How to Find the Key of a Song

When you first step into the world of music whether it is as a singer, songwriter or just as an instrumentalist it can be one of the more challenging obstacles to figure out the key of a song. It’s a skill that often takes most people quite some time to develop.

Some songs make this rather easier by using standard chords within a key, but however, some other songs are not as straightforward and easy to figure out and they may require more effort to find the key. 

What is a Key?

First let’s see what a Key actually is. A chord or note in a music that can be considered the central point of the song is referred to as key. In music the major or minor around which the music revolves is called a Key. It’s a family of seven chords that sound amazing together. A song that is based on a minor scale is in a minor key and a song on a major key is based on a major scale. 

If you were to play a song that is played on a key of F major it would be made up of seven notes that revolve around the F major scale, which are: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E. Meaning that the song’s fundamental notes that make up it’s melody, bassline and even the chords are all obtained from that specific group of notes. 

In the same way a piece of music may be played in a minor key, which means it revolves around its natural minor scale. For example, if a song is played in the D minor key it means that it would use the notes on a D minor scale, which would be: D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and C.

Any natural minor key or major key can be the key for a piece of music. Minor keys tend to give you more sad, sorrowful and darker sounds while Major keys give you more an upbeat and happy sound. 

How Many Keys are There?

There are a total of 12 major scales, which means that there are also 12 major keys. Similarly, there are 12 minor scales, hence, 12 minor keys. So, all together there are a total of 24 keys. 

However, some of the major keys can be spelled in two different ways, one with flat note names and one with sharp note names, leaving us with 15 different spellings for major keys. This is true for minor keys as well and they too have 15 different minor key spellings. 

This is something that confuses a lot of people but simply put there are 24 keys in total and 30 different ways to spell them. 

Tonic – The Center

The center note of the key is the root note of the key. Just like the root notes of chords, the note on which a scale is built is called the root note of the scale. For example, the root of the D major scale is D and the root for an Eb minor scale the root note would be Eb. When we are talking about keys, the root note of a key is referred to as tonic. 

Thinking of the keys and tonic as gravity on the Earth can help you understand it a bit better. Every object is being constantly pulled towards the Earth till they reach a state of rest on the Earth’s surface. The objects will eventually come back down even if they were to move away from the Earth. 

In the same way, when you’re playing music, the music is being pulled towards the root of the key, or tonic, constantly, to be able to come to a state of completion or rest. The most resolved note in a key is the tonic. You must keep in mind that it is the key’s center. 

Key Signature

The easiest way you can find out the key of a song is by using its key signature. The key of the song can be determined by the number of sharps or flat in the key signature. A key signature that has no flats or sharps is called the key of C or A minor. 

How to find the song’s key without the key signature

Let’s say at a given moment you don’t have a key signature that can tell you the key of the song, what will you do then? Well you need to take a different route for this one, it may be more work but it does the trick as well.

  • The Ending Chord of the Song. In a lot of cases it’s seen that the ending chord of a song is the key of the song. Although that may not always be the case, for confirmation, you can check which key they fit by charting the chords.
  • Map the chords to a key that is given. Sometimes to figure out the key of a song, you need to lay out a chart and see where they fit. You’d probably want to check a key chart unless you have all keys memorized.

For example, if we have the chords, D, E, G and B, we can take a look at the chord chart and find that these come from the key of D.

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Final Words

You need to keep in mind that learning how to determine the key of a song takes a lot of time and practice. The more you do it, the more your ear gets used to it, and it becomes easier. So practice and don’t lose hope if it takes some time.

What is a diminished chord? Find out here.

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