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#1522550 - 09/25/10 05:26 PM How to tell what key a piece is in
dat77 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/19/10
Posts: 31
I am an adult student and am having trouble figuring what key s piece is in. My main trouble is figuring if something is in a major or minor key. For example, if it has 1 flat is it in the key of f major or d minor Is there a easy way to figure that out. What I am doing right now has only one cleft. I try to play a chord with it but I still have trouble.

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#1522564 - 09/25/10 05:54 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Samuel Laferriere Offline
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Registered: 04/09/10
Posts: 30
If you don't have the score... then its just a matter of hearing the difference. Try listening to major pieces and minor, it gets very easy to differentiate them after a while, just by the feel of the piece.

If you have the score, a good trick is to look at the last chord, which should be a chord based on the tonic.

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#1522606 - 09/25/10 07:17 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Minniemay Offline
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Registered: 06/07/09
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Minor pieces will often have accidentals as well. For instance, a piece in d minor will often have a C# added to make the harmonic minor.
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#1522614 - 09/25/10 07:28 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
John v.d.Brook Offline
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Registered: 03/18/06
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Loc: Olympia, Washington, USA
Ideally, you want to learn to hear the differences. In Western music, the 3rd and 6th tones are a whole step higher than the 2nd and 5th tones, but when moving to a minor mode, they are only a half step higher. We generally say that in a minor mode, the 3rd and 6th tones are lowered a half step.

When examining a manuscript, first check the key signature. Say the KS has 3 flats, Bb, Eb, and Ab. You say, ah ha, it's in Eb major or c minor (c being the 6th tone, which the minor is built on). Now, how to differentiate?

One of the characteristics of Western music is that the 7th tone is almost always a half step lower than the tonic (first tone). So, if the piece were in Eb major, the 7th tone would be D; if the piece were in c minor, the 7th tone would be B. But the key signature has a B flat sign, so if it's in c minor, there would be a lot of natural signs in front of all the Bs in the piece.

The suggestion to check the final chord is a good one, but not entirely reliable. Many composers move to major to end a piece; others end on the 5th. So it's best to use a combination and judgment.
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#1523399 - 09/27/10 02:20 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Dror Perl Offline
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Registered: 03/20/10
Posts: 272
Loc: NY
you mentioned that you play chords with it. if you know already how to recognize the chords, and which ones to play, your answer would be most often hidden in the first and last chord (or cadence) of the piece. meaning if a piece starts with a F chord or a cadence that leads to a F chord, and the song ends on a F chord....that's your key. I hope that its helpful.
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#1524045 - 09/27/10 11:55 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Tubbie0075 Offline
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Registered: 09/17/10
Posts: 544
Some pieces starts off in a minor key and ends in the final bar/measure/chord in it's tonic major, like some of Bach's pieces (on top of my head, D minor prelude from WTC Book 2) Is there a term for this?

Obviously you still say it's a piece in minor key even though it ends in a major key.

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#1524188 - 09/28/10 08:57 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: John v.d.Brook]
TimR Offline
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Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Originally Posted By: John v.d.Brook

The suggestion to check the final chord is a good one, but not entirely reliable. Many composers move to major to end a piece;.


I hate that, and continue to blame Michael Picardy for starting that trend. I refuse to celebrate his birthday later this month (29th).
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#1524206 - 09/28/10 09:40 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
apple* Offline


Registered: 01/01/03
Posts: 19862
Loc: Kansas
oh my gosh, it can be so beautiful when a final resolves a piece to hopefulness.
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#1524330 - 09/28/10 11:57 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: apple*]
TimR Offline
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Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Originally Posted By: apple*
oh my gosh, it can be so beautiful when a final resolves a piece to hopefulness.


You're right, of course. And that's probably why Michael Picardy III has so eclipsed Michael Picardy Sr and Michael Picardy Jr.
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#1524336 - 09/28/10 12:06 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: TimR]
John v.d.Brook Offline
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Registered: 03/18/06
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Okay, I'll bite. Who are these three giants in music?
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#1524342 - 09/28/10 12:15 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: John v.d.Brook]
TimR Offline
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Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
John,

I guess the old rule applies, when you gotta explain your joke it wasn't a good one.

