Easy Hacks for Finding a Song’s Key
As a songwriter and musician, there are some situations you will run into where you will want to know what the key of a song is.
One of these might be that you wrote a song entirely by ear and now you’re editing it to try to improve it. In this case it helps to know the key your song revolves around to see what your options are when making adjustments.
Another situation might be if you are learning someone else’s song and are going to improvise over it. You’ll need to know the key to know what scales you can use.
A third scenario is if you need to change the key of the song to fit a singer’s range.
Whatever the case, you should really know the key of the song you’re working with, but you might not know what it is. So how do you find it?
I’m going to give you a few quick and easy ways to find the song key, but let’s quickly define what we mean by “song key”.
What is a Song’s Key?
The key of a song refers to the tonal center of a composition. Every song revolves around a particular range of notes derived from a Major or Minor scale. This tonal center that we call the “key signature” grounds the song within a range of notes, and sets a harmonic foundation to build chord progressions and melodies on.
Hacks to Find the Song Key
First chord of song or chorus
A quick and easy way to find the key of a song is to look at what the first chord of a song is.
Usually this may be the key of the song because when writing music, many songs use the first chord to establish a tonal center, and then build on that sound with their chord progressions and melodies.
So for example, if the song starts with a C Major chord, there is a high likelihood that the song is in C Major (although this is not always the case but a great place to start).
Another part of the song to look at would be the first chord in the chorus. Songwriters usually want the chorus of a song to feel like we’ve arrived at the main idea, and one great way to do this (among others) is by starting the song on a chord that isn’t the root chord of the key and then using the first chord in a key as the first chord in the chorus.
This is because the first chord in a key has a feeling of resolution and of having arrived “home” so it’s great for emphasizing this feeling of having arrived at the main idea of the song.
So you can check what the first chord in the chorus is and if it feels like there is a strong resolution it might be the first chord in the song’s key.
Chord that is repeated multiple times
Writing songs is about telling stories and taking the listener on a musical journey. However, to go on a journey we need a start and an end point. When a chord is used multiple times it gives a feeling of centeredness and groundness in that chord. This can make it feel like this is our starting point, and then everything else is happening in relation to it.
So if a song is using the same chord multiple times, it might be a sign that it is the first chord from the song’s key to ground the sound.
So if a song uses C Major a lot, it could be a sign that the song is in C Major because they are using it often to keep the song grounded to it.
Find the Bass notes
This is a great practice for ear training in general but finding the bass notes of the chords in the progression might tell you what key the song is in.
Once you know them just compare the bass notes to the notes of the Major or Minor scale and you’ll likely be able to tell whether it is in a Major or Minor key and what note is the root note of the key.
Play the Major or Minor Scale Over the Song
After you have some idea of what the key of the song might be, it can help to play the Major or Minor scale over the song. If it fits well over every single chord (and the chord progression is all in one key) then it might be because you’re playing the song’s key. So this is another good, quick way to get an idea of what key the song is in.
Use an App or Plugin
If you want something where you don’t have to do any thinking whatsoever you could always use an app or plugin to find the key. Mixed in Key and Antares Autokey are two that seem to be popular.
However, with all the plugins out there you may just want to save your money for something you’ll get more mileage out of like an instrument library for your DAW, but hey, if you have the extra cash and don’t care, go for it. Personally, I would just Google the song key as a worst case scenario.
Find a Feeling of Resolution
The general idea with finding the song’s key is to find the feeling of resolution, of having arrived “home”. So even just listening to a song and hearing what the chord progression is doing might give you a good idea of which chord in the progression sounds like “home” and tell you what the key of the song is. If it’s a happy sounding song, it’s probably Major, if it sounds sad it’s probably Minor.
What if There are Chords from Outside the Key?
Songs can sometimes have chords that are mostly in one key but might have 1 or two chords from a different key. These are called “borrowed chords” since they are “borrowed” from a different key or mode.
So it is totally valid to say that a song is in a certain key with a few borrowed chords. As long as most of the chords are from one key you can say it’s in, for example, C Major with a chord borrowed from a mode or from a different key.
Wrapping it up
I know at first glance it might seem daunting to find the key of a song if you don’t know a lot of theory but hopefully this post has shown you it’s more simple than you thought and you don’t need much theory a lot of the time.
Knowing the key of a song is important though because it’s like having a map that tells you “you are here”.
This can help you make musical decisions such as deciding:
- What modes you can use for your melodies and solos
- What chords you can borrow from modes and other keys
- How to adjust the flow of your chords using Chord Function based on the song key
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