Basic key question

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by adouglas, Aug 1, 2003.

  1. adouglas


    Jun 23, 2003
    Bridgeport, CT
    I've been playing for 20-odd years, but always by ear. I'm only now starting to learn some theory.

    What I want to do is figure out the key of a song based on the chords it contains.

    This seems pretty easy most of the time, especially for standard blues-based rock. But what about stuff that isn't straightforward?

    My question is, if there's the occasional minor chord thrown in, does that mean the song is in a minor key, or is the minor chord just an accidental?

    Does this question even make sense? I don't even know enough theory yet to be dangerous. I do know that each major key has a relative minor associated with it, and I'm pretty sure the relative minor key shares the major's key signature. I also know the difference between major and minor scales. But beyond that....

  2. Any decent theory teacher will be able to explain this to you, look for a teacher at colleges and universities in your area.
  3. adouglas


    Jun 23, 2003
    Bridgeport, CT
    Thanks for the recommendation, and I may at some point go and find a theory teacher.

    But I must point out that the same advice could apply to any theory question asked in this forum. "Go find a teacher" is always good advice, but it doesn't answer questions.

    If I was inclined to just go find a local teacher I wouldn't have asked the question here in the first place.

    Is there a simple answer?
  4. Aaron


    Jun 2, 2001
    Seattle, WA
    You can have minor chords in major keys and major chords in minor keys.

    Do you know the diatonic modes? If not, do a search for modes of major or something similar, there are tons of threads on them. That will probably answer your question pretty well and give you a good idea about relative minors, etc. It will show you that all diatonic scales, whether it is a dominant scale, major, minor, etc., are pretty much the same scale, but with the root starting on a different tone.
  5. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    Nope. Not necessarily.

    I think this is where learning harmonization comes in handy.

    For example, say you have this progression: Dm7-G7-Cmaj7. Your key would be C Major. II7-V7-I7 is a common progression (as you can see the dominant chord, G7, resolves back to the tonic, Cmaj7). Even though D is minor, remember the notes in the chord are D F A C, which are the notes in C Major.

    Now, the rules don't always apply. Sometimes a musician will throw in a chord that doesn't belong in the key. I assume this is where the confusion lies? I think it's helpful to look at the other chords in the song, the melody, etc. I think, when learning songs by ear, you get a feel for what key the song is in. A little hint for myself sometimes is to check the very last note that is played. That usually indicates the key of the song (I know this has helped me at least, in sight reading a sheet of music, to quickly determine what key the piece is in, especially in those confusing cases when there are lots of sharps or flats in the key signature LOL).
  6. adouglas


    Jun 23, 2003
    Bridgeport, CT
    There are no hard and fast rules, then, right?

    The way I've been approaching this is to try and figure out the note that the song is anchored on (generally not too difficult, of course), then assume that that's the key. But I never had any idea of how to determine if it's a minor key or a major key.

    So to figure this out I take it that I have to deconstruct the chords and see what notes are there, then figure out whether they're in the major scale of the key I've chosen or its relative minor. Once I've gotten everything to line up I've got my answer.

    Cripes, I look at that statement and I realize that I don't know what the heck I'm talking about. But at least it looks reasonable.
  7. efcleff


    Jan 20, 2003
    ....if there is an occassional minor chord thrown in, does that mean it's in a minor key?... that was the question?

    O.K.- let me start by saying no.
    Let's stick with the example using the key of C Major. Let's spell out C Major C-D-E-F-G-A-B-c, now...if you decide at some point in the song to play..say... D-F-A you're playing a triad in the DORIAN mode and this triad or chord is a minor chord. Why you ask? because notice that going from the D to the F is a minor 3d, then from F to A is a major 3d, thus it makes the chord you played a minor chord, but all the notes are still in the key of C.
    adouglas...try this: spell out the key of C Major on paper, then above each note stack a triad.C-D-E-F-G-A-B-c, above the C stack E and G, above the D stack F and A, above the E stack G and B, etc. now determine if they are a major or minor triad. By doing this you can improve your knowledge of mode theory.This is a very brief explanation, but try studying the modes: Ionian, Dorian, etc. you'll begin to understand major and minor chords.

    P.S.- Study the CIRCLE OF FIFTHS for all kinds of information including Major scales and their relative minor scales,key signatures and just a whole lot of other good knowledge.
  8. adouglas


    Jun 23, 2003
    Bridgeport, CT
    Thanks, efclef.

    The more I fool around with theory, playing intervals on the instrument and seeing how everything hangs together, the more I understand.

