How good is your ear?

Hey folks,
One of my goals in music is to recognise the chords and melody in most songs I come across. I was wondering how close you have come to this goal using IFR. Would be nice and inspiring to see where everyone is at. I’ll start.

Recognising chords
I can follow the harmony in most blues songs, especially a basic 12 bar blues. I’ve heard the harmony go from the 5 chord to the 4 chord in some other songs. Also I usually recognise the 1 chord.

Recognising melody
I can’t follow entire melodies in music on the radio. But when someone plays single notes (one by one), I usually can recognise them. Slow melodies of about three notes I can usually recognise. But once they speed up a bit (to a regular tempo) I struggle.

Please tell me a bit about what you’ve learned!
Greetings, Michiel


Hi Michiel, how are you? This is a great question.

I have a bit of a different answer to it than yours, hope you appreciate it. As you know I am an IFR coach. This is what practicing, teaching, playing and listening with the IFR tonal approach did for me.

I now no longer come back from a rehearsal or gig with the suppressive thought “I must study harder”, or “I must try to remember the chords of this-or-that song” like I used to do a while ago. Instead, I check in with my body sensations when I hear something that strikes me and often wonder “Wow, what a lovely sound, what is it?” Sometimes, out of the blue, the mind recognizes too what my body already felt: “o wait, this is b6, b7, 1”. Or: “this the forward motion of a secondary dominant”.

In more complex tunes, f.i. tunes that are not made up of functional harmony, but contain parallel chords or free harmony, I prefer to tune in on my personal tonal orientation. The question is no longer “what key am I in”, but “where in the key am i”. I want to play from my own tonal orientation. This all has made my playing very personal and I can express myself better than I ever could with all the theoretical knowledge and abstract solfège skills (I also have an academic degree in jazz). I do practice a lot in advance of a performance, to internalise all the sounds and feel free during a gig.

The tonal approach is very fascinating and keeps offering me new discoveries. I still enjoy it.


If I’m specifically listening to classic12 bar blues (which I do a lot!), I now 'know where I am". Last Sunday I was listening to a worship program on the radio & there was a song (a modern worship song) I wasn’t familiar with that had no obvious ‘blues’ elements, but I suddenly thought, “Hey, this is structured just like a 12 bar blues”. That was a great moment of recognition. :smile:

In more general listening I can spot some (but pretty certainly not all) chord changes, but I rarely have any solid idea of from what to what.

In general listening I can occasionally get short runs, if played at a modest pace. With concentrated effort I can sometimes work out specific short parts of songs that I’m interested in (e.g. a lick or riff). Something I find happening more & more in general lsitening is a greater appreciation of ‘what’s going on’, especially so for things like ‘theme tunes’ & ‘sign on tones’ that are heard many times. For example I might think, “Ah, they’re using notes to sort of ‘say’ the name of the program (or the station/channel/whatever)”, where as before it was just a collection of pleasing but seemingly tones with not obvious purpose other than entertainment.
Small steps, but significant & pleasing nonetheless. Progress is progress. I’m grateful for what has happened so far & look forward to more. :slight_smile:


Hi Michiel,

I’m about where you are in giving things names … after many years of tinkering with the piano and four months of practicing IFR stuff. But I am not concerned. What IFR has changed for me is to let myself just enjoy the sounds. Very zen Buddhist.

I see my practice now as an exercise in perception, not in labeling. If we we working on painting, I would be looking to notice the different shades of blue, not name them.

Yet I am confident that with steady practice, just having fun, I will continue progressing till I have a personal relationship with almost all the sounds in popular music, and maybe a lot of jazz. No rush though. I am only 69 years old with my best years ahead of me.


I love your response here, Jelske, and like this approach for myself too. Additional question: as you’re reflecting on “where in the key am I?”, and the sensations of certain tones and play along to this, is it important that you are theoretically correct as well? In your case, I bet your feelings and the theory pretty much always line up. What if they don’t for someone though. Maybe just go with your sensations and where you think you are anyway, and you’ll eventually synch up with being correct, if you’re not already? Hope I’m making sense.

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I seem to be about where you’re at too, Michiel. Maybe not quite as strong on melody recognition though. One thing that I love that I couldn’t do a few months or a couple years ago: I feel like I can take most any pop song and eventually work out the chords and melody. It might take me quite a while in some cases. I also have to play things repeatedly a lot and at slow speeds. I value the musical independence of this. Also, I get so close to the song when I do this. I feel more connected to the song and new sensations are revealed.

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thanks for the responses all. Great to read :slight_smile:

by the way, you made me laugh @hender99 with what you said about having your best years ahead of you. The best is yet to come, right? :slight_smile: I plan to enter heaven with awesome guitar skills so I can play great music for all eternity :wink:

@Mike_Leffler I’m not Jelske :wink: But I would say: is there even something as being theoretically correct? Of course, for simple songs, there might be. But when you start adding outside notes and chords, I’m sure you can interpret songs in multiple ways that are all theoretically correct.
Even very simple music can be interpreted in more ways. For example: if I play the chords C and G, you could interpret that as the 1 chord and the 5 chord in the key of C, or as 4 chord and the 1 chord in the key of G. Which one is theoretically correct? Both? I think the ear decides.


