Introduction to Keys and Chord Progressions

You will find that C, G, Am and F are very common chords for songs which have been transposed to be played more easily on the ukulele. I was going to write something terribly fascinating about chord progressions, but I think all the songs I am proposing for the next meeting are actually in different keys (despite having the same chords).

This is easier than you think! For example, the keys of C and A minor actually have the same chords in them – they just start in different places. The key of C starts on C, the key of A minor starts on A. This is why A minor is called the “relative minor” of C major. Other keys also have relative minors, but I have no idea what they are. This is because I play ukulele, and the key of C is our all important key. (You could read the Wikipedia page on relative keys if you want to make your brain melt.)

A minor and C major are related because they share the same key signature. In this case, C major and A minor have no sharps or flats in their key signatures. They are the only keys to have no sharps of flats in the key signature, so they are classed as rellies.

The way to discover the relative minor key to any major key is to count the notes and find the sixth note in the scale.  The relative minor is always the 6th note in that major scale.

So what is the 6th note in the scale of C major?  C D E F G A B C – why it’s A of course!   This rule applies to every major key – they all have a relative minor.

Conversely, the relative major key to any minor key is always the 3rd note in the minor scale.  So in the A minor scale A B C D E F G A – yes it’s C! Every minor key has a relative major key.

Common chord progressions involve the first, fourth and fifth chords in a key. For the key of C major, these are C (the first chord), F (the fourth chord) and G (the fifth chord). As all these chords are quite easy on ukulele (on soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles, anyway!) many songs for ukulele are written or transposed into the key of C.

Do you know Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah (more famously covered by Jeff Buckley and kd lang)? Well, in the first verse, he sings “I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord – but you don’t really care for music, do you? It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” If the song is being played in C major, when he’s singing “the fourth, the fifth”, the chords go from F to G (the fourth, then the fifth chords). When he sings “the minor fall”, the chord goes to A minor, and then the “major lift” it goes back to F. Isn’t that cool? “Yes, Celia, very cool – please stop talking about chords now.”

I know sometimes music theory can sound a bit nonsensical (don’t let Chris start talking you about modes), but when you’re starting to play an instrument, I think that learning a teensy bit of theory can make the whole structure of songs much more understandable. For example, if you’re trying to remember the chords for a song, and you know it has a C, F and G in it, you’ll say to yourself, “Well, it’s fairly likely that this other chord will be an Am, because, like, Am is totally the relative minor of C major. Dude. Also, there’s 20 billion songs with C, F, G and Am in them, because I learnt them all at uke club.” (I know you all talk like that in private.) And you will probably be right! That’s always a nice feeling.

If you have read all of that, you can now make yourself a little badge that says “Music Theorist” and wear it out when you go grocery shopping. This will be a wonderful boost for your social life. I promise.


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