Music Theory for ʻUkulele

Music is a very abstract thing, but there are some foundation guidelines most songs follow called “theory.”

Music theory isn’t necessary to learning the ʻukulele – many great players have done without – but it will explain a lot and make you a more rounded musician. It isn’t meant to replace what you already know, just to clarify the origins of notes, scales, chords, and keys.

A word of warning though.

It’s very easy for “Western thinking” people to get caught up in trying to riddle a song out like a math problem. Don’t fall into this trap. Music is art. If you try to put it in a box it’s going to make your life difficult.

Theory follows a progression and should probably be learned in order.

Notes

The notes of Western music are a good place to start.

Here are some visuals of the chromatic scale on the fretboard.

Scales

Once you know that B and C are neighbors along with E and F, you can start:

Constructing Scales

You can also quantify scales from a more advanced perspective using:

Modes for ʻukulele

Chords

From a scale you can create a chord.

Constructing Chords

Diatonic Harmony (aka Chord Scales)

If you think of triad chords as three offset scales, you can figure out exactly what chords naturally occur in any key:

Diatonic chord scales

Changing Keys

Finally, you can move the pitch of a song up or down to fit the range of the instrument or your voice. This is called:

Transposing

Some people transpose on the fly by using a capo.

Other Theory Lessons

Resolving 7th chords with the circle of fifths

You can find all of this ʻukulele music theory information condensed into a one page cheat sheet here.

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Brad Bordessa
brad bordessa smiling holding ukulele

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honokaʻa, Hawaiʻi, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me