UD#18 How To Figure Out Songs By Ear

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UD#18 How To Figure Out Songs By Ear
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek

Here’s the scenario:

You hear a song that sounds pretty simple that you would like to learn to play. You can’t find the chords anywhere on the internet. How do you figure out how to play it?

Last week we talked about diatonic chords (the chords that come from one scale). If you haven’t read that newsletter, please go here: UD #17 The Building Blocks of Songs.

The first thing to do when you are figuring out a song by ear is to determine what key the song is in. This is done by listening to the melody and chords and applying some techniques that I will discuss next week. For this week I am going to tell you what key the song is in and we will work on figuring out the chord progression by ear.

Once you’ve figured out the key of a song, the first place to look in terms of figuring out the chords is the diatonic chords in the same key.

Today we will be working in the key of C.

Simple songs in the key of C use the diatonic chords in the key of C:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim

How do I figure out which of the diatonic chords is being played?

Over time this becomes an instinctive and internal process. But at first you just need to hash it out by trial and error. It can take some work but, it’s fascinating work.

Most times there is no ukulele in the song you are trying to figure out. But rest assured, the chords played on any instrument will have the same basic quality that will match with the chords played on a ukulele. It may not sound exactly the same in terms of “high” and “low” notes. But, you will eventually learn to feel when you have a match.

Here’s is a little recording of me playing some chords from the key of C on the guitar. I  choose from 4 chords: C, Dm, F and G. The I, ii, IV and V chords in the key of C. See if you can figure out which chords I am playing. Try playing along to figure out what the chords are. It may take a lot of trial of error but don’t give up! I play 8 chords in all the answers are below. Remember there are only four chords to pick from C, Dm, F and G.

Here’s the recording:

How did that go? If you found it impossible, look at the answers below and just play those chords along with the recording. Try playing a “wrong” chord along with the recording to see how that feels. Go back to playing the correct chords along with the recording and see how different that feels.

ANSWERS: 1. G    2.Dm   3.C    4.F     5.G     6.C    7.Dm     8.F

Ready for more?

Here are two simple 4-bar progressions using the same chords as above: C, Dm, F and G. See if you can figure out which chords are in each progression.



I play one chord per bar. I say “TOP” when I get to the beginning of the progression. I don’t strum the chords for the first few times through I just play them once each then I start strumming. Remember the progressions are only 4 bars long. The answers are below. Have fun!

1. | C       | Dm       |  G           |  C            |

2. | F        | G         |  Dm         |  C           |



OK, finally here is the chord progression to a beautiful song by Ian Tyson called Four Strong Winds. The progression is 16 bars long and uses the same four chords: C, Dm, F and G. Start out by writing 16 empty bars on a piece of paper and you can fill them in with the appropriate chords. Once you’ve figured out the chord progression you can jam along with the Neil Young version on Youtube.

Here are the 16 bars with the first three chords written in. The answer is below:

|   C          |  Dm          | G             |              |
|                |                 |                 |              |
|                |                 |                 |              |
|                |                 |                 |              |

Here’s the recording:

Here is the Neil Young Version of the song:

answer: FOUR STRONG WINDS chord progression

|   C          |  Dm          | G             |  C            |
|   C          |  Dm          | G             |  G            |
|   C          |  Dm          | G             |  C            |
|  Dm        |  F             | G             |  G            |

All for this week!

See you next week,



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