Why learn chord progressions?
Music needs a combination of predictability and unpredictability to sound like music to us. Disorganized sound is noise even if it is pleasant (think of wind chimes.) Music is organized sound. Chord progressions are a way to organize music.
By learning chord progressions you will
- Be able to predict what is coming next and even feel the next chord shape in your fingers.
- Know how to practice that unexpected chord progression so that you can play the song smoothly.
- Become a more polished ukulele player who can play any song that you want to learn.
- Know how to arrange chords to create your own great sounding music.
What is a chord progression?
According to Wikipedia, a chord progression ‘is a series of musical chords that “aims for a definite goal” of establishing (or contradicting) a tonality founded on a key, root or tonic chord and that is based upon a succession of root relationships.’
So what on earth does that mean? (We’re going to get pretty technical here for those who are interested. If you’re NOT one of those folks, go ahead and skip to the next section. You can benefit from practicing chord progressions even if you’re not so sure exactly what they are.)
The Key and Home Chord
To understand chord progressions, we first have to understand what the ‘key’ of a song is, and what a ‘home chord’ is.
All tonal music, including most songs you would play on the ukulele, has a ‘key’. Not an intricately cut piece of metal that opens a door, this kind of ‘key’ is also known as a ‘key signature’. Each key signature defines a specific scale. There are many flavors of scales, but most ukulele songs are written in major or minor scales.
When we say that a song is in the key of C major, we mean that most if not all of the notes of the song’s melody are members of the scale of C major. Saying a song is on the scale or key of C major also means that the music has been composed so that the note C will be heard as the most important note. The home note, also known as the ‘tonic’ of a scale or key is the center pitch where all the other notes in the melody are based.
Once the key and the home note of the song have been determined, the home chord is the chord that is built with the home note as its root. So for a song in the key of C major, the home chord is the C major chord.
The home chord is often the chord that starts a harmonic sequence (chord progression). Most songs visit many other chords before they return to the home chord at the end. And the music is arranged in such a way that the home chord is the most prominent stable chord.
A chord progression, therefore, is a series of chords that lead the listener towards the home chord of the key.
Common Chord Progressions
There is an almost infinite number of ways in which chords can be put together to produce a pleasing, logical musical flow. Let’s take a look at the most common chord progressions. Learning these will help you learn and understand songs more easily and quickly.
The simplest chord progression is a two-chord progression V7, I. We show below a common form of this sequence on ukulele. Notice how the first chord, the one with the number 7, is always five letters after the home chord in the musical alphabet. In music theory language, we say that the root (name note) of the first chord is a 5th above the root of the second chord.
Many songs that use only two chords use this progression. Here is a list of some of these songs:
- Hush Little Baby
- He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
- Buffalo Gals
- Oh My Darling Clementine
- Oh Christmas Tree
- I Saw Three Ships
- Down in the Valley
You can practice these songs in many different keys to get used to this two-chord progression. We’ve included 10 extra two-chord songs in the latest print edition of 21 Songs in 6 Days: Learn Ukulele the Easy Way. Here are some examples of this same progression V7, I progression transposed to a different key (home chord).
“Three chords, and the truth
All I’ve got is a red guitar
The rest is up to you.”
— Bono, freestyling during a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower
“Three chords and the truth, that’s what a country song is.”
The most common chord progression you will see is called the IV, V7, I progression. Thousands of songs use this chord progression. We show below the simplest ukulele version. We’ve repeated the graphics of the music alphabet so you can see the relationships between the chord roots.
This chord progression can also be practiced in different keys (homes). Here are some examples of various forms of this progression:
Another often used progression is I, VI, IV, V7. Jenny has created a video of many popular four-chord songs. You can watch this video below to get an idea of all the songs you will be able to play using this chord progression.
On the ukulele, the easiest version of this four-chord progression is:
Circle of Fifths Progression
A final common chord progression is the Circle of Fifths progression. The Circle of Fifths is a visual representation of the relationships between the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.
It looks like this:
Besides showing how many sharps or flats are in a key signature, the circle of 5ths often guides chord progressions.
Many songs from the 1920’s and jazz standards like Ain’t She Sweet, Five Foot Two and All the Things You Are use this progression. Here it is in ukulele terms:
If you’d like to get better at playing five chord songs, you might enjoy our book Easy Ukulele Songs: Five with Five Chords. As an added bonus, this book will teach you to read ukulele tablature so you can play melodies on your ukulele. Learn to read ukulele tablature!
Chord progressions are what gives a piece of music a sense of harmonic movement. From these basic chord progressions, you can play almost any song out there. The idea of chord progressions or harmonic progressions is a general music theory and applies not only to ukuleles but also to guitars, pianos and other musical instruments.
With regular practice, you will be able to arrange chords to make your music have a feeling of movement and direction. You’ll have a critical skill for improvising and composing your own music.
Have fun and happy strumming!