Determining the Key of a Song (Part 2)

Okay, so we’ve made it clear that the starting and ending chords, while good indicators of the key to a song (particularly if the starting and ending chord are the same), are certainly not infallible. What else can help us figure out what key a song is in?

Sometimes it’s the use of a chord progression. I’ve already mentioned an old Guitar Column at Guitar Noise called Five to One. Nothing really sounds more like coming home than hearing a V to I chord progression, such as G to C in the key of C. Using a seventh chord for the V (that would make our example G7 to C) makes the progression even stronger. If you hear this progression at the end of a song, or at the end of a verse of a song, then you have another strong indication of key.

Some songs take this a step further, going from IV to V to I (F to G to C in the key of C) or from ii to V to I (Dm to G to C). This latter progression is used a lot in jazz, but you’ll find it in songs across all genres. Both these progressions help to solidify the feeling of coming home. They create a strong sense of a tonal center, which in the case of our examples would be C major.

So you can understand why so many musicians will tell you that one of the most important skills you can develop is your ear. Being able to hone is on the sense of tonality is vital. But it’s also a lot easier to do with help. If you listen to enough music, and start to understand what chord progressions you’re hearing, you can’t help but get better at picking up chord progressions. As you do that, you’ll also start to pick up on the sense of key and you won’t have to even ask what key a song is in after a while.

If you don’t think you can pick this up on your own, then get help. There are more than enough ways to get a chord chart for most songs. Granted, they may not all be right (and this is especially true of Internet tablature), but it will give you a place to start from. If your Internet tab says that a progression is F to G to C and the F doesn’t sound correct, try other chords and see if you can find the correct one.

Listen intently to songs. Can you hear the difference between a major and minor chord? Can you hear a chord and say that it’s a seventh? Or a major seventh? This is where it all starts. We’ve a number of articles on ear training at Guitar Noise. You can’t go wrong by starting off with the trilogy of Happy New Ear, Unearthing the Structure and Solving the Puzzle.

Of course, there’s still more to cover on this subject. And in our next post we’ll take a look at songs in minor keys.


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 [email protected] He (or another Guitar Noise contributor) may not answer immediately but he will definitely answer!

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