Do You Really Need To Know What Key Your Song Is In?

Choosing a key instantly gives you a list of chords to use as a starting point for chords-first songs.

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Synth keyboardAt what point are you aware of key when you compose your songs? Is it something you consider at the outset, or does it never really figure into the process at all?

The way you choose to compose a song will largely depend on established songwriting habits, but also on your musical background. Songwriters with a strong theory background will tend to use that knowledge, at least in part, for working out some of the musical details.

If, however, your experience in music is more practical and less theoretical, you’ll likely resort to improvisation and related techniques for developing your songs. It’s not a question of right or wrong; it has to do with familiarity. We tend to rely on the methods we’re most familiar with.

If you are the kind of writer who likes to vamp a chord progression, developing melodic ideas as you go, and working out lyrics bit by bit, it may not seem to be an important detail to know what key your song is in. Most of the time, that will take care of itself. It might be seen to be similar to building a tree-fort: you can do it without foreknowledge of the exact details about the floor, window or roof. But when it’s done (and assuming it’s been done well), it can look like you followed a blueprint.

But you can save a lot of time and create music that has a strong musical structure by identifying the key at some point early on in the songwriting process. Why? Because knowing the key instantly gives you a set of chords that all belong together. It doesn’t limit your chord choices, since you can always add altered chords (chords that don’t naturally belong to a key) if you choose. But coming up with those 7 naturally-occurring chords can help to speed up your songwriting.

If you are a songwriter who uses chord improvisation to start the process, here are some tips for discovering the key you seem to be working in.

  1. Make note of the chords you’re using. If, early on, you are only using two chords, moving back and forth between them, key will be hard to determine. But once you’ve got three chords in use, key becomes easier to determine.
  2. Write a scale for each chord your song uses. If, for example, your three chords are D, Em and G, you will write three scales: a D major scale, an E minor scale, and a G major scale. If this is a bit beyond your theory knowledge at the moment, here’s how to do it: For major scales, start on the first note, and move upward by the following intervals: Tone – Tone – semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone. For minor scales, move upward by the following intervals: Tone – semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – semitone. This creates a melodic minor scale.
  3. Identify a possible key. The easiest way (though not always fool-proof) is to find the scale that, if you were to build chords on each note of it, would include the other chords you’ve been using.
  4. Make a final determination. Look at the chord that happens at the end of most of your song’s sections. What is the final chord of the chorus? What chord starts the song? If you find that D is the chord that seems to be acting like “home”, your song is likely to be in D major.
  5. Write triads above each note of the scale representing your song’s key. This final step gives you the seven chords that naturally occur in your chosen key.

Keep in mind that this method does not take altered chords into account, but it’s still possible to make a determination. If, in addition to D, Em and G, you’ve also been using F, you’ll note that F doesn’t “belong” to a song in D major. But if D major still sounds like the home key, even when taking F into account, F is quite likely acting as an altered chord. (To read more about altered chords, read this article.)

What this process does is eliminate a lot of the guesswork involved in choosing chords. There is no rule that prevents you from using any chord in your song, but most songs that are in a key (99% of the music you will encounter) will stick to the naturally-occurring ones. And you’ll find that your music sounds more satisfying when you provide them with that kind of structure.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Certain songs in the writing process are established with a key fairly early, for me
    sometimes the difference of moving the key up a semi tone or a full tone can make
    quite a difference to the emotion we are trying to establish.

    The other decision is major or minor keys and even Minor Keys for the verses and Major Keys for the chorus .

    There is a much better choice of chords if staying in a minor key as we can borrow from virtually any scale or mode that establishes a minor range of chords.

    The big thing here is having a knowledge of all the known keys and modes that are used in contemporary song writing.

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