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Song is in the key of... means what, exactly?


(@robbieboy)
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Joined: 13 years ago
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Hi folks,

Here I am with quite possibly a contender for dumbest question ever...

I was having a look earlier at the 'easy songs for beginners' section of guitarnoise.com (much of which seemed beyond me, but that's another story) and I saw that one song (the Beatles 'Nowhere Man') said next to it 'song is in the key of E'.

Now, I know maybe 12-15 chords, I know the strings (Easter Bunny etc.) and I know how to find notes on the fretboard kinda- I can name the notes on each string on the 3rd, 5th and 7th frets. But when I saw 'key of E' next to Nowhere Man in the tute, well... it is completely abstract and means nothing to me. Would a kind person be willing to explain what that means? Thanks, and please be gentle on me :(


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 lars
(@lars)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 1121
 

No problem -we have all started somewhere :-)

Let's see - the key of a song, an easy and roughly right answer: Think of it as where the melody is "at home". You can play nowhere man starting on a B note (7th fret on E string). Start out on that note and sing the melody - you will end out (..."for nobody") on an E (open E obviously). E is where the song is at rest so to speak - so we call it the key of E. Playing it in E we use the chords E - B - A - E - A - Am - E.

Now, you can start singing on say, E instead. If you sing the melody starting from E, you will end up on an A - the melody then is in the key of A, and you need A - E - D - A - D- dm - A to play it. You see if the song is to high or low pitch for you to sing in one key, you can play it in another key - you "transpose" it to another key.

Now, this can be done a lot more theoretically - and I'm sure someone might do that - but I hope you get the picture more or less :)

...only thing I know how to do is to keep on keepin' on...

LARS kolberg http://www.facebook.com/sangerersomfolk


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(@chris-c)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 3460
 

Hi,

This is how I see it. Like Lars, I'm claiming that this is 'roughy right' too.

Keys are like a close cousin of scales. The basic idea is to take a smaller team of notes to do the job, instead of using all 12 notes.

There are set ways of choosing which notes to include, depending on whether you are aiming for a major or a minor key (there's a bit more to it, but that's the basic idea). So "The key of E" would usually mean the key of E major. The notes in the scale would be:

E F# G# A B C# D# E

From that scale you can build a series of simple 3 note chords, called triads. The most 'important' or useful ones are built off the 1st, 4th and 5th note of the scale and you'll see them referred to as the I, IV and V chords. In this case E, A and B (all 3 being major chords. The rest are mostly minors, with one diminished).

Now those aren't the only chords, or notes, that you can use, but they're the basic set for that "key". You can start wherever you like, but the feeling of the music will always have the feeling of being centred around, or wanting to 'resolve' back to the note and/or chord that gives the key its name.

An easy way to get a feeling for 'key' is to play only the white notes on a piano. The white notes are the complete C major scale, so all the main chords use only white notes, and if you improvise a note by note melody on the white keys of a piano, you'll find that the tune will want to try and end on the C to feel complete (like Lars said). That's roughly it anyway.....

Chris


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(@vic-lewis-vl)
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Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 10340
 

Someone (Scrybe, I think) tried to show me a while back about why certain chords work well together, and I think I got the gist of what she was saying....

Anyway, as I understand it....

Take the key of C, and the notes in that scale - C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Starting with C, the intervals are whole note / whole / half / whole / whole / whole / half.

Now look at the C major triad - C, E and G. That's a C major chord....

Then move that triad up one interval, using the scale of C, at a time.....

C E G = C.
D F A = Dm
E G B = Em
F A C = F
G B D = G
A C E = Am
B D F = Bdim.

These chords are the natural chords in the key of C....they naturally lead into, and out of each other. I'm not that well up on theory yet, so I don't know how 7ths and sus4ths come into it, but each and any of those natural chords will flow smoothly into a C chord to give you resolution, or take you home, as Chris and Lars put it.

:D :D :D

Vic

"Sometimes the beauty of music can help us all find strength to deal with all the curves life can throw us." (D. Hodge.)


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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

Everybody's right so far :)

There are really at least three different meanings of "key".

First is the "key signature", which tells you what notes will be sharp or flat in the melody and/or chords. Key signatures are always related to the major scale - every major scale has a unique set of sharps or flats. So if you always have F# and C#, but no other sharps or flats (and F and C are always sharp) then you're in the "key" of D... because that's the only major scale that has those notes sharped. Because major scales are so common, if you say "key of D" everybody assumes it's D major - just like saying "D chord" implies a D major chord, rather than D9 or Dm7.

Second is the way notes are arranged, the "melody" key. "Key signature" tells you what notes to use, but not how to use them. What really makes up "key" is both the notes and the "tonic" - the most important note, the one that feels like home. That doesn't always agree with the key signature. If you see one flat in the sheet music, the "key signature" is F (because that's the major scale with one flat), but the song might well be in the key of D minor (because D is the center of the melody). When that happens, we need to be more specific and give the "key" in two parts - the tonic (D) and the way the notes sound in relation to the tonic (minor). It's really just like naming chords: say "D chord" and you mean D major... if you want Dm7 instead, you have to be more specific, even though they're both D-root chords.

