking over the chord.


Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” is a good one to try next. It is also based around a C but the chord is a Cm chord which could be played as a barre chord if it is in the student’s skill set or a partial barre chord on the bottom 4 strings. Alternating with a Cm7 fits well with this song too.


“Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles is a good song to start hearing chord changes. The primary chord in the song is a C but towards the end of each stanza it goes down a whole step to a Bflat before landing back on a C. This pattern is repeated throughout. For students that have not yet mastered barre chords they can simply play along with the bass notes or power chords.


To continue work with walking down bass lines, I like to use “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. The primary chord is an A throughout the song with the exception of the bridge. The bass line walks from A, down to G, then F#, then E.


These exercises are just a starting point for beginning to hear and match pitches to build bass lines and chords from. In addition, the last songs provide some exercises for continuing to work on hearing how pitches change as they move higher or lower by half steps or whole steps. More information about hearing I, IV, V chord changes and beyond is forthcoming!


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