Updated: Jun 20
Hey you! Are you having trouble with finding what key you are in? Are you confused when you look at a chord progression and think if only I knew the key?
Well, this article is for you!
In this article we are going to discuss 3 tips that will help you decipher what key you are in at any given time.
The topics we are going to cover are:
- Why It's Important To Know What Key You Are In
- Tip 1 Reading Key Signatures
- Tip 2 Dominant Chords And Their Function
- Tip 3 Learning The Importance Of Chord Spacing
Why It’s Important To Know What Key You Are In
It can be really useful to know what key you are in because it helps you centre yourself within the music as it plays.
In a professional setting its not often that you will be constantly changing keys as a key is more suited to serving the vocalist.
As a guitarist our main function is to support the vocalist and to be able change the songs key to support their vocal range.
Its important to note that when playing a song most of the time you will be playing chord progressions that cycle in each section.
Knowing what key you are in helps with your own musicality because if you know your keys and notes that belong in those keys you can add your own musical embellishments to the piece of music you are playing.
More importantly without your musical additions sounding like they don’t belong. As that is the main function of knowing your key, knowing that your notes belong in the music.
So without further ado here are the 3 tips to find what key you are in!
Tip 1: Reading Key Signatures
One sure fire way to finding out what key you are in is reading the sheet music and understanding how many flats and sharps are within a key.
If we look at Example 1:
We can see the diagram that depicts the circle of fourths and fifths.
This diagram serves to show which key has how many sharps and their notes. You can easily tell what key you are in depending on how much sharps or flats there are next to the clef at the start of the piece of music as shown in Example 2:
In Example 2 we can tell its the key of E major by looking at the number of sharps from the previous example.
I would advise memorising both the number of sharps and flats and the note names. First, I would advise memorising the number of sharps and flats as that’s easier and then move onto knowing the note names. As for the tonality if its major or minor I will refer to the 3rd tip in this article.
Tip 2: Dominant Chords And Their Function
When we want to easily find what key we are in we should always be looking for the 5th chord in a chord progression as they usually lead back to the first chord in the chord progression.
The reason being for this is because of the tension inside the dominant chord is created by two notes within the dominant chord, the flat 7 and the major 3rd being played together.
This is because this tension created is a flat 5 sound and when you have a flat 5 sound it sounds like it wants to resolve.
The most common form of resolution with dominant chords is going directly back to the first chord.
This can be seen and heard in Example 3:
So, when we find a dominant chord in a chord progression, we can either resolve to the first chord by moving up a fourth interval or moving down a fifth to find the first chord, indicating the correct key that you are in.
Sometimes you may find that Dominant chords are used to pivot into new keys, which means you can also use this method to determine the new key that you arrive in when it happens.
Tip 3: Learning The Importance Of Chord Spacing
Now onto the last tip chord spacing.
I find that this method is the most useful out of the three as it can be applied in many situations.
What do I mean by chord spacing?
I will have to say that it does require you to know how to harmonise the major scale, and the intervallic structure of the major scale also.
In case you didn’t understand this I will do a very quick recap of the vital knowledge needed to understand this concept.
The first part of the puzzle to understanding chord spacing is to know the distance between each note in the major scale as seen in Example 4:
In this example it shows the distance between each note in the major scale. Its important to know each spacing between each interval, I will lay out the distances here.
1 to 2 = 1 Whole Step /Tone = 2 frets
2 to 3 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets
3 to 4 = Half Step/SemiTone = 1 fret
4 to 5 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets
5 to 6 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets
6 to 7 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets
7 to 1 = Half Step/ SemiTone = 1 fret
This is useful to know because it plays a big part in the next piece of our puzzle the tonality of each chord that belongs to each interval degree.
The second part to this puzzle is putting the chord values to those spaces as in Example 5:
I put them in 4-part harmony because it helps outline their tonality a bit more, you can clearly see the function of the dominant chord on the 5th degree and you can see the half diminished on the 7th degree.
Now we can see which chord belongs to which degree of the major scale we can use the same spacing as before but now with more context and information.
1 to 2 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets = Major to minor with 2 frets
2 to 3 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets = Minor to minor with 2 frets
3 to 4 = Half Step/Semitone = 1 fret = Minor to Major with 1 fret
4 to 5 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets = Major to dominant/ major with 2 frets
5 to 6 = 1 Whole Step/Tone = 2 frets = Dominant/major to minor with 2 frets.
6 to 7 = 1 Whole step/Tone = 2 frets = Minor to dim triad/half diminished with 2 frets.
7 to 1 = 1 Half Step/ Semi-Tone = 1 Fret= Half Diminished traid to Major triad with 1 Fret.
From understanding this, all we need are two chords and we can determine their position in the major scale indicating what key they are from.
if we take two chords that are minor to minor by a whole step, we can safely assume that it’s a 2 chord going to a 3 chord.
We can then link that back to key it belongs to. You can do this with all the other combinations from the information above it just requires memorisation of the harmonised major scale and the spacing between each chord tonality.
I hope this article has helped demystifying how to find what key you are in or more importantly pushed you in the right direction.
Written by GuitarGuyNick