If you’d like to play improvised music in any style more confidently and consistently, it is essential to know the chords of the songs you are playing. Watch, listen, or read below to gain my easy process for how to learn and remember chord progressions.
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In this post, I’m going to explain to you how to learn, know and remember the chords of any song that you’re playing.
First of all, I’m assuming that, like 98% of the bowed string players that I’ve taught who want to learn to improvise over different songs, you’re not consciously aware of the chords in the songs you play.
The reason I suspect this is because I’ve worked with thousands of string players and I went through a similar struggle myself.
The #1 Mistake: Being Able to “Hear It”
I used to play songs over and over without knowing what the chords were. I might know a few of the chords, but I didn’t know all of the chords. I assumed that if I just tried harder and kept playing the song and tried to hear it, I would eventually hear the chords and magically be able to play the right notes.
That approach didn’t work.
It probably won’t work for you either. It might work to a limited degree on a Blues or a modal tune, or some rock progressions – in SOME cases, you can get by with the use of a scale and your ears.
Otherwise, on many songs, if you keep trying to hear your way through the music without consciously knowing what the chords are, you might get a little bit better. But, you’ll continue to play that song and you’ll still struggle in the same places, in the same ways.
That’s what happened to me.
One day, I finally got serious about confronting my limitation. I was like, “you know what? I should just know every chord of every song”.
Embrace A New Standard: “Knowing” A Song
That’s when I developed a new standard for saying I “know” a song:
I know a song if I can accompany someone else playing the melody, by myself.
If you want to accompany someone else on a song, you’re probably going to need to know what the chords are.
I invite you to get rid of the assumptions that you’ve had. You’ll be able to hear your way over some songs as a soloist, but that’s different from accompanying someone else on the song.
Have you ever tried accompanying someone on a song or tune (by yourself, without the presence of a bassist, guitarist, or keyboardist)? If you’re not sure, ask somebody to play the melody of the song and you try to accompany them and see how that goes. If you can do that, you can claim, “Hey, I really know this song”.
If you take responsibility for accompanying someone else on a song, not only will you know the chords of the song, but you’ll also be able to express the song in a rhythmically-stable way. It is a great practice to be a caretaker for the rhythm, the time, and for the harmony.
Two Ways to Accompany Someone on a Song
When it comes to accompanying others on a bowed string instrument, I do it one of two ways. Sometimes I combine them.
- Play the bass line.
- Play the inner voices, (which are like the middle parts.)
- Combine 1 and 2.
- Adding percussion is a bonus. It doesn’t hurt to accompany percussively without adding any harmony, even if you’re just clapping, snapping, stomping, etc.
I teach my students to learn the chords for every song they play so that they can actually accompany someone else on the song. I will explain an important first step, i.e., how to acquire the chords in the first place..
- Google it. Google “Chord progression to (name of song)”
- Ask somebody.
- The long way. Listen to the note in the bass on the downbeat of every chord. If you’re a violin player, you may need to transpose the bass line an octave and sing it higher so it’s easy to verify the note on your violin. Then you can check whether it’s based on a minor or major triad by playing or singing the major or minor third and seeing which sounds right. That’s the long way. You just check the bass notes.
Take a piece of paper and write the name of the chord for each bar. This is called a chord chart aka lead sheet.
Once you have a chord chart or lead sheet, in order to memorize the chords of the song, listen to a recording of the song and play the root note of the chord on the downbeat of every chord.
If you play along to a recording, simply playing the root of each chord on the downbeat of each measure, you will memorize the chords to the song.
Give yourself time to do this while reading from the chord chart. Use the chart as an aid. Play the bass line to the song 10-20 times while reading from the chart. Then try remembering it without the visual aid. That is how to memorize the chords to a song.
Here are exercises and ways to help you go deeper in this process.
But this one thing you can start with is just to play the root note on the downbeat of every chord in any song.
Do it 10, 20, 30 times and you will start to remember the chords of the song. It’s just memorization. And once you do one or two songs, the third song’s gonna be a lot easier. The fifth song’s gonna be easier.
Remember the biggest thing I want you to take away from this is the mistake that everybody makes, which is assuming that you should just “be able to hear it”.
You should not just be able to hear it, and here’s why:
If you grew up playing fiddle melodies or classical melodies you probably weren’t taught to hear chords. You weren’t even directed to pay attention to it.
The sooner you acknowledge that
1. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to try harder and “just hear it”
2. Learning the chords will make you a more capable musician,
the sooner you’ll eliminate struggles and frustrations.
Instead of beating yourself up for playing inconsistently stuff, you’ll start to know what you’re playing, and why, and you’ll be more confident and consistent.
Other musicians will like to play with you more, and they’ll call you back for more jams or gigs.
Whether you want to play in duo, trio, or larger groups, or even if you want to play songs totally unaccompanied, or using a loop pedal, or making Acapella videos…. these skills will change everything for you.
Want help unlocking your musical creativity, ability, and understanding?
Here are ways you can work with me:
- In-person summer retreats in Asheville, North Carolina
- 7-week Zoom Classes in Summer and Winter (practice every week with me prompting you and go through my entire step by step curriculum.)
- European in-person workshop and festival in Lausanne, Switzerland.
- New students: take a free lesson with a trial of my Creative Strings Academy.
- If you’re a classroom teacher interested in giving your students an in-person event where they learn multiple approaches to improvisation and eclectic styles, learn how to bring me to your school.