Relative keys

The husband often tries to teach me more about music theory. The wonder of modes! Which mostly just makes my brain hurt. He wrote me an email this week that contained the sentence “I think modes are actually much easier to understand than modern western harmony system based music as all 7 modes are based on 1 scale.” So there you go. Modes are easy. But I still don’t tend to take in that information when it’s relayed to me at 6am during our trip to work.

However, it seems to be infectious because after ukulele club I wrote a fascinating email to the ukulele players about music theory, because I like to send people to sleep while they’re reading their emails.

As you will find, 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.)

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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