Very little original material has been written for the ukulele, compared to the piano and other instruments. As such, most of the music for the ukulele consists of transcriptions. The journey to make a song sheet work for ukulele groups to read and use is one of reducing and simplifying the musical material to its barebones. After interviewing various transcribers who share their song sheets online for my research, I now share my way of transcribing songs for the ukulele.
A thought occurred to me while playing for the recent half-marathon. We ukulele players shouldn’t be having song breaks when marathon runners don’t. When we are the foreground music, such as a concert or gig, it’s natural to have beginnings and endings. It not only gives us time to flip to the next song sheet but also let the audience react with applause.
For background music or as support for marathons and other races, however, we need to keep going. How does one keep going when the average song length is 3 minutes?
On my first day of taking the intermediate ukulele course in Hawaii, I was surprised to witness the entire class playing and singing along. We were sight reading and sight singing, skills that take years to master for musicians.
That morning at Maui College in January 2016, all we had in front of us was a single sheet of paper that contained the lyrics, chord names, and chord diagrams. No music notation. No Italian words about tempo and dynamics in italic. No tablature. No abbreviations. No other music symbols. How could a single sheet of paper with minimal information guide music making?
What are the different ways to end a song?
One thing is clear. It is powerful when everyone in a group ends a song in a clean way, with no single ukulele trailing behind when everyone else has stopped playing. Having a leader indicate the end through specific gestures helps. As there are many ways to end a song, it makes sense for everyone to end it in the same way.
“What? I just need to know three chords to play a song?”
“Actually, you can play ‘Frere Jacques’ with just one chord. There are many songs with only two chords. I have identified at least thirty of these.”
I tell my ukulele students that 80% of all songs use only 20% of all chords. I apply the 80-20 rule to many situations, often to help with management of expectations.
So far I have collected over 60 songs that use only C, F, and G or G7 chords. My list of three chord songs that use three other chords, such as Riptide (Am, G, C), is nearly as long. This is wonderful news for beginners.
Songs about location and history evoke nostalgia to those who have travelled or lived in these places. Long-time Boston residents know the song “Charlie on the MTA” but newcomers are curious:
- Who was Charlie?
- What does MTA stand for?
- Why couldn’t Charlie get off the train?
- Why didn’t his wife give him the money to get off the train rather than throw him a sandwich?
- Is that why the subway card is known as a Charlie Card? Unlike the Oyster Card in London and the OV Chip Card in the Netherlands, you only need to swipe the Charlie Card when you enter the bus, trolley (tram), metro, or commuter rail (i.e. not needed when you exit).
- Is Charlie related to the River Charles that divides Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts?