The internet is already stacked with the ready-made chord arrangements of countless songs, but what if you can’t find the song you’re looking for? No problem. There are also apps that you can download and use to pick out the right chords for you. But… regularly figuring out the chords of a song is actually a far better idea. Why? Because it’s a great opportunity to train your ear. In this blog, we explain how it’s done and how to use lead sheets.

Finding the Chords Yourself & Figuring Out the Song

The Beauty of Pop Music

The beauty of pop music is that the songs almost always have a really clear structure that’s often pretty predictable. Every pop song will have parts that it will return to, so if you’ve found the chords of the first verse, then you can be pretty certain that the same chords will repeat in all the other verses. This is also true of the chorus, and if there’s an instrumental section or a solo, then this usually follows the same chord progression as the verses as well.

In short, pop songs, including rock, R&B, blues, indie, and so on are all built on repeats. So, if you know the structure of the song, then half the job is done, and if you can write out all the parts of the song and keep things brief, so without having to write out the chords for every repeated verse or chorus, then most songs will take up less than one side of an A4 piece of paper. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to read and write music to note songs down. All you’ll need is some basic knowledge of the names of chords and notes.

Basic Knowledge

We’ll carry on with the assumption that you’re familiar with chords and chord symbols. If not, then it’s a good idea to have a quick read of the blogs linked below:

These blogs are also useful:

Why Note it Down?

Why is it important to note down the chords? I mean, you could just remember them, right? If you’ve studied a song long enough, then it tends to just stick in your head. While this is true, there are many arguments in favour of writing down the structure and chord progressions that make up a song. The first is that the structure is immediately clearer when you write it down; the second is: if you haven’t played a song in a long time, there’s every chance that you’ve just completely forgotten how it goes, so it’s handy to have a memory-aid handy. Another good reason for writing down the chords has to do with communication. If you’re in a band and want to play the song you’ve just worked out, it’s going to be a lot easier to communicate the structure and chord progressions if you have them written down. The most common way to write down a song is the lead sheet, which we’ll talk about in a minute. A lead sheet is a kind of basic notation that each musician is able to add their own instrument-specific notes to. Once your band’s lead sheet is completed, you can easily get it photocopied so that everyone gets a copy.

Finding Chords

As we’ve already mentioned, getting to know the structure of a song when figuring out how it’s actually played is important. Once you’ve got that down, you can start digging deeper to find the right chords. Luckily, chord progressions tend to have a logical flow to them and It’s rare to come across a pop song that’s made up of an illogical chord order. Also, the chords of most songs will fall into the key that the song was written in. So, when figuring out how to play a song, one of the first things you also need to do is find out what key it’s in. Hint: the opening chord of the first full bar of a song very often includes the key the song is written in. So, if the opening chord is an E, then it’s highly likely that the song is in E-major or E-minor, and if the rest of the chords also fit into that key (see our more basic blog about chords) then you can be certain that you’ve figured out the right key. Note: the bridge will often be a deviating chord progression and can sometimes even be in a different key. Sometimes, you know you’ve found the right chord (let’s say it’s A7: A, C♯, E, G) but you can hear that there’s another note in there. In the case of A7, that could be an F♯, in which case you might actually be looking at the A13 chord. But not to worry, even if you don’t play that F♯, the chord isn’t going to sound wrong since you’re only missing out one note and the notes that you are playing are right. The 13th chords have a really jazzy feel to them, and are covered in more depth in this blog.

Follow the Bass

Rather than haphazardly stabbing about to try to find the right chords, listen closely to where the chord changes sit. Where the chords change, the bass usually follows and following the bass can be a big help when you’re figuring out how to play a song. The bass doesn’t only (often) play notes on the first count of the chord, but will almost always play the root note of the chord you need to find. So, once you find that bass note, you have the first piece of your puzzle. If the bass note on the first count is an A, then the chord is very likely to be an A chord, which narrows it down to an A, or Am, or A7, and so on.

Try turning the treble all the way down on whatever device you’re using to listen to the song and increase the bass so that you can really hear it. Recognising bass notes takes little training, but once you get it, it’ll be eternally helpful. Once you have the root note, you can seek out the other notes of the chord using the knowledge you already have about them. Is it a minor or major chord? Is there a seventh in there? Is that an augmented or diminished fifth? Maybe it’s a diminished chord. After finding the bass or root note, it can be a good idea to then seek out the highest note in the chord before filling in the gaps.

Playing along with the main melody of the song can also help you to find the chords. It might be a little easier to do this playing a piano or keyboard than with a guitar. With a piano, you can go deeper to find the bass notes, and keyboards can often be tuned down by one or two octaves so you can reach the lower range of the bass.

Structure First

As we’ve already said, if you want to know how to play a song, you need to know its overall structure first. Pick out all of the different parts then note them down in the order that they’re played, then count the number of bars per part and note that down as well. Once you have an outline of the intro, verse, chorus, second verse etc, solo, bridge, and outro, then you’ve already come a long way.

A standard pop song structure, for example, is: intro – verse 1 – chorus – verse 2 – chorus – solo (following the same chords as the verse) – bridge – chorus – outro. Or a variation of the same, so maybe there’s no solo at all, or no bridge. It’s this structure that provides the framework for you to start filling in the chords. On the internet, you’ll see that chords are often notated on the basis of the lyrics. While this looks handy, it’s actually not, and for a couple of reasons.