    It's an odd feeling... I know I'm JUST on the verge of understanding a lot, but I don't yet. Kind of like trying to pick up a new language, where you only understand maybe one or two words out of ten, and don't quite get the grammar yet. You can FEEL that there's an underlying organization that you don't quite understand, but you know it's there nevertheless. It's on the tip of my tongue...
  9. efcleff


    Jan 20, 2003
    Keep with soon it'll all just come together. Remember, never stop learning.
  10. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Nail on the head.

    Basic diatonic thoery is the most amazingly dynamic concept, the basics are mindblowingly simple, yet you could spend a lifetime studying it.

    Real jazzbo's article, link below:

    the advice above is all sound, but jazzbo's article has had more time spent on it and is therefore better structured and more complete.
  11. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I agree with most of what's been said around here - alhough there are rules, which are evident in most music except rock/pop!! ;)

    But I think there is a more basic question you need to ask first and you need to take a step back before you can move forward!

    So the first question is why do you want to know the key of the piece - how do you feel that this will help you in any way?

    You may well be starting at the wrong point and this is why you feel confused.

    I mean - I can play loads of songs and improvise bass lines and solos over them, without consciously thinking about what the key is.

    Most of the time, this is irrelevant - what I need to know is - what are the chords, what notes are in those chords, what's the 'feel', what scales might I realistically use for additional notes if I'm being really clever - and to determine that, I might need to know the function of the chords in the harmonics sequence.

    But knowing what key the whole piece is in - is "nice to know", but it's not essential, as long as I know the chord sequence - or unless I'm going to have to transpose or re-harmonise the whole thing!

    So maybe you should first ask - why you want to know the key?
  12. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Jeez get out of the box, man! ;)

    (tee hee, that was TOTALLY a joke!!!)

    I'm not sure if I agree with you?

    I think the only rule worth abiding by is "if it works/ gets the point across, then it's right"

    Theory isn't made up of rules, it's made up of guidelines, indicators, methods, none of which have to be adhered to in the heat of expression.

    Rule are made to be broken.

    I'm sure every "rule" has been broken with great effect, therefore thinking of theory on any level in terms of 'rules' is going to limit you at some point.

    Agreed, although being able to quickly breakdown a song into sections of different keys sigs is a distinct advantage.
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I'm not saying they are rules that have to be adhered to - I'm just saying that you can hear people using rules they have learned - to create a lot of music.

    So, for example - a lot of music is diatonic - like Folk Music, original Ska, African Township etc. etc.

    Clearly they demonstrate a musical "rule" - which is - only use chords and notes from one key at a time. That "rule" is a contributing factor to the overall sound - so of course you don't have to follow that rule in all you do - but if you want music to sound like that, then you need to follow that "rule" - if you don't care exactly how it sounds (the case with most pop/rock !! ;) ) then it doesn't matter what rules you stick to or break.

    So, to go to another extreme - some of the most avant garde and weird sounding music is based on very strict rules - Schonberg's Serial music - based on the 12-tone row. So you select a row which includes all the 12 notes of the chromatic scale and then stick to it!! :meh:
  14. adouglas


    Jun 23, 2003
    Bridgeport, CT
    I know what you mean about not REALLY needing to know the key. I've been playing for many years not knowing or caring what the key of a song is.

    Aside from sheer academic interest and greater understanding of how theory works, the real reason is pretty silly.

    My band has a vocal harmonizer gadget that we want to start using for certain songs. You need to tell it what key you're in for it to work properly.
  15. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    That is the worst possible reason I could think of - scrap it now!!!

    I'm serious - get rid of it and you will be doing yourself a big favour - when the machines determine the music and not the other way round - that is the road to hell!! ;)
  16. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Besides - any interesting or half-decent song will change key several times - so how are you going to deal with that!! :rolleyes:
  17. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    I see where you're coming from... the word "rules" is a bad one though, tends to turn people off thoery - me especially!

    So how does it sound?!

    Also, pop music in the charts today (justin timberlake, busted etc etc) is pretty much all based on v-simple diatonic theory - mostly just two chord vamps and 4 note melodies. the generic form is mind-bendingly rigid as well.

    I do this thing where I pretend to shoot anyone on TV I dont like... with a different weapon for different scenarios. So, an uzi for S Club, crossbow for Gareth Gates ect etc. Top of the pops is a virtual shotgun mission in my house.
    You should try it, very rewarding :D
  18. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Me is agreein' wiv yoo innit, G...
  19. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Sorry, I've gotta call you on that Bruce! You're saying that in order for a song to be half decent or interesting, it must change key severl times? Nope, I can't agree with that, sorry! ;)
  20. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Moley you're right in this case... but it isa hard fact that ALL intersting songs incorporate V7b9 chords. Without exception.

    In fact you name me name intersting or half-decent song WITHOUT a V7b9 chord in it?