55. Analysis

I like to have students analyze songs early in their studies. It helps to reinforce the basics of theory and gives a glimpse into the world that awaits them if they are willing to learn these simple structures.


As described in “The 98% Rule” (no. 15 in this section), we see that establishing key is necessary to analyzing a song. Our working knowledge of the diatonic chords in a given key helps to eliminate confusion when the key seems not established, or unclear due to a cadence or movement between the relative major and minor key, which as we have seen, is very common. Particularly deceptive are completely out of key introductory sections, which may function as a prologue, prelude etc, that are best ignored for our purposes. Later, these types of introductory sections are easy to recognize.


Open tunings, interplay between instruments in a recording, and use of a capo can also confuse the ear, but not for long if we keep at it.


Once the key is established, we are looking for diatonic chords in that key. Again, as an example, if the song is in G major, we are looking for G, A minor, B minor, C, D, and E minor. (Again, disregard the F# diminished chord for now). Not only are we looking for these chords, we are looking first for G, C, and D. (I, IV, V).


This is the most popular of all progressions, and even when they are not the only chords in a song, they are very likely to be present, in various combinations. IV-V-I, I-V-IV, I-V-I-IV-V, etc–


These progressions are all very common!

Let’s assume that, most of the time, the first chord of a song is the tonic chord (I). Let’s also assume it is the tonic chord of one of the five favored guitar keys of C, A, G, E, and D. At first, the process of elimination alone will usually lead us to the right chord. Then we have established the key. It is possible, of course, that the song is not in one of these five keys, or that the first chord is not the tonic chord, but we can come back to those.

Once the key is established, write out the chords. Then write the number above each chord that corresponds to the diatonic chart in that key. If an out of key chord appears, or seems to appear, try to name it or leave it blank for now.

     At this point, one might ask, “Why we are doing this, when we can just get a song book or internet tab instead?”


First, songbooks are expensive, and not necessarily reliable.  Internet transcriptions are free, and far less reliable. Just as wrong information on medicine, car repair, job networking, pie baking, etc. can be easily obtained through the internet, so it is with guitar music. Most internet transcriptions I see contain numerous errors, and I tend to see a lot that students bring to me. These are mostly pretty basic songs with completely diatonic progressions in common keys, so it seems clear that developing the ear is very useful, although evidently not popular! This is what we are trying to do.

The second reason to do this is as an introduction to the world of improvisation and soloing. Remember, everything we do with melody and harmony is derived from working knowledge of the major scale, and the other scales that come from it. They connect in a completely systematic way with these chords that harmonize its tones. This is the tool kit all good players work from. It is from this point that other aspects of music and the guitar can be explored.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield