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

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