The senior Picardy was followed by the junior Picardy who was followed by the..........rimshot..............Picardy Third.
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#1524397 - 09/28/10 01:43 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
danshure Offline
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Registered: 03/29/10
Posts: 347
Loc: Massachusetts
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picardy_third

and just so you don't have to explain your explanation...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rimshot

smile
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#1524404 - 09/28/10 01:56 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
keystring Offline
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And here I thought it had to do with the third of the Picardy brothers, who was elevated in rank by a half step while maintaining his degree. The previous sombre mood turned into joviality all round - a cheery ending indeed, and the final one.


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#1524427 - 09/28/10 02:31 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
John v.d.Brook Offline
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Registered: 03/18/06
Posts: 7393
Loc: Olympia, Washington, USA
Dan, thanks. How is it possible that studying and teaching music for so many decades this term totally slipped my conscious mind? Well, it just goes to show that you always have something new to learn!
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#1524435 - 09/28/10 02:45 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
apple* Offline


Registered: 01/01/03
Posts: 19862
Loc: Kansas
when a joke fools me, it's a good one.
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#1524453 - 09/28/10 03:32 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Stanny Offline
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Registered: 11/08/06
Posts: 1461
I admit it. I googled Michael Picardy. blush
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#1524454 - 09/28/10 03:32 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
btb Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/21/04
Posts: 4261
Loc: Pretoria South Africa
John has given an excellent (if wordy) description of
major/minor key identification ... but for those with a mathematical disposition, might I offer another approach.

Here’s a diagram of major and minor scales showing that
the minor scale starts 3 semitones lower than the major scale.
(ie A below Middle C)

By cross relating, only one note in each scale fails to match
1. Leading note to the minor scale
2. Dominant to the major scale

PS It will be noted that the 12 basic notes have been numbered
to simplify reading the cross-relationship between scales.

The opening LH bass note is invariably a clue to the keynote ... (as is the closing note to a complete passage) ...
use of flattened mediants, say Eb over C, tells of a minor key ... while E over C points to a major key.

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#1524491 - 09/28/10 04:54 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: btb]
TimR Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Wow, btb, just.....wow.

I'll have to print that and stare at it for a while.

Maybe I can talk beginner-to-beginner to the OP.

I see two ways to tell. One is by the scale, and the other is by the chord. Theoretically they relate, but practically they are pretty separate.

The melody in normal western music is going to follow a scale. Maybe with some skips, but usually the scale is there and recognizable. If it's a doe-a-deer scale, it's major. If the third degree of the scale is low, minor. In church I get fooled by the occasional modal one but most of them are major or minor and fairly obvious from the melody. (church is a very good place to practice theory and listening, if you have traditional hymns; I try identifying each chord as quickly as I can while I'm waiting)

The other is by the chord. 1-3-5 is major, 1-b3-5 is minor.

In both cases your ear should recognize the difference faster than your eye.

If the thing is full of accidentals it's probably beyond us beginners figuring it out anyway so put it in your bucket to worry about later.
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#1524765 - 09/29/10 03:06 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
btb Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/21/04
Posts: 4261
Loc: Pretoria South Africa
It’s good to know that a doubty Engineer appreciated the diagram ... by representing all 12 basic notes (instead of the alphabetic 7) a neat relationship of the major and minor scales emerges ... but perhaps only for the merry few who like mathematics.

I liked your reference to The Sound of Music “doh-a-deer” ... had never thought of traditional hymns as being anything but in the major mode (ie. “Onward Christian Soldiers”). .. lyrics of church music is largely supported by a limited set of LH chords ... so your identification dodge (while “waiting”) couldn’t have been too taxing.

Nice chatting ... kind regards.

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#1524870 - 09/29/10 08:45 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: btb]
TimR Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Originally Posted By: btb
had never thought of traditional hymns as being anything but in the major mode (ie. “Onward Christian Soldiers”). .. lyrics of church music is largely supported by a limited set of LH chords ... so your identification dodge (while “waiting”) couldn’t have been too taxing.


