Guitar - Songwriting

Determining the Key of Weird Chord Progressions

Take a look at the following two progressions. The first one comes from the verse of John Legend’s “All of Me” (John Stephens, Toby Gad), and the second one comes from the verse of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (Elton John, Bernie Taupin):

1. All of Me:

Fm  Db  Ab  Eb

2. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:

Gm  C  F  Bb  Eb  C  F

What I want to focus on in this post is this small fact: all the chords for the progression for “All of Me” come from one key, while the chords in the progression for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” seem to borrow from different keys.

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Here’s more of what I mean by that. When deciding what key a progression belongs to, you do the following:

  1. Make a list of the chords that are used.
  2. Consult a chord chart that lists the chords found for any given key (like this one).
  3. Find the key that uses all (or at last most) of the chords in your progression.
  4. Determine if the progression sounds mainly major or mainly minor.

There’s often more to it than that, which is why you can take university courses that deal with this part of music theory. But for the purposes of this article, that will probably suffice.

If you apply that method to the chords of “All of Me”, you’ll discover two keys that are contenders: F minor or Ab major, both of which include the chords Fm, Db, Ab and Eb. The verse definitely has a minor sound, and if you keep listening, you’ll find the chorus switches to sounding mainly major, and that’s a common move in pop songwriting.

Chords and Key

But what do we make of the chords of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? There is no one key that uses those and only those chords. So right away, we know that Elton John has taken chords from a different key to make this progression.

The chords are actually a type of circle-of-fifths, in which the roots of adjacent chords move down by a 5th: Gm to C, then C to F, then F to Bb, and so on. Up until the Bb chord, we can identify the key as being F major, because that’s the only key that uses all of those chords.

But then he gives us Eb, and that doesn’t seem to fit. For that moment, it’s as if he wants us to think that we’ve temporarily switched keys to Bb major, and the Eb chord acts as the IV-chord of Bb.

But then he gives up on that idea, and throws us back into F major by ending the progression with C moving to F.

So the whole progression looks like this:

Using Borrowed Chords

What Does It Matter?

There’s a whole question of relevance when it comes to discovering what key(s) a song is in. What does it really matter? Perhaps it only matters to people interested in music theory?

It’s entirely possible that Elton John simply stumbled upon that progression without realizing — or caring, for that matter — that there was a brief modulation in the middle. The progression is the kind that one could easily find, much like a painter discovering a cool shade of green by randomly mixing colours. And it sounds nice.

In one way of thinking, it doesn’t really matter. Plus, there can be competing theories as to what is really going on within a progression. For example, you could see the entire progression as being in F major, where the Eb is simply a so-called “non-diatonic” chord (i.e., one not from the key) thrown in like a spice gets thrown into a stewpot.

Actually… It Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Might Think

The problem with identifying keys is if you think you can’t use a progression simply because you can’t identify the key. Progressions can be beautiful, and when they are, there’s almost always a reason that they work — a reason that is based in chord theory.

But you might simply stumble on a progression that really works well, and you may not know why, and that’s OK. Knowing the key you’re in at any particular moment shouldn’t matter too much to the writing of good songs.

If you’ve discovered a great progression for which the reasons it works is completely elusive, your first and main job is to use the progression. Worry later on, if you wish, about what key or keys are being used, because that search can be interesting.

And if you want to discover the key of a weird progression, remember the steps:

  1. Make a list of the chords.
  2. Consult a chord chart.
  3. Find the key that uses most of your chords.
  4. Decide if the progression is mainly major or minor.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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