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19: Keys

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Lesson 19: Keys

This lesson explains what a musical key is. Keys are a basic music concept which you will need in order to understand both chord progressions and written music.

Before taking this lesson, you should know: major scales (Lesson 10: Major 1-2-3 Games).

In most songs, one particular pitch feels like the "resting" or "home" pitch; this pitch is the song's key. For example, if the pitch C feels like the home pitch, then the song is "in the key of C".

Keys can be major or minor. If a song's home pitch is C and most of the song's notes come from the C major scale, then we say the song is in the key of C major. If the song's notes come from a C minor scale, then the song is in the key of C minor.

Now let's see how you can play the same song in different keys. First, here is "Mary Had A Little Lamb" in the key of C major:

Ma-ryhadalit-tle lamb
<- Notes (click)
3212333 <- Scale degrees

Click each note button above to hear the song.

Next, below, is "Mary Had A Little Lamb" again, this time in the key of E♭ major:

Ma-ryhadalit-tle lamb
<- Notes (click)
3212333 <- Scale degrees

Again, click each note button.

Notice that when you play the song "Mary Had A Little Lamb" in a different key, all the pitches change, but the scale degrees stay the same. You can play "Mary" in any key by playing scale degrees 3-2-1-2-3-3-3 from that key's major scale.

Identifying a Song's Key

So, how do you tell what key a song is in (especially if it's your own song, or "fragment")?

Well, there's no "law" that says a song is "in a key" at all. A song (or fragment) is only "in a key" if it gives the listener enough musical clues for them to feel a home pitch.

Here are the common clues that make a song sound like it's in a key. Imagine a song that does these things:
  • Most 4-measure phrases start and/or end on a C major (or C minor) chord.
  • The chord sequences in the song tend to follow the standard tonic -> subdominant -> dominant sequence of diatonic functions in the key of C (Lesson 26: Diatonic Function Analysis).
  • Most of the song's notes come from the C major (or C minor) scale.
  • The melody emphasizes the note C at important points.

If all of the above are true, then the song will probably sound like it's in the key of C (C major or C minor). You can take away or "weaken" some of the "rules" above and the song can still sound like it's in the key of C; in fact, many, maybe most, "real" songs will break or weaken some of these rules, because following them constantly can sound boring. But if you remove too many of them, then the song doesn't sound like it's "in a key" anymore.

You'll use keys to understand chord progressions, in Lesson 20: Roman Numeral Chords.


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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