Do music and sport have anything in common? Today we improve our chances of scoring the musical equivalent of a goal, by playing the right chords when jamming with others.
Jocks are good at sport: they hit harder, throw balls further and score more love interests. I was never one of the school "jocks". It was a tough school and I was no good at skills like running, jumping, throwing and kicking. And that was just the chess club.
Later in life I was surprised to discover musical jocks: The ones who manage to play something impressive no matter what gets thrown at them. If you've ever floundered around in a jam session; perhaps spending every song just trying to figure out what key everyone's in; you'll know the people I'm talking about; arpeggio athletes who always figure out the key and chords in no time at all. You wonder, How do they do that?
Some spent years studying music. They did all the hard slog that most of us thought we could avoid by playing ukulele. Not having benefited from such an education I've instead acquired a somewhat incomplete knowledge of chords to the point where I can now make, shall we say, un-educated guesses about what chords are coming next.
And just like the jocks, who are always looking to improve their percentages in terms of hits, runs, goals etc., I look to increase my chances of landing on correct chords when I'm jamming with others. Here are some tips to help you do that:
1) Find the Key That Everyone is Playing In. This is challenging but gets easier the more you do it. Try to find the single note that most fits with the song. If a song is in C then C will generally be the name of the last note and the last chord. In most jams the songs tend to be in the keys of C, F, G, D, A, and Bb so try those notes first. When the key note (or root note) is played repeatedly through a song it fits the song better than any other note.
An obvious way to figure out the key is to ask someone. However this doesn't always work; others may be even more confused than you are. It's also possible that they are one of the special breed of (usually) old-timers who play according to finger-shapes and have no idea what the names of the chords actually are (more about this another time.) So check people's chord-fingering. If you notice C, F and G7 chords are being played a lot then you can pretty well bet that the song is in C. Similarly F, Bb and C7 point to the key of F and so on for other keys.
But watch out for minor keys! For example if you're fairly sure that the root note is D but the chords D, G and A don't sound right it could be that Dm is the key and the chords Dm, Gm and A will work better.
To expand on this idea play these chords: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim C. You can actually hear the C scale right? These are the characteristic chords that help you know you're in C/Am. This is a useful framework for figuring out the chords in a particular key. But it doesn't give a full picture since it fails to account for seventh chords and for the fact that composers, ignoring musical rules, often put in other chords that sound cool but aren't in that key.
2) Notice the Song Style. Certain song styles have predefined structures which help when figuring out chords. Blues songs in C, for example, generally have the chords C, F and G (or G7) and you only need to listen a few times to know exactly where those changes happen. Traditional folk songs also use those same three chords plus an occasional minor chord such as Am or Em. The chords can come in any order so look at some songs and notice common chord patterns. Modern songs--from the last few decades--often use the I V VI IV chord progression (those Roman numerals correspond to the characteristic chords mentioned above.) In the key of C they are C, G Am F. This sequence has been found to produce the greatest emotional impact in western society's humans (and believe me, the music business is well aware of this fact.) Part of the emotional appeal of Iz's Over the Rainbow is due to this chord progression. If you want further proof visit Youtube to see a hilarious multi-song medley by Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome (warning: there's a naughty word near the beginning.) It's in the key of E, if you want to play along; the chords are: E B C#m A
3) What is the Circle of Fifths For Anyway? Songs from the pre-Rock n Roll era (jazz, swing and tin-pan-alley type songs) often use a lot more chords than those described above and are harder to figure out by ear. But this is where the "circle of fifths" diagram that you often see at the front of music tuition books can come in handy. Look at any song in the key of C. You'll notice the last chord of the song is C and the one prior to it is almost always G7. That G7 chord leaves us with a feeling of hanging. And then when we play the C chord it's with a feeling of landing. In music theory G is known as the fifth of C. Count on your fingers starting with C as the thumb: D is the index, E is the middle finger, F is the ring finger and G is the fifth finger.
Do this again with G as the thumb. Count up from G and you now find that D, the pinky, is the fifth note. Repeat this with D as the thumb and you discover that A is the fifth of D. E is fifth of A and so on. (You don't have to use your fingers but it helps me!)
Many songs use the sequence of fifths and knowing this can help a lot. Take the song Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue. The chords go C E7 A7 D7 G7 C. You can see it's all fifths: E is the fifth of A, A is the fifth of D, D is the fifth of G, G is the fifth of C. Not all songs have such a nice string of fifths but if a song is in C and everyone's playing an A7 it's a good bet the next chord will be D7, after that G7 then C.
4) Transposing. As you work through the above chord changes in the key of C you also need to transfer what you've learned into other common keys. For example take a three or four chord song that you always play in C and play it in the key of F. Now try it in other keys such as G, A, D and Bb. Get used to doing this and you'll notice the difference next time you are jamming.
Even a full understanding of all the above will not guarantee that you always find the right chord. But your chances of success will increase as you gain experience. Perhaps from time to time you'll play a string of correct chords; the musical equivalent of scoring a goal or hitting a home-run. And what a great feeling that will be!
© Ralph Shaw