Learning about chord progressions is like finding music’s Rosetta stone

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.

My essential practice tools: a metronome and a notebook

After I bought my ukulele, the first two things I reached for were a metronome and a notebook. The metronome is a leftover from when I studied drums and has way more functions than I need, but it does the job. I actually like working with it because it keeps me honest about maintaining a steady tempo. It also forces me to back off when I practice chord changes too quickly and create tension in my fretting hand (when I get overconfident about my speed, my forearm complains the next day–I take the hint and return to slower practicing as I diagnose what I’m doing wrong).

The notebook is a no-brainer: I use it to plan my practice sessions and track problems to solve. Over time, it’ll be a nice record of my progress, especially since improvement is so slow.

Practicing is unglamorous, sometimes boring, and almost always frustrating since I’m testing the limits of my abilities. But despite all that, I find it satisfying. It requires all of my attention and analytical skills, and I trust that with regular, deliberate practice, I’ll eventually suck less.

Deliberate practice = boring blog posts and that’s okay

On its face, deliberate practice is boring. In music, it’s certainly boring to listen to. Even the most patient listener wouldn’t want to hear me switching between the same two ukulele chords for 5 minutes straight with only my corrections and tempo adjustments to relieve the monotony. Also, who the heck wants to read about it? There are no surprising hacks and no instant results.

But for me, deliberate practice is everything. I suppose it illustrates the disconnect between what looks interesting from the outside and what’s actually important. I’ve always been frustrated by my parents, especially my dad, who are big classical music fans and believe that accomplished musicians simply…appear. The classical music world’s obsession with prodigies doesn’t help. I suppose this was why they didn’t think I could be a musician–because they saw I had to work at it. News flash: we ALL have to work at it. Oh well, I’ll continue to hole up with my ukulele and enjoy the tiny improvements that are invisible to everyone but me.

I also started learning guitar this past week. Right now, I’m focused on building proper technique (I’m learning from The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar by Jamie Andreas) and will probably not be able to play a song for many months. Boring? Yes. Effective? We’ll see, but I feel this is the right approach for me.

Ukulele 11 days in: setbacks are part of the process

My first few days owning a uke were bewildering. How do I hold this without dropping it? Which peg tunes which string and which way am I supposed to turn it? How am I supposed to hold down this string without touching that one? Where do I press? How hard do I press? Why do I get a “chunk” sound or a buzz instead of a clear tone? I even texted a uke-playing friend asking, “G7 chord WTF?” because I couldn’t get my fingers to land in the right spots.

After a few more days of practice, though, I managed to get the basic C, F, and G7 chords down and even change between them, slowly. The uke still didn’t feel as comfortable and stable as I wanted, but I was at least making passable sounds. My fingers stopped being sore as I built up callouses. I put in more practice time, but I didn’t monitor my body as closely as I should have.

Then my elbow started hurting.

I figured out that the way I was holding the ukulele in my left hand was making my forearm tense. Too much practicing too soon probably didn’t help either. So I’m backing off on practicing chord changes and returning to more fundamental things so I can watch for body tension more closely. Areas I’m experimenting with: the lightest touch I can get away with on the strings (to keep my hand relaxed), different finger locations (a millimeter makes a big difference), arm positions, thumb positions, where the neck rests on my hand, my breathing, my posture. In other words, boring but important foundations.

One problem I caught right away once I slowed down and paid more attention: I was resting my right pinky on the uke while I was strumming. That’s the kind of bad habit I want to eliminate right away before it becomes ingrained.

I used the downtime I would’ve spent practicing in other ways, like studying music theory and ear training. My music reading is a bit rusty and my ear training is non-existent (it’s bizarre that I went through so many years of serious classical music study without it–it’s why I’m now concentrating on learning by ear as much as I can).

I definitely enjoy teaching myself with online lessons more than taking live lessons. I can take as much time as I need to learn something without the pressure to show outward progress each week. If it takes me two months to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” smoothly, with proper technique and without tension in my body or hands, that’s okay.