Transcribing Music By Ear 2.2

by Matt on January 8, 2012

Transcribing By Ear Part 2.2

Hi, Everyone

In the last post we talked about figuring out single-note-lines and I mentioned that in my next post I would explain “the other white meat” so to speak…figuring out the chords to a song. This is daunting but I’m totally game if you are.


There is no substitute for studying this subject first. Chord construction is learning the many different flavors of the 5 chord types in music: major, minor, dominant, augmented, and diminished. What this study involves is essentially learning the symbols and formulas for the various chord types and then being able to have several grips (hand positions) for each.

The formulas are simply numbers that represents small groups of notes taken from the 7 notes of the major scale. For example: The formula for a major chord is simply written (1,3,5). That means if you go to any major scale of the 12 we have to work with in our system and extract the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes, when you play them together in any order, you will have created a major chord. To put that in practical application, if I wanted to create a C major chord I would only need to locate the (1, 3, 5) notes of the C major scale and play them together. So C major = C D E F G A B and removing the (1,3,5) would give me C,E,G or C major. Above and beyond that I would have to know the symbol for that chord. Oddly, in this example, there is no symbol. By that I mean, when speaking of chords, if only a single-letter note is given, it is interpreted to be a major chord. (C major would be represented by a single capital “C”. Confused yet?

Here’s is a bare minimum of the chords / formulas / sounds you would need to be familiar with to accurately lift a chord sequence from a garden variety radio type song:

Power Chord = 1, 5 = notated as C5
Major = 1, 3, 5 = C
Minor = 1, b3, 5 = Cm
Suspended 2 = 1, 2, 5 = Csus2
Suspended 4 = 1, 4, 5 = Csus4
Dominant 7th = 1, 3, 5, b7 = C7
Augmented = 1, 3, #5 = C+ (Not as common these days)
Diminished = 1, b3, b5 = Cdim ( “ )

Ok, if you still haven’t fallen asleep yet from all the numbers, the next concept that makes transcribing a chord sequence possible is understanding a subject called the Harmonized Major Scale.

The idea behind this is that if you harmonize a major scale or turn the 7 single notes in it into 7 chords, a very distinct pattern of chords emerges. Let me show you: I’m going to apply a process called stacking 3rds to turn Do, Re, Me in the key of “C” into 7 chords that could be said to belong to the key of “C”:


C E G = C
D F A = Dm
E G B = Em
F A C = F
G B D = G
A C E = Am
B D F = Bdim

This pattern never changes. For those of you who write music this is invaluable. Why? Because, with the exception of the Bdim, you cannot put these chords in an unmelodic order. Try for yourself. I dare you, ha! You could randomly mix these chords together on the fly in any way shape or form and it would sound like you were playing a well thought out piece of music. This is the idea behind what some refer to as the Nashville Number System. This is when Roman Numerals start getting thrown around and people start saying things like, “C’mon, Herb! I know you’re drunk but you can play this song. It’s just a ii, V, I in “G”!

Whether, you know it or not, this is the theory behind almost every pop song ever written. It is irrelevant whether the artist that wrote the song was thinking this way or not. At the end of the day, this is the little “ism” at work. Anybody’s whose grown up listening to music has it programmed in them somewhere.

Now you might say to yourself, great but, what does this have to do with transcribing? The answer…everything. Let me explain. When you figure out a song’s chord pattern it is common to be able to get a chord or two and then draw a complete blank on the few that are missing. Because this system is so readily in place, you could easily examine the harmonized scale of a couple of keys that have the two chords you’ve found and almost immediately see what the missing chords will most likely be. A little trial and error and you’ve got it. This should open the door to understanding chord progressions in general. From there it doesn’t take very long to realize there are only a handful that get used over and over and over, and…understand?

Well, there you have it. While I know this is not enough information to make you a master at transcribing, I’m hoping it will at least point those of you who want to know more in the right direction. Keep in mind that I have simplified this as much as possible and those of you brave enough to try it will no doubt find contradictions to this right away. Music theory is full of contradictions but, even those make sense in time. Now, go get a chord dictionary, and connect with your inner nerd. The rock star in you is waiting, ha!

Matt Venus

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