"waiting" <grin> I am not trying to claim more skill than I have. As I look at the hymnal before singing, I'm trying to visually identify the chords and put a name to them. The standard is to be able to do it in real time - at the tempo you'll sing it. That way if you need to simplify the chords to something more playable you can do so. I can do that for the obvious ones - say, D and A in the left hand, D and F# in the right, an extremely common pattern. But many are not obvious; there are some that seem to be different chords in left and right hands, and I always struggle to interpret those.

In my hymnal (Episcopal 1982) most are major, some are minor, and a few are neither so must be modal. We tend to stumble sight singing those.
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#1525125 - 09/29/10 04:18 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
casinitaly Online   blank

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I've learned at least 3 new things from this thread..... I think I can learn even more from it, but that will involve printing it out and reading it while sitting at the keyboard.

What a great set of answers!
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#1525191 - 09/29/10 06:08 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
Dave Horne Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/07/04
Posts: 5277
Loc: Vught, The Netherlands
Originally Posted By: dat77
I am an adult student and am having trouble figuring what key s piece is in. My main trouble is figuring if something is in a major or minor key. For example, if it has 1 flat is it in the key of f major or d minor Is there a easy way to figure that out. What I am doing right now has only one cleft. I try to play a chord with it but I still have trouble.


Have you thought of buying a music theory textbook and reading up on this sort of stuff?

I've noticed that there have been a handful of replies but none from the original poster.
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#1525432 - 09/30/10 06:04 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
keystring Offline
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I agree with the idea of studying theory, but would suggest that theory is something you do rather than read about it. To really understand it we need to work through the exercises, do guided analysis, and (what the OP is trying to do) analyze the music we are working on by using the theory we're in the process of learning. The OP has asked about theory in a thread elsewhere.

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#1525436 - 09/30/10 06:23 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: dat77]
keystring Offline
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Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 11730
Loc: Canada
Originally Posted By: dat77
I am an adult student and am having trouble figuring what key s piece is in. My main trouble is figuring if something is in a major or minor key. For example, if it has 1 flat is it in the key of f major or d minor Is there a easy way to figure that out. What I am doing right now has only one clef. I try to play a chord with it but I still have trouble.


I am wondering whether you have only the melody without any chords.

Partly summarizing what's already been posted:

- Music in a minor key will tend to sound mostly minor. If you play a minor scale you'll hear the 3rd note (Eb in C minor) is a minor 3 from the tonic or a half step from the 2nd note (D) which gives that minor feel. "Tend" because music often changes colour in the middle to make it more interesting.

- Pieces tend to end on the tonic. So for your D minor / F major example, the final note might be F in the melody; if D minor it would be D. As John mentioned, sometimes the final minor chord is made major (the "Picardy") but then you will see an accidental raising the 3rd degree note from F to F#. (DF#A instead of DFA).

If, as John wrote, it ends on the dominant, then you can look for the dominant of each (C for F major, A for D minor).

- Music often has cadences to separate or pause at phrases which go I-V or V-I. So if you know I-V for F is F-C, and for D minor is Dmin - A, this is another clue. This works best at the end of a piece, since music often modulates to another key in the middle.

- Minor keys borrow the key signature of the major key. However, that would leave the 7th degree note a whole step from the tonic, and it is better to be a half step. Therefore the 7th is raised through accidentals. for F minor you would see lots of C#'s with #'s in the music rather than the key signature. You can also see lots of natural signs if the note being raised was flatted in the key signature.

So figure out what the 7th note of the relative minor would be (C# for D minor) and then look for #'s used rather consistently in front of the C's.

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#1525465 - 09/30/10 08:26 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: keystring]
TimR Offline
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Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Originally Posted By: keystring
I agree with the idea of studying theory, but would suggest that theory is something you do rather than read about it.


I suggest (with some trepidation) that studying theory works differently for adult students.

