What is the Key of a Melody?
Defining a Song’s Key and How to Find the Key of your own Songs
As you progress in the art of songwriting, you’ll quickly discover that the secret to a good song is to have a good melody. And an invaluable skill for melody-writing is knowing how to identify it’s key so you can effectively add chords or arrange accompaniment. So what exactly is a song’s key? And what are the most effective methods for finding it? Most dictionaries or sources on the subject give a convoluted technical explanation of the term. Today, I’ll explain how to determine the key of a solitary melody or an entire song.
What is a Music Key?
In music, a key is essentially just a family of notes that are predetermined to sound good together. For music performed by orchestral instruments, the key is an essential tool that instructs the players on which notes will be sharp or flat. But for pop songwriting, it’s more of a classification system to simplify note and chord selection.
If all of the chords are in the same key, you’ll know that they’ll work well with each other. Keys are also indispensable if you create mashups of popular songs, because you’ll want both songs you mash up to be in the same key (or it’s relative minor/major, but more on that later).
Each key is made up of seven specific notes and is named for whichever note in that set of seven acts as the tonic. The tonic of a music scale or key is the note that holds tonal center and to which the scale finds resolution. Lastly, every major key shares the same notes as a minor key; these are referred to as the relative minor keys. the only difference between the two keys would be which note acts as the tonic. For example:
- The key of C major includes the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B
- The key of A minor includes the following notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G
What is a Tonal Center?
As you can see, those two keys have all the same notes—but the key of C has a tonal center (or tonic) at the note C, while the key of Am has a tonic at the note A. Tonal center just means the note to which the scale resolves, or feels like it’s gotten back home (back where it began). For example: play through the notes of the C major scale. Notice how, when you get to the note B, the music sounds like it wants to return to and finish on the next note, C. The B leaves you hanging for the feel good ending on C.
With all of that in mind, here is your cheat sheet on quickly identifying each key and what notes are present in it:
What’s the Difference Between a Key and a Scale?
I have a more in-depth article all about this question, but in short: key refers to specific sets of seven notes that fit harmonically together as predefined in Western music, but scale just refers to any set of notes that are used together in a given piece of music. A key will always be seven notes, a scale can be as few as five (5) notes or as many as all twelve (12) notes in music!
If you are only using the common major and minor scales of Western music, then the key and scale are the same thing. It’s when you start to move out of the German-designed music classification system that scales start to differentiate from standard keys.
How Do I Find the Key of a Melody?
Now we can get to the detective work of music keys: finding out which one you’re in!
If you already have a tune composed, it will be relatively easy to define. I have an article that explains the steps in-depth to finding a melody’s chords, and that process also requires you to find the key of your composition. Here are the steps to key identification:
- Determine which notes are in your melody; write down each note in the sequence.
- Compare the notes in your melody to the notes in each key, find which one(s) match.
- Identify which note sounds like the tonal center to determine if the key is the relative major or minor. This is easier than it sounds: just ask your self which note the melody resolves to. If you’re melody is in either C major or A minor, does it sound like it wants to end on the C note or the A note?
If you plugged your melody notes into the key chart and only one key family fit, then you’re done.
If your melody has less notes than a key, and there are two or more that may fit, then it’s time to A/B test the possible keys. That means there will be one or two notes in each key that does not appear in your melody; you’ll need to introduce those outlier notes into your tune, and listen for which one sounds most natural.
Here are the two easiest ways to perform the A/B test:
- Play your melody again, but insert the outlier note from the first possible key into your melody, then redo the same test with the other key; decide which outlier note sounded like it blended with the melody better.
- Play your melody again, but sing or strum the first key’s outlier note as the melody plays. Now do the same thing with the second key. Pick which one sounds like it belongs with the tune.
How Do I Find the Key of a Song?
There are few ways to find a song’s key depending on the source of the song (you vs an unknown artist vs a well-known artist). Here are the 3 ways to find the key:
- Check an online song database
- Use a key analysis software
- Look at what chords are in the song
Method 1 – Check a Database
If you’re trying to find the key of a song that’s been published online already, it’s incredibly easy:
- Go to https://tunebat.com/ and enter the artist name + song name into the search bar
- The site will provide you with the key of the song
Method 2 – Use an Analyzer
If you found a song online but it does not show up in Tunebat’s system or you wrote and recorded the song yourself, then let the site run a key analysis on the track:
- Go to https://tunebat.com/Analyzer
- Select the audio file containing the song in question
- The site will scan the music and predict the key for you
Method 3 – Check the Chords
If you’re trying to find the key of a full song that you wrote and you don’t have a recording of it yet, then follow these steps:
- Write down what chords you used for the song
- Check the Chords & Keys Chart below and find which key contains your chords
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