Finding the Key
Learn how to find the tonic note and the key of a piece of music by ear, so that you know which notes and chords will sound right.
After completing this module: you will understand how to find the key of a piece of music.
Before you can play a song by ear or improvise over it, you’ll want to know its key. That’s because a song’s key reveals which notes “fit” in the song.
When you learn to find a song’s key by ear you become much more free to express your own musical ideas. That’s because instead of choosing the notes to play from the full set of all possible notes, you can choose notes which belong to the key.
By keeping to the notes of the key you ensure your chosen notes will sound musical. They may not always be the “right” notes, but they will fit in well enough with the song. That means if you’re improvising, your solo will always sound like you know what you’re doing, and if you’re trying to play by ear then you will be able to find the correct notes much quicker.
Finding the key lets you:
- Enrich your musical appreciation
- Know exactly which notes you can use to play what you hear
- Jam (play along) with other musicians without needing written music
- Transcribe (write down) the notes you hear
- Write down what you hear in your head, your own musical ideas
- Overcome song writer’s or composer’s block
- Improvise freely and confidently
- Background: Key, Tonic and Scales
- Step 1: Recognise the Tonic
- Step 2: Identify the Tonic
- Step 3: Major or Minor?
- Step 4: Check It
Excerpt: Background: Key, Tonic and Scales
Let’s review the basics of musical key.
- Each piece of music is in a key.
- A key consists of two things:
- One key note, also known as the tonic.
- A collection of notes which the piece of music mostly uses.
The tonic note stands out as the most “at home” and comfortable note in the piece of music.
When you put the collection of notes into order by pitch it forms a scale.
Each key is named as the combination of tonic note plus the type of scale, major or minor. For example, the “Key of C Major” or the “Key of F♯ Minor”.
Since scales can be major or minor, and there are 12 different notes from A through to G♯, there are 24 different keys.
To “find the key” of a piece of music means answering two questions:
- What is the tonic note?
- Is scale used major or minor?
As we continue, you’ll discover a method for answering these two questions yourself, by ear.
Learning more about Key and Tonic
Hopefully the concepts above are familiar and clear. If not, it’s worth taking a bit of time to learn more before continuing on.
- If you’d like to learn more about the music theory concept of “key”, we recommend these tutorials from DaveConservatoire.org.
- If you’d like to learn more about scales and the sound of major vs. minor, you can try the Ear Expansion: Scales module.
- If you’d like to learn more about the tonic note and its role in music, check out the Start Solfa module.
As you read through the summary above, you might have found yourself thinking “Yes, but what about…” at various points.
In this module we are focused on the Western music system and the standard music theory concept of major and minor keys.
It is possible for a piece to use other types of scale (including “modes”) and to blur the lines of what we think of as “key”.
It’s also common for a piece to “borrow” notes or chords from outside the key, for musical effect.
However, the vast majority of music you will encounter in most genres will use the conventions described above most of the time.
For that reason, the approach taught in this module will help you quickly make a lot of progress identifying key in a useful way, without getting caught up in details and complications.
Now let’s start learning the method for finding the key!