How Can I Tell What Key a Song is in (by Ear)?
One of the most rewarding skills to develop as a musician is the ability to learn other songs without looking at guitar tabs or notation. This is called learning a song “by ear”. But how do you do it? If you need to find the key of a musical work, where do you start? This article is a starting point for answering all these questions.
How To Tell What Key A Song Is In By Ear
In order to tell what key a song is in by ear, you would need either perfect pitch or a musical instrument. The reality is that most people do not have perfect pitch, so the majority of people cannot identify exact musical notes by listening alone. Therefore your best bet at determining key will be through the use of an instrument, which may not sound like it’s “by ear” but this is the method people usually mean when they use the term.
The gist of this instrument-assisted “by ear” method is quite simple: you listen to the song and try to match a pitch in the song with your instrument. This is the “old school” method of determining pitch and is most suitable for people who want to improve their understanding of music theory, In today’s technological word, there are phone applications and websites that can tell you a song’s key in a matter of seconds.
If you are just looking for the quickest way to find a song’s key, jump to the section on “Internet Resources” below. Furthermore, the methods in this article are assuming that the song in question was made by another artist. If you wrote your own melody and now you’re trying to find it’s key or chords, I have other articles to help with that.
What is Perfect Pitch?
As a mentioned, finding a song’s key with your ears and only your ears is a rare skill. Perfect pitch (or absolute pitch) is the ability to identify a music note without a reference tone. If you cannot listen to a note blindly and immediately tell it’s name, don’t feel bad. Only 4% of music school students have this ability, and the general population likely has an even lower percentage of perfect pitch persons. For the rest of us musicians, finding a song’s key “by ear” means we’ll employ a reference tone…usually in the form of an instrument like the guitar or piano.
How to Find A Song’s Key with An Instrument
To find a song’s key, you’ll first need some kind of instrument that can generate absolute pitches—by that, I mean an instrument where you can play a specific fret or key and—if it’s tuned correctly—it will always give you the same note. Common examples would include guitar, ukulele, and piano.
Grab your instrument of choice and follow these steps:
- Play the song and focus on the root notes of the chords. If for some reason you cannot identify chords—perhaps the song is just voice, bass, and drums—then instead focus on the most dominant melody line. Usually, this will be the vocals.
- We’ll start by identifying the first chord in the song. In most music, the chord progression will loop throughout the track, so if you play along with the entire verse or chorus, then you will hear that first chord repeat multiple times.
- Now we play a game of “hot or cold”. Start plucking or playing keys on your instrument and listen for where your instrument note is compared to the root note in the song. Is your note higher or lower than the root. Move up or down the fretboard/keys until your note matches the root of the song’s first chord.
- Now determine if that chord is a major or minor. This is the easiest part. Play the root note’s full major chord on your instrument, then play the minor chord. One of them will sound off or out of tune when played along with the song.
- Repeat this process with every chord you can hear in the song. Start with the root note and then identify if the chord for that root note is major or minor. Once you’ve identified multiple chords, you can extrapolate the key.
- Each selection of chords will match a specific key; the more chords in the song, the more likely you can determine it’s key. Below is a chart showing all of the chords that are natural to each key. Compare the set of chords you matched to the keys in the chart to find the song’s key.
It Works on Melodies, Too
The same process can be used on a melody. Instead of root notes, you’ll listen to the melody over and over and pick out each note in succession on your instrument. It may help if you write down which notes you identify.
This process can be tedious and the fuller a song’s mix is—that is, the more instruments that are playing at the same time—the harder this technique will be. However, this traditional method of notation will train your brain to notice aspects of music that the average casual listener may otherwise overlook.
Internet Resources For Determining Key
If you’re in a rush and just need a song’s key now, there are far easier methods than finding it by ear. Technology can perform this job in a fraction of the time. Here are the easiest computer-assisted methods to find a song’s key:
- AI Analyzer. Upload an audio file of the song in question to https://tunebat.com/Analyzer. This site uses artificial intelligence to automatically scan the song for it’s key and tempo.
- Spotify Database. If the song is already uploaded to streaming services including Spotify, enter it’s title and artist name on https://tunebat.com/ in the search bar.
- Android App. If you’re using an android smartphone or tablet, you can download an app to accomplish the same task as Tunebat’s Analyzer. Try Song Key Finder in the Google Play Store.
- Computer Program. Lastly, there is computer software than can analyze an audio file for it’s key. The most popular product with this feature is called Melodyne by Celemony. Normally, you have to pay for the full version. However, they offer a free trial version that can still identify notes in the context that you’ll need.
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