Songwriting: Know Your Key

What’s the Key?

Knowing what key you’re working in, is very beneficial for a songwriter. We therefore devote a blog post to this subject. We also show you a few examples of how you can make use of your knowledge of how a key works in you songwriting. 6 nice songs provide examples.


Guest Post from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

Gain from Knowing:

  • If you know what key you’re in, you don’t have to try every chord in the universe to find what you need. The seven chords provided by the key will often be enough.
  • If you know about keys, you know how to choose between the chords to create a desired feel. What emotional ambience do you want your ending chord to have? – The key will give you seven suggestions.
  • You often hear: To break the rules you first have to know them. While there are no absolute rules in music, keys are part of the musical language we use. If you want to create color by breaking out of a key, you need to first establish it.
  • Do you want to put your music into notes? Even ”smart” notation software, like Sibelius, Finale or ScoreCloud, do need some help from time to time. What key is your song written in?

Mini Guide: Keys

Most songs are written in a key. Here are the basic elements:

The Centre: At the centre of a key is note, called the central tone. Every note played in your song has some kind of relationship to the central tone.

The Scale: From the central tone originates a scale. We refer to it as the founding scale of the key. The scale is usually a major scale or a natural minor scale. They both have seven scale degrees, but the minor scale has two degrees that will frequently be altered (the sixth and seventh degrees).

Two examples of major keys: Egoist by Jocke Berg, and Personal by Elle Varner, Jenna Andrews and William Wiik Larsen (recorded by Jessie J).

Two examples of minor keys: Poker Face by Stefani Germanotta and Nadir Khaya (recorded by Lady Gaga), and Rockstar by Austin Post, Shayaa Abraham-Joseph, Louis Bell, Carl Austin Rosen, Jo Vaughn Virginie and Olufunmibi Awoshiley.

The Chords: On every scale degree can be built a chord with notes from the scale, the so called diatonic chords. The seven diatonic chords are both major and minor, and can have both major sevenths and minor sevenths. The chord on the seventh scale degree has (unlike the other chords) a diminished fifth.

The Functions: The chords of a key all create different emotional ambience. There are three reasons for this:

1) They can be of different chord type – major chords have a happier vibe then minor chords.

2) Although the founding scale is omnipresent, and sets the overall character, there’s a temporal scale beginning on the root note of every diatonic chord. These scales sound a bit different from each other, and contribute to the feel.

3) Every diatonic chord is tied to one of three so called functions, which affects the feel of the chords in yet another way. The tonic function makes a chord stationary/resting while the dominant function makes it feel driving/restless. You typically end your song with a chord of tonic character if you want a sense of rest and closure. A dominant chord typically has the effect of propelling the harmony forward, not seldomly towards a tonic chord. There is also a third function, the subdominant, which is a sort of in-between state.

Variations: A key is like a canvas. Depending on the choice of founding scale, it creates a specific sound, or to continue the simile: it has a specific hue on which you can paint with contrasting colors. Use chord extension tones (or melody notes) foreign to the founding scale. Bring in one or a few chords borrowed from another scale (interchange chords). Make a detour to a temporal tonic (tonicization), and return with the help of leading chord progressions.

How Do You Know What Key You’re In?

The Melody: Have you written a melody that you intend to support with a chord progression? Of all the pitches you have used in this melody, which one is feels like the centre of gravity for the music? Which one might be the central tone? Melodies often end on this note. If you can find the central tone, you’ve come a long way. If you don’t immediately realize what key you’re in, keep reading!

The Chord progression: Have you put together a string of chords, and are now struggling with what the key might be? Listen to the sequence again and try to develop a feel for what chord you would end the song with if you wanted a sense of rest and closure. The tonic (the chord built on the first scale degree) has the most stationary character of them all. If this chord is a major chord, you’re likely in a major key. If it’s a minor chord, you’re likely in a minor key.

Lay a Puzzle: See if you can add the notes of the chords you’re using, and get something that looks like a seven note scale. You might have used chords foreign to your founding scale, those would probably give a slightly more ”colorful” impression. If you find such a suspicious chord: exclude it. If you manage to get a seven note scale, try to identify the first scale degree, and the key, by using the methods above.

Songwriting Tips!

Being absolutely true to a key, or using chords in commonplace and predictable ways, might render you dull and colorless songs. Hare are some examples of small changes that make a big effect.

How Chord Progressions Start

Listen to the song Personal again. It’s in a major key (A) , but it starts with one of the minor chords (F#m). At 0:28 a piano appears, making the root notes more obvious. The first chord played is the minor chord on the sixth degree of the founding scale (A). It’s followed by the chord on the fourth degree (D). Only after these chords, the tonic is played (A).

Rockstar (in G minor) begins with the chord on the fourth degree (Cm), and I feel it Coming (in Eb major) with the chords on scale degrees 3 (Gm), 6 (Cm7) and 4 (Ab add9).

Make sure you don’t always start your songs on the tonic! They might capture interest, by being slightly surprising, if they don’t. Also, not starting with the tonic, is like starting ”on the move”, in the midst of a motion/gesture. Remember, the tonic has a stationary feel.

How Chord Progressions end:

Listen to how Egoist (in D major) ends: on the most leading and restless chord of the key, the one on scale degree five (A). Listen also to the ending Speed of Sound (in D major) by Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion and Chris Martin (recorded by Coldplay). Here, the chord on the fourth scale degree is used (Gmaj7). This chord, together with the scale starting at its root note (the lydian scale), creates a dreamy and charged feel.

Make sure you don’t always end your songs on the tonic! They might capture interest, by being slightly surprising, if they don’t. Also, a non-tonic ending can create a sense of openness.

How Melodies start/end:

Listen to the melody (Personal). It starts on the third scale degree and ends on degree six. Specially the last note is expressive. Most listeners expect the last note of a melody to be the first scale degree. this is slightly unexpected and, again, expressive. End your melodies on the first scale degree if you want them to come to rest on the last note, but make sure you don’t always end your melodies on the first scale degree! 

The book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics can be bought on iBook Store.