In response to discussion on the banjo-L discussion list regarding hearing chord changes:

I’ve been looking in on the talk about hearing chord changes. Some interesting, though not too exacting ideas:

JUST playing the 1 chord. Listen hard for when it sounds “right” and when it’s “not right”.

There’s a new “feel” to the tune with each chord change. Learn the 1, 4 & 5 chords for each key you’re likely to play in. Listen for the feel of the changes. If a tune were a car, the 1 would be cruising, the 4 would be an uplifting surge and the 5 would be the brakes. A horse? 1 is a steady, comfortable jog, 4 is surging to a canter, 5 is slowing up.

I’ve not noticed anyone pointing to some of the more helpful clues I’ve noticed over the years:

  1. Chords almost always change right on the first beat of a measure. Otherwise, on the second beat.
  2. 5 chord is almost ALWAYS the next to last chord, and most last lines of verses and choruses go 1/5/1, with the return to 1 being on the *last syllable*. That is “default”, with (long) 5/1 and 4/5/1 being other common choices, though 1/5/1 is by far the most typical.
  3. This is a biggie: Chord changes are not just arbitrary, or “voodoo”, or just based on “feel”. The simple truth is that when a chord changes it’s because:

An important melody note (started at the top of a measure, and often held) is *not compatible with* the sound of the previous chord. Why is it incompatible? Because it is not *a member* of the previous chord. Chords consist of 3 notes, and most important notes of most melodies are actually *members* of the active chord at any given time.


When you sing “This land is YOUR land” in the key of G, try to keep playing the G on YOUR. You really don’t want to stay on G, as the C note of the melody violates the G chord. However, it does fit right in with a C chord.

Or try singing Happy Birthday in G. When you get to the first YOU, try to keep playing the G. It just sounds wrong. C doesn’t sound better but D sounds fine. Why? Because the melody (F# on the word YOU) is a *member* of the D chord. When you play the chord, that note, the melody, is one of the component sounds.

These are not isolated cases. They are examples of an unwritten rule:

Almost every important melody note is a member of the chord that’s active at that time.

Note, I’m not talking about the quick notes for words like “is” or “the” that happen between beats. I’m referring to the important notes, that typically fall on the beats.

Try it, you’ll see it works. This knowledge makes two important things easier:

  1. When you know the chords, it’s easier to find many melody notes, as it narrows the choices.
  2. If you can find the melody notes on your instrument, it helps you find the correct chords.

A very useful and telling exercise:

Sing Happy Birthday to You in G. This is a 3 chord song, 1, 4, 5, G C and D.

Figure out the chords yourself, trial and error.

You’ll note an exception to the above rule (the first syllable of the birthday person’s name lands on a note outside the active chord, though the next syllable lands on a member of the chord). But you’ll see, hearing the chord changes is quite possible. Just put up with a bit of trial and error.

After a while, when you can guess where a melody is going, note-wise, you’ll have an instinct for which chord matches up to that next note, and find yourself making “lucky” correct guesses. That is your ear and mind digesting the method described above, on the unconscious level.

Hearing chord changes is a really useful jam skill, though until it develops, make sure you have a good view of the guitar player’s left hand!