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How do I identify the key of a piece?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by MK50H, Feb 16, 2006.

  1. MK50H

    MK50H Member

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    I guess this has been asked before, bit I have searched to no avail!

    So, If I am listening to a piece of music, are there any quick tricks to identify whay key it is in. I ask, because I am trying to improve my understanding and use of different scales and modes.

    Thanks
    Neil
     
  2. Cap'n Fingers

    Cap'n Fingers Member

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    In most modern rock, blues and country the first chord of the verse or chorus is the 1 chord of the key. If the piece doesn't fit that format then I pay attention to what all the chords in the verse and chorus are and see what resolves to what. Often the last chord of the chorus is a V chord of the Key which resolves to the 1.

    Hope this helps. I bet some of these other guys will have some great suggestions as well.
     
  3. sinner

    sinner Member

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    It is easy to confuse "key" and "root". For instance, in a blues I, IV, V chord progression (like A7, D7, E7), we actually modulate (change keys) for each chord (they is only one dominant 7 chord in a key, it "points" to the key). So, A7 is "drawn" from the mother key of D but the "pull" is to the A root. If you use a A Mixolydian scale and/or Am pentatonic/Cmajor pentatonic on the A7 chord you're fine. Although the A Mixolydian is the same notes as the D major scale it will "sound funny" to use say D major while you're on the A7 because of that "pull" to the A root. It's the same notes, but you need to "bring it home" to the A root.

    That's why it's sometimes just easier to say "we're in A" rather than go through all that. The simple way is that a lot of the time where we begin is the root (most of the time in rock & blues), so you can be safe most of the time that many tunes "start on the" root. At least you won't be wrong much of the time.

    I am still learning this (taking lessons right now) so others feel free to help me out..The other eay to "quickly zoom in" on the key and root is by learning the "markers" of common chord progressions, like a major chord up whole step to a minor chord (I, ii). Another "marker" is like a major chord down whole step to another major (V, IV). Many tunes in pop music are built on the chord family template and the progression often follows this form. You can use the modes (diatonic theory) and/or pentatonics (major/minor) accordingly.

    I often just get started with using a pentatonic on the root until I "see" where the chord progression is going, then get braver and start using diatonic scales. If it's a blues context, I still "tweak" it a bit, like sliding from the minor third to major third, to keep it blusey.
     
  4. 1-Take-Wonder

    1-Take-Wonder Member

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    Learn your keys first, if you haven't done that...

    Then listen with guitar in hand, follow the chord progression by ear, after a few chords, establish the common notes which should begin pointing you to a key signature...provided there aren't a ton of accidentals (notes outside the key signature) or quickly changing keys.

    I have a stack of "mode sheets" that I use to learn parts to make it easy. If I'm having trouble voicing a particular part, I'll label each mode for the key (C Ionian D Dorian, etc) and work through each one until I've found the right voicing. It seems like overkill, but it saves me a lot of noodling when I'm trying to learn songs quickly.


    Someone here's should have a more thorough answer than this, but its how I get to keys and appropriate modes as quickly as possible.
     
  5. Tinman

    Tinman Member

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    Sometimes I'm actually relieved that I don't know anything about theory. Right now is one of those times. When I'm trying to find the key, I listen to the song for a while. That seems to work.
     
  6. azgolfer

    azgolfer Member

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    Better to find the notes that you like than to worry about the key. Unless you are on stage.
     
  7. jspax7

    jspax7 Member

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    By analyzing the chords. The I IV V are major, ii iii vi are minor. If the song is in a minor key, it's most likely the vi. (Relative minor)

    Some songs start on a chord other than the Tonic. (Key)
    Listen to the last chord. Songs often end by resolution to the key.

    Once you figure out the key, play a pentatonic scale that corresponds to the strongest chord. (Tonal center)
    Since a pentatonic is a 5 note scale, you can find the mode by adding the 2 missing notes from the key.
     