Certainly a college student can learn theory: master the concepts, pass the exams, and maybe/probably apply it to music later. I'm not sure about children.

But adults? I think we have to learn differently. I think we have to start with the music and back into the theory a little at a time, like the OP is doing. If we're not applying it specifically to a particular problem in a particular piece, it doesn't stick. At least for me.
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#1525481 - 09/30/10 09:01 AM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: TimR]
keystring Offline
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Originally Posted By: TimR
Originally Posted By: keystring
I agree with the idea of studying theory, but would suggest that theory is something you do rather than read about it.


I suggest (with some trepidation) that studying theory works differently for adult students.

Certainly a college student can learn theory: master the concepts, pass the exams, and maybe/probably apply it to music later. I'm not sure about children.

But adults? I think we have to learn differently. I think we have to start with the music and back into the theory a little at a time, like the OP is doing. If we're not applying it specifically to a particular problem in a particular piece, it doesn't stick. At least for me.

Um? I am an adult student. I didn't even know note names 3 years ago. But who knows, we might have common ground. For example, since I had played and heard music for a lifetime, that experience already gave a real music context like in, "So that's what I've been seeing!". The two halves of what we've sensed and used without understanding, and the theory, come together.

Without theory it's hard. Supposing that the OP doesn't fully understand intervals, and that a natural will raise a flatted note by a semitone, which would explain flats as accidentals indicating some minor keys. For me it's like getting some vocabulary and basic principles that are like tools. And for those things I found that going in order was more helpful, because one thing builds on the next and they inter-relate.

What I was stressing, though, is that theory isn't something to read about like in a book telling you things. If I don't work with it in exercises and analysis then it isn't really understanding for me. But I also agree about finding it in real music. There is something I wrestled with last night in a piece, and when I got it, I also understood something that was vague which I'd been studying in theory.

(I'm also not a college student. I'm still stuck learning on my own with the help of one or two kind souls along the way.)


Edited by keystring (09/30/10 09:03 AM)
Edit Reason: last par.

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#1525780 - 09/30/10 05:41 PM Re: How to tell what key a piece is in [Re: keystring]
TimR Offline
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Registered: 08/17/04
Posts: 3220
Loc: Virginia, USA
Originally Posted By: keystring
Originally Posted By: TimR
Originally Posted By: keystring
I agree with the idea of studying theory, but would suggest that theory is something you do rather than read about it.


I suggest (with some trepidation) that studying theory works differently for adult students.

Certainly a college student can learn theory: master the concepts, pass the exams, and maybe/probably apply it to music later. I'm not sure about children.

But adults? I think we have to learn differently. I think we have to start with the music and back into the theory a little at a time, like the OP is doing. If we're not applying it specifically to a particular problem in a particular piece, it doesn't stick. At least for me.

Um? I am an adult student. I didn't even know note names 3 years ago. But who knows, we might have common ground.


I may have explained poorly. Or I may just be wrong.

When I was in engineering school, I took a class called Statics, where you learn how forces on structures are calculated. After learning the basics, I could apply them to a bookcase, a bridge, a fishing pole, a guitar string, etc. We went from the general, in depth, to the specific. That is the classic school approach. It worked.

Later in life I went through my wife's music theory books, thinking the same approach would work. Learn the basics; start at the very beginning (back to doh-a-deer, Austrian style). But it didn't work for me.

And then, later still, I ended up in charge of a Praise & Worship Band. What's a D5? Gsus2? C/G? How do I spell those chords? How do I choose chords for the songs that don't have them? This is in Eb but guitars can only play in E, how can I transpose? Where do I put a capo? Now I was using the same theory books, but as an encyclopedia rather than a text, and for very specific problems. (I didn't need 12 keys because we only played in 2.) The stuff that I looked up because I needed to, I understood and remembered. The stuff that I tried to learn out of general interest disappeared when I put the book down, and/or was not available to me in real time.

So I dunno, we probably agree more than not. I suspect though that telling the OP to study theory in general may not work as well (for an adult) as telling him to keep a theory book near the keyboard to look up stuff.
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