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Learning the keys of songs

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Tab92, Feb 11, 2013.

  1. Tab92


    Jul 23, 2012
    Any advice or tips on picking up the keys of songs just by listening to them by ear?
  2. rymiraflores


    Jan 17, 2009
    What I have found, in general, is that usually the 1st note the singer sings is the key...then you have to figure out if it´s major or minor.
  3. amacauslan


    Feb 17, 2013
    Not many people can tell the exact key of a song just by ear, without an instrument at hand. You could easily tell if the song is major or minor though. Also, I find the presence of open chords is usually fairly indicative of standard keys like G, A, E etc.

    I'm not sure if you are asking how to figure what the key is if you already know the chords or if you are starting by working out the key and then later working out the chords.

    I will usually go the latter method. I will try jam over the song and my ear will pick out the notes that sound good, and then it is just a matter of thinking which key these notes or in, or the position my hand is using on the neck. An understanding of chord theory will help as well. IE. If the chords of the song are E, A, B, and C#m then the song is likely in E or C#m.

    Hope this helps
  4. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    Usually, listening to the ending of a song will give you a good idea what key it's in (unless it fades out). Then, armed with that knowledge, you can start over again from the beginning. :)
  5. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    For me, songs always have a tonal center that makes the key pretty well-defined. Once you get used to hearing it in songs, it's not so hard. Once in a while, you get a "Sweet Home Alabama" with a tonal center that's more open to interpretation, but most of the time it's quite clear.
  6. Ric5

    Ric5 Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 29, 2008
    I grow organic carrots and they are not for sale
    I think the OP perhaps is talking about learning the chord changes of a song by ear.
  7. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    Same answer ;)
  8. sammyp


    Aug 20, 2010
    NB, Canada
    the best way to start learning keys and how to tell what key a song is in is to memorize the four most popular chord roots for all or at least standard pop/rock/ blues keys.

    These chords are the I , IV, V, Vim

    Key of C = C F G Am

    Key of G = G C D Em

    Key of D = D G A Bm

    etc, etc

    when learning a song look for root combinations that fit into these groups.

    Next you learn all 7 possbile chord roots in any key ....the next most popular choice is the iim chord.

    After this you'll learn how to spot a chord that is outside the key centre of a song.

    This all starts by learning the major scale and the arreggios that are associated with each different note of the major scale.
  9. Russell L

    Russell L

    Mar 5, 2011
    Cayce, SC
    Picking out songs will help train your ear. Then, studying some theory will tell you what's what about the changes. Eventually, you'll be able to tell what's in key or out of key by familiarity. You may not know the exact chord names until you get to an instrument, but at least you'll be able to tell how things go. Kinda like what Jimmy was getting at. It takes time, though, pal.
  10. Tab92


    Jul 23, 2012
    Thanks... I wasn't so much worried about chord changes because that's pretty easy to hear by ear, I was more worried about the key because that makes it much easier to play/improvise on a song if you know the key...

    I learned a lesson that if you listen to a song and hum with it your brain can instantly pick up one note in the song and that note is the key...

    Some food for thought
  11. funnyfingers


    Nov 27, 2005
    If the case is knowing the key after already knowing how to play the song, you would use the notes that you already play to put the pieces together to figure out the key, but I think that isn't the full picture for improvising.

    Take Billy Joel's You May Be Right. It is in the key of A, but that doesn't help you for the break when it does the E fill and then the A fill. The E fill isn't in the same key.
  12. will33


    May 22, 2006
    I don't have perfect pitch but I can pick up quite a few off the voicing of an open guitar chord. If I can pick one out so I have a place to start, I can usually write out the rest by hearing the intervals between changes, like up a 5th or down 2 whole steps or whatever. Assuming we're talking about various forms of simpler, popular music there, not like jazz or speed metal or something.

    Also, if the song is by Metallica, you automatically know it's in E.:p
  13. bassinplace


    Dec 1, 2008
    This video's pretty good.
  14. FretlessMainly


    Nov 17, 2010
    Learning the chord changes and analyzing them is the best way (IMO) to determine the key of a piece of music only using the ear. If the piece has a guitar part that uses "standard" open chord voicings, the timbre of these chords can be easily recognized with some practice. Then you use basic jazz diatonic chord theory to analyze the tune and determine the key(s).

    For example:

    | CMaj7 | Amin7 | D7 | GMaj7| Emin7| A7 | Dmin7 | G7 |

    Analyzing this, bar 1 is in CMajor. Bar 2 could also be in C Major, but Am D7 is ii V of GMajor, so bars 2, 3, and 4 are in GMajor. Bar 5 could also be in GMajor (as the vi chord or relative minor), but Emin is also the iii chord of CMajor. However, by looking ahead, we find that Emin7 A7 is a ii V of another ii V, so one interpretation (probably the most common in these cases)is that bars 5 and 6 are in DMajor while bars 7 and 8 are ii V of CMajor.

    The key points are where the modulations occur. To trick the ear, you could play the GMajor scale over the EMin7 and make it a crossover chord between GMajor and DMajor. But most commonly, when you see a ii V, that bar follwed by the resolution to I is all in the key resoved to.

    Who needs theory, right?
  15. Tab92


    Jul 23, 2012
    My brain just broke a little bit. Quite the wealth of knowledge thanks for sharing! Always enjoy some good theory
  16. DiabolusInMusic

    DiabolusInMusic Functionless Art is Merely Tolerated Vandalism Supporting Member

    In general that will work, but that is not a good rule of thumb and can definitely end badly.

    OP a key reads like this:

    The key of C Major

    Cmaj7 - Dmin7 - Emin7 - Fmaj7sus4 - G7 - Amin7 - B b5min7 - Cmaj7
    --I-------II------III---------IV-------V-----VI--------VII ----OCT
    Ionian---Dorian--Phrygian--Lydian--Mixolyd--Aoelian---Locrian (modes)

    So you need to map your chords within that.

    Again referring to not using the starting note, a common jazz chord progression is a ii-V-I (small numerals indicate minor). In C major it would go Dmin7 - G7 - Cmaj7. Your first note will be a D, not the key you are in.

    I hope that makes sense, I did it quite quickly and I am not formally educated.
  17. Cycho


    Nov 30, 2010
    I'm kind of embarrassed to mention something so simple after all the erudite posts above but in a lot of songs the first chord (and often the last, not counting the turnaround) is the key.
  18. seanm

    seanm I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize!

    Feb 19, 2004
    Ottawa, Canada
    Quite often the first note sung is the key. Even more often, the last note of the song is the key. If the song seems to "feel good" when it ends, that is probably the key. If there is tension at the end, they did not resolve to the root.
  19. Lots of bands use the same key for the majority of their songs (ie- rock song is probably E aeolian or frigean, unless they tune down, in which case D or C etc).
  20. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    With a little experience, you can tell when a song actually changes key or just has a momentary diversion from it. In this case, it's not a key change but a momentary diversion.

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