  8. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    Key is usually determined by the point of harmonic resolution, which doesn't necessarily have to be the first or last chord. Don't necessarily put off by not figuring some of them out easily. I've been a witness to arguments among professionals as to what key some songs are in (i.e., All The Things You Are - Ab or Fm? My vote goes with Ab). Some songs change keys so much it's hard to tell, for instance, what key would you say "Giant Steps" is in? I have my my ideas, but, anyone?
     
  9. sinner

    sinner Member

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    [​IMG]
    Giant Steps is a piece that is designed to traverse three keys.

    If you look at the chord changes you'll see that the first statement of root is on a B Major chord. Make a mental note of that. Immediately after that comes D7-G, a statement of the key of G Major. Also, make a mental note of that. Third, we have Bb7-Eb. Yet another statement of key: Eb Major. Note this as well.

    The rest of the song revolves around these three keys. As we move on:

    --Am7-D7-G (Statement of key of G Major, via a ii-V7-I)
    --Bb7-Eb (Statement of key of Eb Major via V7-I)
    --F#7-B (Statement of the key of B via V7-I)
    --Fm7-Bb7-Eb (Statement of key of Eb Major, via ii-V7-I)
    --Am7-D7-G (Statement of key of G Major, via ii-V7-I)
    --C#m7-F#7-B (Statement of key of B Major, via ii-V7-I)
    --Fm7-Bb7-Eb (Statement of key of E Major, via ii-V7-I)
    --C#m7-F#7 (Statement of key of B Major, via ii-V7 which turns back around to the top, which is logically going to the first B Major chord.)

    A careful look will show that this piece is revolving around three definite key structures: G, B and Eb. These three roots put together form a G Augmented chord, which is possibly what Coltrane was going for when he conceived the piece.

    The nature of jazz is such that modulation through different keys within one piece of music makes for an intellectual challenge. There is simply no way that this piece can be considered to be in a 'key', when it revolves around many keys.

    Good luck playing over these swift moving changes!
     
  10. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    I'm very familiar with the harmonic theory behind Giant Steps and have played over those "swift moving changes" more times than I'd like to count. I played this in a band with Ernie Watts for a while and I had to solo after him. Talk about a humbling experience. Ernie can play a couple notes when he puts his mind to it.

    My question was a little rhetorical, just pointing out that sometimes the "key" of a song can be a bit obscure, case in point above. FWIW, I always heard Eb as the main key and the modulations to B and G as secondary, even though it starts on B. I was just curious if anyone else heard it that way.
     
  11. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    It just feels like Eb is the point of resolution for the larger harmonic gestures. The entire second half feels like it winds its way the Eb. Again, I don't have 'proof' that even Coltrane had this in mind, it's just what I've always heard, and it's helped me make sense of playing over it.
     
  12. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    Like I said, Eb as the main key center is something I hear in it; I have no idea whether Coltrane intended it that way or not.

    Interesting...I've always felt Coltrane intended Giant Steps as a technical exercise and little more. He never played it live, from what I've been able to determine. He recorded it it many, many times, more or less playing the same arpeggio and tetrachord figures that wound up eventually on the released version with Tommy Flanagan, in a few cases whole sequences note for note.

    Again, I don't know what Coltrane intended; it's just my hunch.

    While I appreciate and respect your sentiments, I've always felt it was an artist's job to make these things sound not boring, to the extent that we access any of it consciously. It's our job to make whatever technique we lean on 'not boring', to 'blur the seams', if you will....

    Anyone who's ever followed my history of posting on technique will find that I often deride tachnique that calls attention to itself. This is because it feels 'lazy' to me...that the artist didn't go the extra step after mastering the technique to cover his tracks

    I like your insistence on intervals, though. I more or less always see lines and chords as combinations of intervals, in such a way that I don't make a big distinction between the two when I'm in my 'zone'...
     
  13. Doodad

    Doodad Member

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    I know this will sound lame, but sometimes I pull out the tuner and just hold it up to the speaker. It works.:eek:
     

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