When I started on the ukulele, I could not identify the chord changes in a song simply by listening. I learned the changes from written materials. A more apt description of my learning process would be to say I memorized the chords to songs from written materials. Herein was the problem with that approach: I was not learning music, I was memorizing sequences of letters, letters that meant nothing to me. Plus, each song came with a new set of letters! When I tried playing something back from the hundreds of letter sequences I had previously memorized, most of the time I couldn’t do it, especially songs with four or more chords. Learning songs on the ukulele was beginning to be about as much fun as memorizing the dictionary. There had to be a better way.
I started my new approach by analyzing simple three-chord songs, but not just the chord progressions. I would also examine the lyrics and make particular note of both the important words in the lyrics and where they fell in the chord progression. Also, I switched from using the letter names of the chords to the number system. My new song-learning system consisted of first making a letter to number conversion code at the top of the sheet music.
I’d determine what key the song was in, write out the scale of the key, and transpose it to the number system using Roman numerals (caps for major and lower case for minor and diminished). Let’s look at the key of C for an example.
Diatonic Chords For C Major
Next, I would go through the song crossing out the letter names to the chords and replacing them with the numbers. For example, if a song’s chord progression went C–F–C–G7–C. I would write it out as I–IV–I–V7–I.
In the past, if I wanted to move a song from the key of C to the key of G, I’d have to memorize the letter sequence for G: G–C–G–D7–G. And if I wanted to play the song in any of the other keys, I’d have to learn other sets of letters. Using the number system requires memorizing just one pattern and then transposing that pattern to any of the other keys. It didn’t take me very long using the number system to discover there were very few variations one could come up with using just the I–IV–V7 chords. Yet, by knowing these variations by the numbers, I suddenly knew the structure to millions of songs!
It Gets Emotional Here
My biggest epiphany came when I discovered that the most important and emotionally charged words in a song often fall on the chord changes. It seemed that every time I came to the IV chord in a song, someone would be falling in love or the sun was shining. But when the song went to the V7, someone always ended up dying or having his or her heart broken. My relationship with the I–IV–V7 chords changed. I was beginning to know their sound on an emotional level, not just as a random series of letters. They became my friends.
The IV became my best friend. I loved hearing its voice every time it came around in a tune, especially in the choruses to most country songs.
The IV chord took me back to the rock songs of my teen years. (No wonder I loved the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” it’s just I–IV–I–IV–I–IV.) I started calling the IV chord the “sunshine chord,” as it seemed any song that mentioned the word sunshine went directly to the IV. John Denver knew the IV chord’s sunshiny quality. Just sing the first few words to “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and listen to where the progression goes. The Temptations’ “My Girl” uses the sunshine principal of the IV on “My Girl,” “I got sunshine…” Now that’s the sound of a IV chord.
I started referring to the I chord as “home” and the V7 chord as “tension.”
Using the home/sunshine/tension method, I no longer had to guess whether a song was going to the IV or V7 chord after leaving home; I could hear it! Once you climb inside the intervals and chords of the major scale, things change. You never know when your ears may open up to the subtleties of these chords, but if you slow down, treat the songs with respect and curiosity, observing where the important words fall on the changes, the music will reveal its soul to you.
Harlan Howard, the famous Nashville songwriter, said the definition of a great country song was “three chords and the truth.” And he was right.
That’s because all the human emotion found in a great song, country or otherwise, is wrapped up in the seven notes of the major scale. The reason you can mine all that emotion from just the I–IV–V chords is every note in the scale is contained in those three chords (C–E–G, F–A–C, G–B–D).
But, as we can see from our conversion code, there are four other chords we can mine for emotional content. We’ll get to know the emotional quality of those chords in my next column.
Watch the associated lesson video HERE.