Determining the Key

Determining the Key

I am going to show you how to find the key when you have just a written piece of music in standard notation and also when you just know the chord progression.

Determining the Key From a Piece of Music in Standard Notation

To find the key when you see a piece of music in standard notation, you must look at the key signature. The key signature is located at the beginning of the line (for more info on the key signature refer to my lesson on Reading Notation and Tablature). This is where sharps and flats in standard notation are placed. Their are either sharps, flats, or neither in the key signature. Sharps and flats are never mixed together. You can determine the key by counting the number of sharps or flats in the key signature as long as the key signature does not have 5 sharps or flats. You must use a more complicated process to determine the key if this occurs. Here is a chart to show you the key if you have 4 or less flats or sharps in the key signature.

Figure 1

Number of Sharps Key Number of Flats Key
1 Key of G 1 Key of F
2 Key of D 2 Key of Bb
3 Key of A 3 Key of Eb
4 Key of E 4 Key of Ab

When there are no sharps or flats, it is the key of C.

Now, to find out which notes are sharp or flat, we will use the circle of fifths.

Figure 2

Circle of Fifths
If you can remember that the 1st sharp is F# and the 1st flat is Bb, then you will have no problem finding the sharps or flats in a key signature. Figure 3 will show you how to find the sharps or flats in a key signature.

Figure 3

Determining Sharps
To determine the sharps, you must find F# on the circle of fifths. F# is the 1st sharp. Now go clockwise 1 place. You land on C#. This is the 2nd sharp. Continue this process of going clockwise to get the 3rd, 4th, and 5th sharps. There are only 5 because if you continue this process to find the 6th sharp, you will find F which is not a sharp.
Determining Flats
To determine the flats, you must find Bb on the circle of fifths. Bb is the 1st flat. Now go counterclockwise 1 place. You land on Eb. This is the 2nd flat. Continue this process of going counterclockwise to get the 3rd, 4th, and 5th flat. There are only 5 flats because if you continue this process to find the 6th flat, you will find B, which is not a flat.

Now comes the hard part… finding the key when there are 5 sharps or flats. When there are 5 sharps or flats, it gets tricky because there are 3 keys that use 5 sharps or flats. These keys are B, F#/Gb, and C#/Db. All 3 of these keys have the same 5 sharps or flats. The difference between these keys is the notes that are not sharp or flat. In the key of B, those notes are B and E. In the key of F#/Gb, those notes are B and F. In the key of C#/Db, those notes are F and C. You must know these notes so that you can determine the exact key because the only way to determine the key now is to find those 2 notes used in the song. For example, if you see a B being used, you have eliminated C#/Db from being the key. Then you must seek find either an E or an F to differentiate between the key of B and the key of F#/Gb.

Finding the Key from a Chord Progression

To find the key of a chord progression, you must have some knowledge of chord progressions. If you recall, certain degrees are major and certain degrees are minor. To find the key from a chord progression, do the following:

  1. Write down all of the chords
  2. Write down the scales associated with each chord. (ie: If you have E minor, write down the E minor scale. If you have E major write down the E major scale. Do not, however, write down any modes. Just write down major and minor scales.)
  3. Look at each scale and see if the chords’ root notes are within that scale. If they are, that is the key you are in.

Subscribe for Free Content, Tips, and More!

3 Reasons to Subscribe to the GLW Newsletter:

  1. Free Stuff! You'll get free content that is exclusive to my newsletter subscribers!
  2. Content tailored to you. Over time, I'll get to learn more about you and deliver content that motivates you to learn, play and be inspired!
  3. No spam. Just real content that's meant to make a difference in your playing

Enter your name and email, and you're on your way!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
Hello again! You're already subscribed to the GLW newsletter. Thank you for being a part of the GLW community. If you have a question, just send an email using my contact page. I'd be happy to help!

