I recently learned about chord families and chord progressions and WHOA it’s like finding the Rosetta stone! For those who are unfamiliar with these concepts, guitar teacher David Southwick provides a good primer.
Many songs use one of a handful of chord progressions, with I-V-vi-IV being a common example (on my ukulele, I played C-G-Am-F to try it). What can you do with that single chord progression? Here’s an example:
I started listening to music more carefully to determine the “feel” of each chord, much like how each note in a scale has a particular “feel.” I have a long way to go, but I now feel more confident about learning songs by ear because once I know the main chord progression, I can use it as scaffolding to figure out the rest of the song.
It annoys me that I didn’t learn any of this while studying classical music. I was taught music theory in a vacuum and purely on paper (which makes no sense when it comes to music), and I didn’t learn about how notes fit together to form a song. Transposing to a new key was a huge pain in the butt because I learned how to do it one note at a time. With chord progressions, I can transpose in chunks instead of isolated notes. Notes are never isolated in music (they always relate to each other), so why treat them that way?
It’s wonderful how learning one new bit of information can make such a big difference in how I listen to and think about music. Bonus: I want to write songs eventually, and that process is now a lot less intimidating.