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Tip: Key Centers and Chord Roots

Here’s a tip on hearing and playing with key centers. This could help players who can already play a few songs. They can even be three-chord songs. You might be looking around for more songs, but also wanting to develop an understanding of what you’re playing. You can get that understanding if you study chord roots and key centers.

These two are really close relatives. Chord roots are the hearts of chords, and key centers the hearts of keys. Let’s get a bit more specific and practical here. Play any chord you know. Your task is to – by ear – identify and then sing the chord’s root. What’s the point here? The point is to become aware of the most important part of the chord. Without awareness of that part, I don’t think you can fully explore music the way you want to.

Exercise two would be to do the same thing for key centers: hear any portion of a melody or a chord progression, and identify and sing the key center. This skill, like identifying the chord root by ear, is pretty easy to acquire, and you don’t even need a guitar. You can train yourself to pick out key centers by ear in a number of ways. One fun way is to use the free computer program at

Once you can identify chord roots by ear, you can accomplish a number of important tasks. One of them is to recognize two different inversions of a chord as being the same chord. The advantage of this is that, if you’re reading a song’s chord chart, you’re not locked into playing the inversion the music calls for. You can play the same chord in a location you think sounds good.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2010 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – May 1, 2008 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Signals Music Studio

1 Comment

  1. easy guitar songs
    January 27th, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    This doesn’t sound easy and could do with a bit more explanation. I know only a little about music theory but it might help… let me know if I’ve got it wrong.

    I think the key center is also known as the tonic note. That’s the note in the melody that the melody kind of pivots around. As the notes go up and down within the key (notes in the key of G are all from the g major scale etc) it is pulled back towards the centre – a sort of average frequency if you will.

    Anyway hope this helps make sence of the post.