A singer can sometimes forget part of a line or change up the timing, meaning that the A7 chord doesn’t actually land exactly on the lyric starting ‘you’. An even more important reason for not noting the chords down based on the lyrics is that, by basing it on the bars of the song, you can actually see how long you need to play A7 for and at which point you need to transfer to the next chord. And since music is made up of bars, it’s simply better to note down a song on the basis of bars. In pop, this will usually be a repeat of two, four, or eight bars, since it has a really logical feel to it. As such, it’s also logical to write them down in this way. For example, always put four or eight bars on one line and it’ll immediately make more sense. On the lead sheet included further below, you can see that this is exactly what has been done.

A Few Notes

Useful for ‘non-chord’ instruments

A lead sheet or a simple chord progression and structure is not just useful for chord-based instruments like the guitar and keyboard, but also for the bass, drums, brass section, and the singer. It’s always going to be useful for the bassist to know which chords happen when so they can avoid mistakes like playing a major line over a minor chord, or the other way around, which will sound like a clashing mess.

The most essential thing about a lead sheet is that the structure can be seen clearly as well as the number of bars per part. This way the singer and the drummer know exactly how many bars they have to fit a verse of lyrics into, and the drummer knows when the chorus will hit so they can insert a break or a roll. A lead sheet basically represents the frame of the song on which every member of the band can hang their own specific parts. It also serves as a kind of set of instructions, since it clearly states, ‘this is what we’re doing’.

Useful apps

It wasn’t until that long ago that cassettes were a musician’s best friend. Sometimes they were really helpful, but sometimes you got less lucky and had a copy of a copy (and so on) of a song, or your cassette deck didn’t play at precisely the right speed, slightly shifting the pitch. These days, there are plenty of apps available that have been designed for musicians and offer some really useful features, like loop functions, where you can repeat a certain section over and over again and often speed up or slow down the tempo without messing with the pitch. Some apps allow you to do it the other way around, so you can shift the pitch up or down without messing with the tempo. Many current handheld recorders also have these functions. If you want to use gear like this to help you figure out how to play certain songs, then the control (so, the start, stop, loop etc. buttons) will need to be within quick and easy reach. Tascam has a big range of recorders like this, as well as Zoom, Korg, and other manufacturers. Even more advanced apps are able to simply seek out the chords of a song for you, like Yamaha Chord Tracker for iOS and Android. Just search ‘chord finder’ or ‘chord analyser’ and you’ll find even more apps and websites that are able to do this. The downside of these apps is that they’re not always accurate enough, so if you use one, always double check the result. Also, as we’ve already mentioned in this blog, it’s just going to be more useful for you in the long run and will only help you develop as a musician if you train your ear and get better at seeking our chords yourself. It will be especially invaluable when you play with other musicians.

Sample Lead Sheets

Included below, you can see a sample lead sheet. While a song with a more complex than average structure has been chosen on purpose so you can see all of the ingredients that make up a good lead sheet, most pop and rock songs are more likely to have a simpler structure that will take up less space on a page. Here, you can clearly see the intro, the verse, the chorus, a solo section and an outro. The double bar lines that you can see dotted about indicate where a specific part ends. What is missing from this number is a bridge and the notes included in the first few bars are written for the keyboard player, or in fact, any other band member. You can see at the very start that this song, like most songs, is written in four or eight bars per measure, which makes sense because it’s easier to follow. Every section of the song has also been marked with a letter, so the first verse is indicated by the letter A, and the second verse is indicated by the letter D. Since the chord progression for both verses is the same, they could also both just be indicated by A – which is also done sometimes – but it can be more practical to give each section its own ‘name’ since it gives a better overview and makes it easier to communicate where you’re at with the rest of your bandmates. So if you yell, now head to part ‘D’, they’ll actually know what you mean.

Finding the Chords Yourself & Figuring Out the Song

Lead Sheet explainer:

1. The tempo is 120 beats per minute, played with a half-time feel.
2. The treble clef is notated at the start of the bar since actual notation follows.
3. The two sharps indicate that the song is in the key of D. From the guitar solo (section G), the number is transposed up by one note to E, as indicated by four sharps.
4. The song is played in a 4/4 beat.
5. At the end of the first measure, there is a repeat symbol to send you back to the beginning. So you’re playing these four bars twice, one after the other.
6. During the first repeat, play the two bars marked ‘1.’, then play the two bars marked ‘2.’ during the second repeat.
7. This section is played in 2/4 timing before returning to 4/4 timing.
8. Here, a chord with a different bass note has been written down. So, a Dmaj7 is played with a C# as the bass note. Two bars along, the same kind of thing happens, where the Bm7 chord is played with an A as the bass note.
9. The notes included beneath the chords indicate how each chord is divided over the beats in the bar. This kind of notation happens at a few points on the lead sheet.
10. The two bars are the same as the previous two bars.
11. This bar is the same as the previous bar.
12. Play the part between the two repeat symbols twice.

See also…

» Music Books
» Keyboard Instruments
» All Musical Instruments & Accessories

» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scale and Keys
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Learning To Play Guitar Chords For Beginners
» How to play basic piano chords
» Diminished, Augmented & Seventh Chords: Learn Them Here!
» Understanding Chord Progressions: Intervals, Leading Notes & Tension
» 9th, 11th & 13th Chords – How They’re Put Together
» Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!
» The Church Modes for Beginners
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed

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