10 Comments on Determining the Key

    • The key is E minor. Two major chords in a row indicate the 4th and 5th degree of a major key (G major in this case) or the 6th and 7th degree of a minor key (E minor in this case). Since you have an E minor chord and not a G major chord, the key is E minor. Note: E minor is the relative minor of G major, which means they use the same notes and have the same key signature (one sharp – F#). I hope this helps.

  1. Hello. My song has Am, E, Dm in the verse, but later makes use of Em, C and G as well. I think the key would be Am – is this correct?

    • You can tell right away that this song either changes keys or simply plays a chord outside of the key. I can tell because you can have 3 major chords, but two are a step apart. This does not follow this pattern. Having an E major and E minor chord is another clue. With that said, the song might change keys in the middle. The closest key is A minor. I hope this helps.

    • Hello Tony, This song does not fully adhere to a key since it has four different major chords. However, it is very close to the key of G. The F# major chord will produce two notes that are out of key: A# and C#. If you want to bring that chord into the key, you’d play a diminished chord. I hope this helps.

  2. I see from the other comments that one person is doing all the work, so i figured, i might as well follow suite. The verse is Am F C G. The chorus is Em C G D. I am pretty sure if my friend solo’d over the verse he’d be wanting to play in Am as the F C G are rather rapid and the main part sticks to the Am. However if i’m wrong, i’d like to know. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


song 2 guitar lesson  how to pick guitar strings with fingers  come and get higher chords  g major scale chords  guitar chorss  did you know chords  what does capo mean in guitar  a major bar chord guitar  guitar lessons world  acoustic guitar labeled  building chords  g mixolydian chord progression  fret definition guitar  how to practice guitar chord changes  12 bar blues jam  how to practice modes on guitar  a flat on guitar  d# bar chord  basics of harmonics  circle of chords  perfect fifth guitar  order my steps chords  you and i guitar lesson  best alternate tunings  fingerstyle guitar books pdf  how do you play a on guitar  e minor pentatonic scale notes  how to read classical guitar tabs  flucking  8 bar chord progression  em7 5 guitar chord  guitar fingerpicking exercises  good fingering techniques  guitar notes standard tuning  6th string guitar notes  how to find intervals in music  what is a pentatonic scale on guitar  how to know key of song  guiter chords  basic guitar chords tutorial  b major scale tab  b scale guitar  music note reading  important guitar techniques  b dim chord  guitar finger tapping exercises  easy chords to play on guitar  plucking in guitar  how to build a minor chord  jimi hendrix tuning  flatpicking guitar lessons  5 pentatonic scale patterns  g7 bar chord  how to play guitar without reading music  f major 7 chord guitar  how to write a solo on guitar  how to play an am chord on guitar  how to understand tabs  guitar note finder  gb chord guitar  body name with picture  how many notes are in a scale  how to learn how to read music  all my mistakes chords  guitar neck chart  how do play the guitar  complete guitar chord chart  c m gitar  how to tune guiter  how to strum a guitar with your hand  i select  pentatonic scale guitar tab chart  2 chord acoustic guitar songs  a day to remember guitar tabs  picking notes on guitar  c minor arpeggio guitar  how many minor scales are there  how to do d minor on guitar  what determines the key of a song  how to read music beginners  drop d tuning tuner  easy way to remember treble clef notes  what does a music note look like  d chord progression  guitar chords with hand position  guitar scale positions  what is a 7 chord  basic acoustic guitar chords for beginners  a flat major 7 guitar chord  chords with notes  how to play g minor 7 on guitar  guitar string frequency chart  12 major scales in order  gcd chord progression  follow through chords  chord love on top  how to read guitar picking patterns  how to make ab chord on guitar  pentanic scale  c scale guitar tab  c minor relative chords  a bar chord guitar  work out guitar chords  whats my name chords  the dominant chord is represented by which symbol  notes in a scale  c augmented chord  i need you more guitar chords  why do guitars have frets  9 11 chord  blues turnaround  red house jimi hendrix lesson  blues scale in e  celtic tuning chords