Third is what's going on in the harmony. Chord progressions often have a tension/resolution at the end, like G7 -> C. It sounds like a musical "the end", and it's called a cadence. The last chord in the cadence - the one that sounds like it's a good stopping place - is the key. This won't always agree with the melody key; if you're playing a blues in A, the melody will have C natural notes in it (it'll look like it's in the key of C for the most part), but the chord progression will have a cadence like E7 -> A that signals the key of A for the harmony. So if someone asks what key "Crossroads" is in, you could say "it's a blues in A" (which gives you melody information) or you could just say "it's in A" (which just communicates the chords used).

It really comes down to what you're trying to communicate, and how specific you're trying to be. "Key" is really just a sort of shorthand we use to give a bit of information about a song. We can be more or less specific in what we're communicating; music can be much more complicated than a "key" communicates, for a couple of reasons.

One is "outside" chords. Songs often "borrow" a chord from a related key - you're using a chord in the progression that doesn't match up with the other chords. Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" is a great example of this - the chord progression seems to go through a whole bunch of "keys".

Another is modulation - songs don't always stay in one key. Sometimes they'll change to another key for a while, with or without a change in the "key signature" in the sheet music. When that happens, you might hear folks talk about the "key of the moment" - it's not the key of the song, but it's the one that works for those particular measures.

Which gets me to the only true definition of "key" - when you listen to a tune, it sounds like it's in that key. Like any other art, we have these general terms that kind of describe things, but they're not very specific... if you say you drive a red car, that tells me it's not green, but it doesn't tell me if it's blood red, fire engine red, or some other shade. And when your neighbor tells me you car is sort of an orange color, you could both still be right!

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


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(@ginger)
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Joined: 16 years ago
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No problem -we have all started somewhere :-)

Let's see - the key of a song, an easy and roughly right answer: Think of it as where the melody is "at home". You can play nowhere man starting on a B note (7th fret on E string). Start out on that note and sing the melody - you will end out (..."for nobody") on an E (open E obviously). E is where the song is at rest so to speak - so we call it the key of E. Playing it in E we use the chords E - B - A - E - A - Am - E.

Now, you can start singing on say, E instead. If you sing the melody starting from E, you will end up on an A - the melody then is in the key of A, and you need A - E - D - A - D- dm - A to play it. You see if the song is to high or low pitch for you to sing in one key, you can play it in another key - you "transpose" it to another key.

Now, this can be done a lot more theoretically - and I'm sure someone might do that - but I hope you get the picture more or less :)

Wow, thats cool. I have never heard it explained like that before, but it makes real good sense...And that's easy to remember! Thanks Lars


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(@greybeard)
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Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 5899
 

If I choose a root note for my solo either on slide, or with the fingers would it still be in the key of that root note?
Slide, fingers, banana skin, it doesn't make any difference.

A solo is an integral part of a piece of music and must be harmonised to the key, that the song is being played in. Playing a solo in G major, when the song is in Cb will not sound good. You can't just "choose a root note" at random and expect to sound good.
So you would choose The B note on the first A string in the DADAAD tuning and as long as the 4/4 timing sig has beat 1 one on the root note it will still be in the key of B right?
The timing has nothing to do with key, it could be 4/4, 12/8, 13/8 on, evens or whatever else, the key is totally independent of it.
The note that starts a bar does not define the key - the tonal centre of the piece defines the key. Many pieces start on notes that are not the tonic of the music's key.

I've suggested , in another thread, that you get yourself a good reference book, such as Noteboat's. You should also get yourself over to the GN lessons site and work through David Hodges lessons. You seem to be under several misconceptions about key, scales and tunings, etc.. Don't just read them on the screen, print them out and keep them filed for reference - you'll learn and, more importantly, reatin far more information, that way.

You're trying too hard to do too much in too little time. Slow down. You're like a deep sea fisherman, with a lure in the water. You are having your boat go at 20 knots and the lure's being dragged 6" below the surface. It's covering a lot of water, but not catching many fish. Slow the boat down and the lure will sink deeper. You won't cover anywhere near as much territory, but you'll catch a load more fish.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
Did you know that the word "gullible" is not in any dictionary?
Greybeard's Pages
My Articles & Reviews on GN


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(@wes-inman)
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Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 5599
 

NoteBoat- Thanks for the great explanation.

You said some songs seem to go through many keys. Now, I don't know if this is an example of that, but at the end of David Bowie's song Ashes to Ashes David sings the same verse over and over and uses just three chords Dm, Am7, and G. But each verse starts on a different chord. It does seem to give the effect of changing keys. It also sounds like the chords are forever descending, very cool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r44OFO-MNPo

Dm Am7 G Dm
My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom

Am7 G Dm Am7
My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom

G Dm Am7 G
My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom

Dm Am7 G Dm
My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.....

This song is very cool, starts out in the key of G, then goes to F, then goes to A, it goes all over. :D

If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis


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(@ricochet)
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Joined: 18 years ago
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"Easter Bunny?" Haven't heard that one, but if it's for standard tuning it's backward. Guitar tunings are "spelled" from low to high. The mnemonic I use for standard is "Eat All Day, Get Big Easily." Works, too!

"A cheerful heart is good medicine."


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(@wes-inman)
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I like Ed Ate Dynamite, Good-Bye Ed :D

If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis


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(@jwmartin)
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When I started, I used Every Adult Dog Growls Bites Eats.

Bass player for Undercover


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(@rahul)
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EGBDF - Every Good Drummer Drinks Fizz.


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(@robbieboy)
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Topic starter  

Easter Bunny Gets Drunk At Easter.


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