Songwriting: What’s the Key?

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

This book excerpt explores the challenge of properly communicating feelings and emotions with listeners through one’s lyrics, and looks at how a songwriter can structure their work in such a way as to clearly get their intended message across without excessive exposition.

Knowing what key you’re working in is very beneficial for a songwriter, we therefore devote a blog post to this subject.

Mini Guide: Keys

Most songs are written in a key. A key is the whole system of chords and chord functionality (which we’ll take more about in upcoming posts) based on one of the so-called diatonic scales, of which the major scale and the natural minor scale (with its varieties) are the most common. Sverige (Sweden) by Joakim Berg (KENT) and Demons  by D.Reynolds/B McKee/D.Sermon/A.Grant/J.Mosser (Imagine Dragons) are two examples of a song in a major key, and Poker Face by Stefani Germanotta and Nadir Khayat and I Can´t Feel My Face by Max Martin/A.Tesfaye/S.Kotecha/A.Payami/P.Svensson (The Weeknd) are two examples of a song in minor key.

You Too Should Know!

Sometimes we like to be a bit obscure when it comes to tonality, and what key our songs are in, and sometimes we might want to use one of the other diatonic scales for basing the music on. With a bit of knowledge and training you can easily detect what key you’re in, and make necessary corrections, should they be needed. Here are some tips:

Finding the First Scale Degree

Play the melody you have come up with, to get a feel for its ”center of gravity”. What is the note on which the melody would want to ”land” if you let it? All melodies do not finish on this tone (the first scale degree) but most do, since it brings a sense of resolution and rest.

Major or Minor Key?

Having come up with a likely candidate for the first scale degree you still don’t know what type of scale it is. Try playing a chord over the first scale degree, like this:

If the melody of your song is moving along within a major scale, landing on the first scale degree will make you want to play a major triad, when using this degree as the root note. A melody in a minor key will make you want to play a minor triad over the same scale degree.

If you’ve found the first scale degree and developed a feeling for what type of scale this is (major or minor) you’ve found the key your song is in.

When Chords Come First

Maybe a melody is not your starting point when writing songs? Some songwriters prefer to start with finding nice chord sequences. If the chords you’re playing belong to the same key, which they often do, they too will create a sense of a tonal center, just like a melody usually does.  A few of the chords will be quite difficult to end with, without creating a sense of tension and unrest. Usually, the chords on scale degrees five and seven have this effect, specially in major keys. One chord in particular will be perceived as the ”home chord” (the tonal center), bringing a sense of resolution, rest and stability.

If you want to become a songwriting ace, do read the book: Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics.

If you feel there is something in the blog posts we need to explain more thoroughly, or if there is a topic you would like us to write about, drop us a message on the Black Belt Songwriting Facebook page!