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As an intro to piano, I want to learn basic chords from 2 White Stripes songs. They are as basic as piano gets, yet very catchy and powerful. They are very major sounding. I have never been able to satisfactorily understand the (putatively basic) notion of “key”. Additionally, I have forgotten whatever I did learn many years ago.

Song #1 is based around the chords D F C G. (There is also an E chord for the 2nd "part".) If this was in the key of D (b/c it’s the first chord?), then the progression is: D F C G = I III VII IV correct?

However, I remember learning to harmonize the major scale with major vs. minor so all the notes of every chord fits into the major scale. E.g.: I ii iii IV V vi vii(dim)

Does this idea apply here? If so, those all can’t be major because they don’t fit into the D major scale. In fact, the root notes aren’t even on the D major scale, nevermind the 3rd/5th that we normally would adjust when harmonizing the major scale. Does it matter than F itself is not in the major scale of D? And that C is not in the major scale of D?

The second song has D C G (D) and F G D ... F G A for the second part. Is this in the key of D just because D is the first chord? If so, it would be I VII IV and III IV I ... III IV V respectively. Same questions above apply to this as well.

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A key is basically any set of notes, though the "most basic" ones in Western music define the Major scale for various starting notes (and their relative minors). Keys are usually used to define the basic set of notes used for a song, but even very traditional key-based music modulates to other keys or otherwise uses notes from outside the main set. –  Matthew Read Jan 2 '13 at 4:26
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5 Answers 5

I provided a detailed answer to a similar question in another post. Please refer to it.

What does it mean to write a song in a certain key?

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yea, without reading the other answers i find that many many songs unintentionally change key depending on the part of the song, sticking with jack white, look at the song "old enough" by the raconteurs. the main part of the song is in G major, the chords being...

D | | |, C | G |

then in the second part of the song it uses an F chord instead of a D chord, there for the shifts into C major.

Again with some blues music, if im in the key of F, i will use F, Bb and C (all major chords) but then u will find that any solos played by any instruments will use a minor pentatonic scale which then gives of a certain sound.

defining key can be a dodgy subject because songs often move between keys and then there are modes which are a whole other subject.

look at jimi hendrix playing hey joe, the chords are

C G D A E (all major)

but he uses an Eminor pentatonic scale (with a few notes in-between to give a bit of colour)

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The extra major chords that are not part of the scale are called chromatically-altered chords. Particularly, these are chromatic mediants (probably the most common kind of chromatically-altered chord). The mediants of the scale are a third up or down from the tonic, so it's iii's and vi's that are most prone to this treatment. VII can also be considered a mediant off of the dominant (V).

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For both songs, the key is D minor. These are actually a fairly common minor key rock chord progressions.

It may sound major, but that's because the root and fifth of the chords he's playing are emphasized - basically "power chords" on piano.

Rock chord progressions tend to sound ambivalent with regards to major and minor tonality, but in this case, it's definitely a minor chord progression.

The D minor scale is D E F G A Bb C - the same notes as the F major scale. The triad harmonization would be D minor, E diminished, F major, G minor, A minor, Bb major, and C major.

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In the question you said G and A, rather than Gm and Am (the latter fit into the key of Dm). Is that not the case? –  Matthew Read Jan 4 '13 at 15:11
    
Yes, they are all major chords, if you listen to the video. So, he has not harmonized the entire chords with D minor scale, but is using the root notes contained in that scale. That's about all I can come up with. I guess there's no rule saying you can ONLY play Gm vs. G. –  JackOfAll Jan 5 '13 at 18:27
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You confusion is coming from mixing "common practice" harmony theory with pop music.

Both of the songs you linked are in the key of D. We know this because the D chord and melody notes clearly have tonic function, meaning they are used as a harmonic "home base", and the other chords played are designed to create a tension that resolves to D.

If this was a Baroque-era chorale, we would put ourselves in D major and play our ii - V - I -IV - I - vii - I chords using the notes in the scale and it would sound like classical music. All of the harmony "rules" you cite would apply. But, this is not classical music! I'd even hesitate to call the scale major or minor--I think "D blues" is much more accurate.

So, even though the key is D (any tonal music has a key), Jack White is not constrained by the rules of common practice harmony, so he's playing a bunch of major chords and putting them in an order that sounds good. It sounds good to him because others have done this before him, and the lineage of his style of music can be traced back through the blues until it reaches a relative of western classical music in old-timey American gospel church music.

Now, it is possible to analyze this stuff with classical theory and roman numerals, and if you ever take a class called "Analysis of Rock Music", this is what you'd be doing. The first song's A section would probably look like this: D: I - bIII - bVII - IV. The word we use to refer to this mixing-in of notes from outside of our key is mode mixture.

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Jack White is very much rooted in Blues music, so this makes perfect sense to me! –  Matthew Read Jan 2 '13 at 4:17
    
It is quite common in rock music to find bIII, bVI, and bVII chords (where b="flat") as major parts of a progression, and yes, they're borrowed from the parallel minor key if you want to think of them that way. I associate them with harmonic innovations that entered rock in the 60s, though, not so much with a direct lineage from blues. I'd be curious to see old blues examples that do that. –  Owen S. Jan 5 '13 at 6:12
    
Almost all of American popular music traces its lineage through the blues at its core--that's not to say there weren't new innovations that happened in rock and roll, but there's a pretty strong consensus that rock and roll is descended from the blues. Hit the Road, Jack might be a good example of a common ancestor that uses a i - bVII - bVI - V progression. –  NReilingh Jan 5 '13 at 22:31
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