Find the Key to Unlock the Song!
How many times have you been listening to a song on the radio and thought, “wow, I wish I could play that on my guitar”? Maybe you’re at a party and someone starts playing a song on the guitar and you want to join in.
Perhaps you’ve considered that learning a song’s key isn’t something to worry about, or it’s not for a beginner guitar player. You’d rather do research on the internet, use an app, or ask someone playing than attempt to figure it out yourself.
Learning how to find the key of a song will help you become a better musician overall and make it easier. Once you’ve found the key, it will unlock all of the other chords used in a song. You’ll be able to identify the song’s chord family, which is crucial for any musician.
So go ahead and engage your musical mind and develop your hearing. It’s time to learn how to find the key of a song!
2 Ways to Find the Key
There are two main ways you can go about finding the key of a song: by ear, and by chords. Each has three simple steps to help you find the key of a song.
These techniques may appear challenging if you’re new to guitar playing, but it’s also thrilling when you first get started. It is well worth practicing finding the key by ear, especially if you are a beginner. This is a great chance to practice your sense of hearing and identify notes naturally.
This is PRACTICE! You don’t need to push yourself to get it right away. This training takes time and effort. Because developing your ear takes time, the earlier you begin, the better.
Finding the Key by Ear
One way to find the key of a song is by ear. This means that you listen to the song and try to figure out what notes are being played. You can then use those notes to find the key of the song.
Now, go somewhere quiet and put your guitar down first. Then, put on your headphones and listen to the song carefully!
- Tonal Center. The first step to finding the key of a song is to identify its tonal center, the “home base” or the “most stable”. This is the note that your ear naturally wants to resolve where the song rested or settled down. To find the tonal center, start by humming the melody of the song. As you hum, pay attention to which note feels like it wants to come back to again and again. That note is likely the tonal center.
- Key Quality. The next step is to identify whether the tonal center belongs to a major or minor key. Most pop songs are in a major key, so that’s a good place to start. If the song sounds happy and upbeat, it’s likely in a major key. If the song sounds sad or melancholic, it’s likely in a minor key.
- Playing Major Scale. When finding the key of a song, it’s important to first understand what the major scale is. The major scale is made up of seven notes: root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step and half step. These notes create the Major Scale formula: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. You won’t get lost looking for these notes since they make up your so-fa syllables. To do this, simply play scale on the G, B, and higher E strings while the song is playing in the background. Move the scale shape a half-step at a time until you find a location that sounds good (the most right) with the song’s background music. The key is the first note (Do) of the third string and the last note (do) of the first string!
These three steps to finding the key of a song by ear may be slightly frightening at first. It’s scary because it’s a new path to explore, but you’ll undoubtedly enjoy learning your way around.
Remember, this takes time and patience to develop, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away. You just have to be willing to do it consistently until your ear gets better at hearing these things.
Finding the Key by Chords
This method of finding the key of a song is especially helpful if you start by finding the chords that are used in the song. This means that you look at the chords that are being played in the song and figure out what key they are in by considering all of the possibilities.
It is quite similar to finding the key by ear, but they use different techniques. Here you’ll use a more defined details to find the key of a song.
The goal of this exercise is not only to find the key, but also to teach you how to utilize it. This can be more challenging for those who don’t know much about music theory or harmony. However, your ear has to work equally for you in order to discover the song’s key.
- First Chord, Last Chord, Most Common. Start by finding the first chord and the last chord in the song. Also, look for the most common chord in between those two chords. This is likely to be the key of the song!
- Functional Harmony: Another way to find the key of a song is by looking at its harmonic function. In other words, which chords are playing the most important role in the song? The tonic chord (I) is the most important and creates a sense of resolution, followed by the dominant chord (V) creates a sense of tension, and then the subdominant chord (IV) creates a sense of movement. If you can identify any of these chords in the song, you can figure out the key it’s in!
- Family Chords: This means finding chords that are related to each other. This is easily distinguished by the three types of chords in a family: major (I, IV, V), minor (ii, iii, vi) and diminished (vii°). To do this, you will need to know what chords are in each key. For example, if you are trying to find the key of a song in C, you will need to know that the chords in the key of C are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim. Don’t worry, all you have to do is recall the scale’s note interval (WWH WWWH or 221 2221) and tone qualities (major, minor, diminished) in order to build these families.
Once you’ve completed these steps, finding the key of a song should be a breeze! Just remember to use your ear, identify the chords being played, and find the most important ones.
Don’t look at these 6 steps as if they’re alternatives you can pick from and bypass some, because they’re verifiers; take them one at a time.
Let’s Go Find the Key!
Playing guitar is all about paying close attention to the music, whether you’re learning or performing it.
While there are many ways to find the key of a piece of music, we’ve explored two of the most common – finding the key by ear and finding the key by chords. You don’t have to stick with one approach; a combination of techniques almost always leads to higher accuracy. We hope this gives you a better understanding of how to approach learning new songs and pieces.
Be patient. It takes time to be able to hear the key of a song immediately. Just keep at it and you’ll get there.
Break it down. When you’re just starting out, finding the key of a song can feel like an overwhelming task. But if you break it down into smaller steps, it’ll be much easier to handle.
Focus. When you’re trying to find the key, it’s important to be able to focus on the music and tune out any distractions. This can be difficult, especially if you’re new to this process. But trust us, it’ll get easier with time and practice!
Listen. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: in order to find the key of a song, you need to be able to listen closely to the music. This means really focusing on the sound of the notes and chords being played.
Don’t give up! Learning how to find the key of a song can be a challenge, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Just keep at it and you’ll eventually get the hang of it!
Now that you know a little bit more about finding the key of a song, go out and give it a try! We promise, it’s not as daunting as it may seem at first. And who knows, you might just find that you have a natural ear for this sort of thing.
Look for that note, go out and start jamming! And be sure to check out our other blog posts for more tips on playing music with a guitar.