Play-by-Ear Tip #3: Recognize the Patterns

Have you ever wondered how some musicians can play the chords to a song after hearing it only once? Or how others are able to jump right in with the band and play along on a new song they've never heard before? In most cases, to perform this kind of feat, a musician must call upon her knowledge of PATTERNS in music.

Music is full of patterns: Notes combine in a specific way to make a scale or chord. Chords come together to form chord progressions. Progressions combine to make verses, and so on. Chord progression patterns are especially common in popular music. As a play-by-ear musician, you should recognize these common patterns when you hear them. This skill gives you a valuable short-cut when learning new songs by ear, and also allows you to anticipate chord changes when you are playing an unfamiliar song in a group.

The first step to learning chord patterns is to learn the sound of the most common ones.For example, think of 'La Bamba' and 'Twist and Shout'. These songs are similar in that they share one of the most common chord progressions of all time: the I - IV - V - V pattern. If you can play the chords for one of these songs, you can easily play the other song in the same key. The I - IV - V - V pattern can also be heard in the refrain of Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', the Beatles 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' and countless others.

So how does this help you work out the chords in a new song more quickly? If you know the sound of common patterns and you know the key of the song, then as soon as you hear one of the patterns, you can instantly work out the chords by translating the roman numerals into the chords for that key. For example, if you know you are in the key of C, and you hear the familiar I - IV - V - V sound, then you immediately know the chords for that part are C - F - G - G.

Here's a funny video clip that shows how a diverse range of songs can be united in their use of a common chord pattern: http://tinyurl.com/2dgw8cd

This band uses songs by the Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Aha, Elton John, Lady Gaga and many others. They then combine these all into the 'same song' by playing the common chord pattern in the same key. Can you guess the chord pattern from hearing the progression in the video?