Growing up, my primary exposure to the world of polka was through Weird Al Yankovic’s mash ups of popular music. There’s no denying that polka music is fun. It makes you want to dance around while holding a beer stein.
The 7 chord progressions on display today are from influential and popular polka music throughout the years. And of course I’d be a fool not to include a little something from Weird Al.
1. I II7 V7 I
This classic polka chord progression comes from “Blue Skirt Waltz” by Frankie Yankovic, Chet Atkins and Margaret Bailey. This song is a classic waltz polka, and something that you mind find being played at a wedding.
The accordion is more of an accompanying instrument here, while the guitar playing of the legendary Chet Atkins takes center stage after the vocals.
Chords from the song: G major, A dominant 7, D dominant 7, G major
2. V7 I V7 I
Another chord progression from Frankie Yankovic, this one comes from his song “Ei Ei Ei O Polka.” It’s a much more upbeat song that is also in the familiar 4/4 time signature. The accordion is front and center in this song, playing both rhythm and melody and various points.
I’ll be honest, the lyrics here leave much to be desired, with the title including every lyric found in the song. But I interpret the spirit of this song being a call to dance and be happy, rather than trying to be thoughtful or introspective.
Chords from the song: E flat dominant 7, A flat major, E flat dominant 7, A flat major
3. I V Vmaj7 V7
This chord progression comes from “Polish Polka” by The Polka Band. This one is purely instrumental and has the same happy, dancing vibe as “Ei Ei Ei O Polka.”
The accordion absolutely plays a role here, but more often featured is the robust horn section, which is responsible for the melody. In fact, this song features some of the more impressive trumpet playing I’ve heard in recent memory with some incredibly quick rhythms.
Chords from the song: E major, B major, B major 7, B dominant 7
4. I V V I
It’s always fascinating to here how a single genre of music can vary so widely in various aspects, but still manage to share that basic spirit. This progression comes from “Licorice Stick Polka” by Jimmy Dorsey.
What sticks out to me here is that this song is played by what sounds like a big band (that makes sense considering Jimmy Dorsey was a big band leader). Flutes, clarinets, trumpets, tuba, a drum kit and I’m pretty sure there’s an oboe solo in there. And yet the song is clearly a polka song.
Chords from the song: F major, C major, C major, F major
5. I III VII IV
I wasn’t a fan of polka growing up. Heck I never really even had the chance to listen to polka. But I did listen to Weird Al Yankovic. And I’m pretty sure he has a polka mash up with popular songs on every album he’s ever put out.
This one comes from “NOW that’s what I call Polka!” and the polka chord progression comes from the “Wrecking Ball” section of the song.
Chords from the song: A major, C major, G major, D major
6. IV I I IV
This common polka chord progression is taken from the “Beer Barrel Polka,” which is quite popular in Wisconsin, where it is played during the seventh inning stretch of Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks games.
Prominent in this song is the walking bass line and a very versatile accordion, which bounces between playing rhythmic chords on the off beats and melodic interludes when the vocals cut out.
Chords from the song: E flat major, B flat major, B flat major, E flat major
7. I V vi iii IV I V
I had to take one chord progression from the polka song I’ve listened to more than any other. This comes from “The Alternative Polka” by Weird Al Yankovic. And the chord progression is from the “Basket Case” by Green Day section.
This chord progression in this song is proof that you can turn just about anything into polka. And it sounds great!
Chords from the song: E major, B major, C sharp minor, G sharp major, A major, E major, B major
Observations For Writing Polka Music
As you likely know, a chord progression isn’t enough to create a certain style of music. In fact, many of the polka chord progressions I’ve selected look a lot like reggae chord progressions. And while there are similarities between the genres, the two sound very different.
So when I write these chord progression articles, I try to take mental note of the themes I find in the genre. Then I like to share those things that seem to tie the music in that genre together.
Here’s what I wrote down for polka:
- Moving bass line – Often played by a tuba or a string bass, it’s very common to here a bass line that hits I, IV or V and then walks along with the chords.
- Accordion – Obviously we pointed out a couple songs played by big bands, but most polka music will have an accordion as a featured instrument. The accordion can handle both chords/rhythm as well as melodies.
- Dance tempos (between 100 bpm and 140 bpm) – Usually polka music is made for dancing, and the best tempo for dancing is around 120 beats per minute.
- Fast moving instrumental melodies – Vocal parts seem to usually be simple, but the instrumental melodies that show up in polka are usually fast moving (think flight of the bumblebee).
As always, there are many more themes that you can find in polka. These are just the ones that stuck out to me as super common and defining the genre to some extent.