Such a great response. Thanks, Michiel. Your example with the G & C chords makes the point very well. So, with your viewpoint, I think that leaves one with an approach like Jelske’s. You let your ear decide what it hears and run with that instead of trying to figure out what is “theoretically correct.” So, here’s a follow up question for you: with everything that we’ve just said, and going back to your original post on this thread, what are you trying to develop with melody and chord recognition? If I understand you correctly, you just go with what your ear is telling you. Is the task at hand then only to build the ability to locate on your instrument what your ear is telling you?


Hi Mike. It’s actually the tonal approach that really made me aware of the sound sensations, which I wasn’t before (while knowing tons of theory). In translating what I hear to my instrument, it does help to ‘know’ my scales. But I think it makes up 1% of what I am doing.

I stumbled upon a great video on theory by Victor Wooten. Theory is easy, he says here. (And also: practice in all keys. yes!).

But to answer your question: it’s always good to study music from more than one perspective. The introduction course you followed with me ended with a bonus video explaining all the chord shapes. This (and some of what Victor Wooten says on scales) is really all the theory you need at the level of Pure Harmony. The rest comes to playing, listening, creating, practicing. Hope this helps Mike.

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Hi @Michiel_Koers!

I don’t have the same goal. In my case, I want to be able to recognise only the music I imagine. Ultimately, I may need to achieve the goal you describe to get there. But I think it makes a difference in how I practice to achieve my goal. I’ll detail below how I believe it makes a difference for my practice.

I don’t practice much on this yet. I would say that when I play with other musicians (or I used to, I should say), I could identify quickly enough common chord progressions for popular music or worship music. I would have a feeling of the chords by listening, and then I could confirm by playing the root of the chords, or melody path (I would identify the key first). So it is not as noble as identifying chords by just closing my eyes. In a way I’m cheating because I’m using my instrument to find/confirm chords. However, this worked for me for what I needed so that makes me happy enough (for now).

I find this very challenging for music on the radio or the fast tracks of “feel the numbers”. I am realizing that focusing too much in being successful in identifying all the notes in the tracks is not the best use of my practice time. Not succeeding also tends to depress me a little. Additionally, I realized that the music I imagine is often less complicated and slower than the music of others or in the tracks. I’m now trying to recognize notes in melodies I imagines therefore only melodies, for which I’m deeply connected. My assumption is that it makes a difference in the learning process.

So what I am trying to do now, which relates to recognising melody is: only play on my instrument a melody I imagine first in my head. I try to force myself to not play a single note on my guitar if I didn’t hear it first (and recognize) in my head. At this point this is only for my practice. If I have to play with other people, I’m sure I will have to use my previous way of playing the instrument (playing scales, chord notes, etc.) This is because I need to develop more my melody recognition skill for me to use in in any live situation.

So that’s really where I am at right now. I do notes recognition, but only for the melodies I imagine, not for melodies or tests of others. I think it’s probably a quicker way to achieve my goal, but I am hoping that at some point I will be able to recognise anything, but that’s not a goal I’m setting to myself right now. I remember @MireiaClua suggested we create our own feel the number tracks. I think it’s a great suggestion. In my case I will sing some melodies over a backing track, and that will be my feel the number tracks. Why singing instead of playing an instrument? To be sure that it’s really a melody I imagine.

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Thanks, Jelske. I think I see how that can happen about not noticing the sensations of the notes until learning IFR. That’s true for me too, but I didn’t have near the musical background that you did. I haven’t a clue what Victor is talking about here with the 30 keys even though he calls it 2nd grade knowledge. I don’t know how key signatures work. I feel like I have all of the theory that I need anyway.

AIUI, the difference between the 24 (i.e. 12 major & 12 minor) that most people answer & his ‘there are really’ 30 number is only there in circumstances where the diifference between, say, F# & Gb is significant. The tones in F# & Gb are identical. The only difference (so far as I can see) comes if you need to write down or read those tones using standard staff notation; in that situation the notation for F# & Gb will look different even though the played sounds are identical.

I think I’ll leave that sort of thing to those who enjoy it & stick with the ‘numbers’. :slight_smile:

Three cheers for IFR! :smiley:

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Thank you, DavidW! I’ll second the IFR cheers! I appreciate your explanation. I now feel more assured in not worrying about it :slight_smile:

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I wonder what comes naturally first, if you use the IFR excersises. I imagine you start recognising your own music first. So maybe it’s the other way around :slight_smile: Even if that’s not true, I think you are on a great track.

At first my goal was to learn to play both the melodies I imagine and the melodies of songs I hear on the radio. But my goals have shifted lately. I’ve started a small church in my house, together with my wife. Now my goal is to improvise easy accompaniment parts to the many worship songs I can sing but don’t know the chords to. It would give us so much freedom in the songs we can sing!


I’m fine and always have been with 12 bar blues since my teens. That was drummed into my brain in the 60s when I listened non-stop to the old blues men like Sonny Boy, Muddy and Big Bill. A challenge for me today is to recognise the chords in an 8 bar blues like “Need Your Love So Bad”. They are simple but I had to look them up.

Here’s a challenge. Can you just ‘know’ what the changes are by listening to this? Need Your Love So Bad by Fleetwood Mac

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No, but many thanks for that classic early Fleetwood Mac video, from back when they were a British Blues band. :smiley:

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I’m new here. I’m trying to give extra value in my posts to up my profile😀