How many chords?


Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

Much of the old sheet music I have just as chord names – not diagrams. I need to know, for example, how an Fmaj7 is constructed because that’s all the songwriters tell me. And not only one shape – I need to know which notes so I can pick the shape that is both easiest to switch to and from, and which also sounds the best in the song.

And even when it has the diagram, the chords are not always right. Some of the arrangements are downright awful. A few of the arrangers, like May Singhi Breen, put effort into figuring out the correct chords, but some others were slap-dash and tossed in a hodge-podge of chord diagams that simply don’t sound right. These require considerable tweaking (as opposed to twerking, which is an entirely different sort of activity) to figure out a decent arrangement, so you need to be able to both read the music and know what chords those notes belong to.

I’ve been wrestling with chord construction as I’ve been working my way through my reading on music theory this week (two new books arrived from Amazon a few days ago…). And going through such rather convoluted concepts as modes, scales and degrees. Ionian? Dorian? Phrygian? Mixolydian? Who comes up with these names?

Sigh. Why didn’t I take this stuff when I was in school? It might have been easier. While other kids were practicing in the school and after classes, I was probably in the chess club. Or the radio club. Doing something nerdy. Why didn’t someone get me into music back then, when my brain was more plastic?

Figuring out chords is not the hardest of the lot, but it is easy to forget whether I need a flat or sharp fifth to make a particular chord type (answer: if the third is flat, then flat for diminished, sharp for augmented – but I had to look that up).

Rote learning: I’m back to memorizing tables and formulae. I can’t remember half the damned passwords I use on my many sites and services; how I can I remember a couple of dozen formulae that have no simple mnemonic to help me? Should I carry a little card with me?

To make it easier, I’ve designed and built a chord construction wheel (draft in image above). I’m still working on it, but I think it will prove a useful too for myself and fellow musicians. It’s intended to make building chords easier by showing which notes match which which keys for any chord type. And it’s intended as a learning tool, too. I might sell it, or just give it away. Not sure yet.

I hope with it I will become more familiar with the layout and relationships of the notes, and the formula that builds a particular chord. I can then build chords knowing that 1-3-5 (or more properly I-III-V) represents a major chord, and knowing what that means in terms of steps and half-steps from the root (I). I can work it out through nothing more sophisticated than counting frets. But then there are scales… and (shudder) modes….

And how do I pass any of this along  – in a practical manner that doesn’t make their eyes glaze over – to my fellow ukesters in the local ukulele group?

It’s a challenge, but an intriguing one and I’m learning lots I didn’t know about music before – the bones under the flesh, so to speak. Whether I’\ll ever be proficient at it – well, learning is a journey, not so much a destination. Besides, it gives me something to do that keeps my brain active and music is a positive force in life.

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