Finding the Key in 3 Easy Steps

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Believe it or not, it is very common for excellent songwriters and musicians to have trouble knowing what key a song is in. Without knowing the key, it can make it difficult to communicate with other musicians and hard to know how to expand a musical idea. Unfortunately, MANY teachers make learning theory so difficult, when all you need are a few tricks that can take you 90% of the way.

After years of teaching musicians of all ages and backgrounds this is the fail-safe way to KNOW what key you are in, without complex theory or guess work.

The 3-Steps

  1. Isolate the three major chords in a chord progression. (They will be the 1-4-5 chords)
    • Ignore the minor chords. (for now)
  2. Toss out the two chords that are next to each other in the musical alphabet. (They are the 4 and 5 chords)
    • Musical Alphabet– A B C D E F G A B…
    • Examples of chords next to each other in the musical alphabet: A-B, G-A, C-D
  3. The chord you are left with is the name of the key! (This is the 1 chord 😉)

Example Progressions

  1. C F G Am
    • F and G are next to each other in the musical alphabet so they are 4 and 5. This means C must be the 1 chord and the key. 
    • I can ignore A minor, because I only need to analyze major chords.
  2. Em C G D
    • C and D are next to each other in the musical alphabet so they are 4 and 5. This means G must be the 1 chord/key.
  3. A E B C#m
    • Many musicians would say this progression is in A because it starts with A… But you you know better by now don’t you? (The answer is at the bottom)

Common Exceptions

  1. What if there are more or less that 3 major chords?
    • When this happens, use your ear to see which chord in the progression sounds like the tonal center.
    • Also, this is when you see what chord the song starts and ends with.
  2. Umm, all of the chords in this song are minor…
    • No problem, you can use the same technique for minor progressions, this time only focus on minor chords and ignore the majors. 
    • However, it is common for artists to use a major 5 chord when playing in minor, so use your ear to find the tonal center.

*The answer to example #3 is the Key of E. A and B are next to each other in the musical alphabet so they are the 4 and 5 chords leaving E to be the 1 chord.

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About the Author

Jake Farr is a guitar instructor and songwriting mentor to hundreds of musicians across the country. His students regularly perform, jam, and attend exclusive concerts together at his studio in South Austin. Since he began teaching in 2006, Jake has taught in universities, private studios, public schools and art centers.

In addition to his teaching, Jake is a singer/songwriter and a recording artist. Although he teaches all styles of guitar, Jake primarily writes Folk and Indie Rock music.

Outside of his artistic endeavors, Jake enjoys indie movies, Indian cuisine, and traveling with his wife/muse, Emily.