Determining the Key of a Song (Part 3)


So far our discussion on determining a key of a song has been somewhat biased towards major keys. There are, obviously, songs that are in minor keys and this is where developing your ear can be a great asset.

Remember when we talked about key signatures a few posts ago? Well, truth be told, even key signatures can fool you. For instance, that bit of notation with the three flats? Yes, three flats does indicate a key of Eb major, but every major key has a relative minor and the relative minor of Eb is C minor. So is that particular snippet of music in Eb major or C minor?

The trouble is that we really can’t tell, at least not given what we were given to work with in that particular example. Having some information on harmony would give us some help. For instance, if Eb major was supposed to be played over the first two measures and Bb or Bb7 over the second, then we could (relatively) safely say it was in Eb. If Cm were the chord over the first two verses and Bb over the second two, then we’d still be a little unsure of which of the two choices to go with. But if Cm were the first chord and G7 (G, B, D and F – the D and F being the melody notes here), then you could go with C minor as the key with a little more certainty.

One of the problems here is language. Many musicians use the words “key” and “tonal center” interchangeably. But any key can have different tonal centers other than the root note of the key, as we see all the time with relative minors.

To give yourself a better grip on minor keys, you might want to take a look at an old Guitar Column at Guitar Noise called Minor Progress. There you’ll read about the fact that there are three minor scales to deal with! Each has a different way of resolving the feeling of “home” or of the tonal center, if you will.

Another easy (and obvious!) thing you can do to familiarize yourself with chord progressions in minor keys is to listen to songs in minor keys. Listen, for instance, to a song like Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane and compare it to Del Shannon’s Runaway. Don’t laugh! They both start out with Am chords and then progress from Am to G and then to F. Like a Hurricane then changes to Em and back to G (and you might already know somewhere in the back of your mind that Em is the relative minor of G) while Runaway goes from F to E7, giving it a much different feel even though both songs share the same tonal center of A minor.

One last point to keep in mind is that any song can change keys. These keys changes can be temporary shifts, or modulations, or can leave the original tonal center far in the dust. This is one reason why it’s important to look at a lot of songs in segments or sections, when trying to determine just what key you may be in when soloing.

Speaking of which, we have covered quite a bit of this information (and will be covering even more in the near future) in our Turning Scales into Solos series at Guitar Noise. If you’ve not yet read any of these, you can find the very first one, Choosing Colors, here.

I realize that the discussion on this particular topic is far from complete, but hopefully you have enough to get started. Please feel free to post any further questions you might have right here or on the Guitar Noise Forum pages.

Until next time…


If you’ve got any questions, we at Guitar Noise are always happy to answer them. Just send any of your questions to David at He (or another Guitar Noise contributor) may not answer immediately but he will definitely answer!

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About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

Comments [2]

  1. Thanks for the helpful instructions. They’re well written, not too technical for a beginner or even a non-musician to understand, and yet they convey the point clearly.

    One quick suggestion: don’t identify a song and artist unless you’re beyond certain you’ve got the correct facts.

    Dion is a wonderful artist, a fantastic guitar player and here certainly has had a career rife with hits.

    Runaway is not one of them. That honor goes to Del Shannon, who released that classic in 1961.

    Minor point, sure, but getting the facts wrong detracts from your credibility with those who know and, let’s face it, getting the name of a song and the person who recorded it isn’t a difficult task.

    Dion, btw, did record Runaway on his 2003 album New Masters, but that’s not what you talking about.

    Jeff McKee
    Richmond, Va.

    • Hi Jeff

      Thanks for pointing out my error – I’ve made the correction to the text. It was an unfortunate (and, as you politely point out, easily avoidable) mistake on my part and I’m glad that this did not keep you from enjoying the main point of the article. Some folks do, sad to say. But that’s just a part of life, I guess.

      Hopefully, I’ll do better in the future. I’ll certainly try to.

      Looking forward to chatting with you again.


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