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How To Find The Key Of A Song

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In this guitar theory lesson, we'll be taking a look at how to identify the key of a song. Finding the key of a song can be pretty challenging, and it may take you some time to develop the skill. However, the more you do it the easier it gets and the quicker you'll be able to do it. For this lesson, we'll be using the well-known Christmas song Winter Wonderland. We'll start by going over a few tips for getting a general idea of the key you're in. After that, we'll go into some more in-depth tips for pinpointing the exact key you're in as well as a few things to watch out for.

There are a few important things you'll need to know before jumping into this lesson. You'll need to know all the concepts covered in 4 Music Theory Fundamentals, Understanding The Major Scale, and Guitar Chords In A Major Key.

What Is A Key?

Before we get into the tips for finding a key, we'll need to understand what a key is. A key is simply a tonal center, a note, or a focal point for a song. There are 24 keys, all made up of different notes, and starting and ending on different notes. In this lesson, we'll mainly be focusing on one key.

Tip #1: Listen To The Song

The first thing you'll want to do is put your guitar down and just listen to the song without any distractions. Try to focus in on the tonal center of the song. Listen for where sections of the song seem to land, and focus in on that note.

Tip #2: Sing To Identify The Tonal Center

Next, you'll want to try singing or humming that note that you're focusing on. That note should sound good throughout the song. Don't worry if you're not a great singer, this is simply a way to connect the pathways in your mind so you can recognize these notes in music.

Tip #3: Go To Your Guitar

Now, you'll want to grab your guitar. Keep that note you were humming in your head, and try to find that note on your guitar. You may need to repeat all these steps a few times if you lose the note in your mind. But once you've got it, you can try matching the note you're singing along to the music to the note you're playing on your guitar. Once you've matched these notes, you can probably assess that the song is in the key of that note. In the case of Winter Wonderland, the note is C.

Tip #4: Major Or Minor

Finally, we'll take that C note, and play a full major and minor chord. We need to check to see if the key is in C major or C minor. Listen to the song again, and try playing a C major chord along to it. Listen to whether or not it sound good with the song. Then, do the same with C minor. From here it will be pretty obvious which of these two chords fits best. At this point, we can probably say that Winter Wonderland is in the key of C major.

Verifying The Key Of A Song

Let's move onto some more analytical tips for finding the key of a song. These methods are a little more advanced but will help you to be much more accurate when finding the key. One thing to keep in mind is that the first chord of a song isn't always the key. It can be any of the chords in the song, and you'll want to be listening intently for that tonal center.

Tip #1: Write Down All The Chords In The Song

The easiest way to do this is to look for a chord chart for the song. If you can't find a chord chart for the song you're looking for, you may need to find and write down the chords yourself.

Tip #2: Know Your Major Keys

It's very important that you know your major keys. Let's say we're in the key of G major and we want to verify the key we're in. We'll need to know all the chords that occur diatonically in the key of G major.

Key Of G Major

Tip #3: Listen For The Music To Resolve

Typically, the music will resolve to the tonal center at certain points in a song. You'll want to listen carefully for this, as it's usually pretty easy to recognize.

Things To Watch Out For

There are a number of things that you'll want to watch out for that can throw you off pretty easily. The first of these is non-diatonic chords.

Non-Diatonic Chords: Non-diatonic chords are just chords that don't occur naturally in the key. They are usually pretty obvious, and the two most common ones are the flat major 7 chord and the major 2 chord. Having one of these chords in a song can make it seem like you might be in a totally different key, so you'll want to really be listening for that tonal center.

Shared Chords: Another thing to watch out for is common chords among keys. There are many keys that have a lot of the same chords as others. For example, the key of C major and the key of G major have many of the same chords. Let's take a chord progression: G major, C major, and an F major. It would be easy to say that song is in the key of C major since F major doesn't occur naturally in the key of G major. However, it's possible that this chord progression focuses more on the G major, and that the F major is a flat major 7 chord. So again, you'll need to be using your ears to look for the tonal center of a chord progression.

Modulations: The next thing to look out for is key modulations. This is just when a song changes keys. In Winter Wonderland, the song changes from the key of C major to the key of E major.

Relative Minor Keys: The last thing to watch out for is relative minor keys. Every major key has a relative minor key with the exact same notes and chords. The relative minor key can be found by locating the 6th scale degree in a major scale. If you start the scale from that note, you would be in the relative minor key. Sometimes, you'll find that the chords in a song will lead you to say the key of a song is a major key. But if the focus of the song is on a minor chord, then you'll need to use the relative minor key name.

All these tips should get you started with finding keys on your guitar. It takes a lot of dedication and practice to train your ear, but the more you do it the better you'll get at it. Try incorporating something to train your ear into every practice session.