Music is something that’s been around for about as long as we’ve been human. In fact, there are currently viable scientific ideas, informed by new developments in neuroscience, surrounding how music may have helped lay the foundation for one of the most important things our species has: language.
Music moves us in profound ways, sometimes even in ways we have trouble explaining. Music is something that you feel, in a deeply emotional and almost visceral way.
And yet, despite its deeply emotional and intuitive character, music is a highly measured and mathematical construct. Music has consistent patterns, and by learning more about these patterns, you can begin to understand how music is created — whether you’re playing a ukulele, a violin, a piccolo, or any other instrument.
By learning some basic ukulele chord progressions, you’ll be able to make beautiful music, faster and impress all your friends! We’ll talk a bit about the history of chord progressions, and then get into some you can start using today that sound great.
Chord Progressions: The Foundation of the Western Musical Scale
Have you ever listened to music from India? There’s something different about the sound, isn’t there? Something exotic and “other,” setting it apart from the Western music we’re used to.
This is because there’s actually more than one musical scale. The Indian musical tradition uses what’s called “just intonation” tuning, in which the frequencies of the notes are related to one another by ratios of small whole numbers. This tuning system was also used in ancient Greek music, some of the notation for which has survived to the present day.
In contrast, our Western musical scale uses a different system, “equal temperament.” In this tuning system, the frequency interval between any two adjacent notes has the same ratio. Naturally, it is the Western system that we’ll be working with here. After all, the ukelele actually has its roots firmly in the European musical tradition. It started as a Hawaiian adaptation of an instrument called a “machete,” a guitar-like stringed instrument that was introduced by immigrants from Madeira, in Portugal.
In the Western musical tradition, chord progressions are the foundation of harmony. Simply put, a chord progression is a succession of musical chords, built on a note in our musical scale. They can be built on any note, and fall into several categories, such as major, minor, and diminished.
Chord Progressions by Key
Let’s start introducing chord progressions by sorting them by key. Key is important in music, and different keys can affect the mood and tone of a piece. So how do we find the chord patterns for any given key?
Here’s an example using the key of C. If you’ve ever played the piano, you’ll be quite familiar with this key. Because it doesn’t use any of the sharps or flats on a piano keyboard, it’s the first key you’re introduced to during piano lessons.
The chords in the key of C are:
- C major
- D minor
- E minor
- F major
- G major
- A minor
- B diminished
So where did these come from? They’re named after each chord in the scale, as you can see. In C, as well as any other key, each note has a chord that corresponds to it.
For major keys, such as C major, there’s actually a pattern to the chord progression, as you can see above.
Other major keys, like G major, follow this same pattern. The first, fourth, and fifth notes correspond to major chords; meanwhile, the second, third, and sixth notes in the scale correspond to minor chords. The seventh is diminished.
But what about the minor keys? Like major keys, minor keys like A minor follow a consistent chord pattern:
Learning how to figure out the proper order of the chords for each key would require getting deeper into musical theory, which we imagine most people aren’t very interested in (here’s a good link to get started if you are). Instead, we’ll give you this handy table of the most common keys you’ll find in ukulele music, and how the chords are structured in that key –
Just by scanning the table, you can see that most of these chords are pretty easy to play! Minor keys typically sound more somber and sad, and aren’t used very ofter in ukulele music.
Common Ukulele Chord Progressions
Just having an ordered list of chords isn’t very useful – yet. Next, you need to learn about chord progressions.
Chord progressions are basically just a list of roman numerals (typically 3 to 4) that tell you which order to play the ukulele chords above in to produce awesome music!
Let’s return to C major as our example key. Here are some of the chord progressions you’ll see most often in music that’s written in the key of C. We’ve capitalized the Roman numerals for major chords, while those for minor and diminished chords are in lowercase. Each numeral corresponds to the chord number given in the first list above.
- I-IV-V (C, F, G)
- I-vi-IV-V (C, Am, F, G)
Try out the same progressions with another key, such as G. You’ll find that changing the key produces a completely different sound, yet the flow of the music and tone changes are still similar.
One other quick note on “7” – if you see a 7 show up in a progression such as “V7” or “II7”, it means you take the preceding Roman numeral chord and do the “seventh” version of it. So in the key of C, V7 equates to a G7 chord. In the key of F, the V7 would be C7.
Here’s a list of popular ukulele progressions to try out –
- I, IV, V
- I, vi, IV, V
- I, V, vi, IV (extremely popular pop song progression)
- I, vi, ii, V
- I, IV, V7 (Twist and Shout by The Beatles)
- i, iv, V7 (for Minor keys)
Three-Chord Progressions: A Mainstay of Modern Music Composition
As you learn to play the ukulele (or another instrument), you’ll begin to notice that quite a few songs revolve around three-chord progressions. Technically, these consist of four chords, but usually, two of the four are the same.
Sometimes, a melody is written around the chords. In other pieces, the chords were added to complement and enhance the melody. Either way, however, you’ll find three chord progressions throughout American music. From Beethoven to punk rock, they provide a solid harmonic foundation. If you’re interested in learning to compose music of your own, three chord progressions are a great starting point.
Chord Progressions Form the “Backbone” of a Piece of Music
Learning a bit about how chord progressions are organized, and about the rules that they follow, can help you gain a better understanding of how music is put together. Once you’ve learned the basic chord progressions for major and minor keys, you can apply them to any key you’re playing or composing in. The mathematical underpinnings of music mean that there are patterns and structure inherent in it, and these patterns come together to create cogent, coherent pieces that sound pleasant to the ear.
P.S. – have you seen our new Vorson Electric Ukulele review? Electric ukes can be a ton of fun!