How to Find the Key of Any Song

(Image credit: Melville Crump)

How do you find what key a song is in?

If you were reading standard notation, you would look at the key signature located at the beginning of the staff, count the number of sharps or flats shown and use the circle of fifths to determine the key.

But what if you don’t read standard notation, or you’re reading tab or playing by ear, which are the most common ways that musicians learn songs today?

Tyler Larson has some guidance for you.

“The first thing you want to grasp is the concept of the major scale,” Tyler says. “Basically, the major scale consists of seven different chords. Each chord is given a number, one through seven respectively, and it is through this formula that you will identify which chords in a chord progression fit into which major-scale key.”

Sounds complicated, but here’s a tip: You want to identify the root, or tonic. “Whatever chord or root note feels like home, that is usually the tonic,” Tyler says. “Use your ear. Trust your ear.”

In the video below, Tyler takes you through several examples to demonstrate this technique. The examples vary in their complexity, and the last one might have you scratching your head.

But take heart. “There’s is always going to be music that is very difficult to analyze in cookie-cutter fashion,” Tyler says. “I believe there are no actual rules in music, just frames of reference, which is what harmonic analysis is for.”

Take a look, and visit the Music Is Win YouTube channel for more.

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Christopher Scapelliti

Christopher Scapelliti is editor-in-chief of Guitar Player (opens in new tab) magazine, the world’s longest-running guitar magazine, founded in 1967. In his extensive career, he has authored in-depth interviews with such guitarists as Pete Townshend, Slash, Billy Corgan, Jack White, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren, and audio professionals including Beatles engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott. He is the co-author of Guitar Aficionado: The Collections: The Most Famous, Rare, and Valuable Guitars in the World (opens in new tab), a founding editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine, and a former editor with Guitar WorldGuitar for the Practicing Musician and Maximum Guitar. Apart from guitars, he maintains a collection of more than 30 vintage analog synthesizers.