quick question that's been bugging me lately. When it comes to a songs key specifically major and minor relatives- is it correct to say it can be written in two different keys with the same progression with the progression being written differently? I say this because a lot of times pop songs I see people post the progressions for, (usually 4 chord progressions that do not change during the song) some people list the major key and some list the minor key. For example lets use the song "Wake Me Up" -- A lot of people post the songs progression as a VI, IV, I, V and in the key of D. But other websites classify the song as in the key of Bm with the progression I, VI, III, VII.

My personal opinion would be that the song begins with Bm So I would say it's in the key of Bm following a I, VI, III, VII. If it had started on a D and modulated to Bm I'd say its in the key of D--- I'm I correct in saying this? Can you always class the song in two different keys since you can rewrite the progression differently but use the same chords? pls help :(


The scale/chords are good clues to the key of a song, but at least as important is the tonal center. That's not as easy to define but generally it's where the song comes back to a place of less musical tension.

IMHO the chord played when the song in question returns to a "rest" state is A major. Which means I would say the song is in A and the progression is ii - bVII - IV - I. That would suggest that the scale is actually A mixolydian (not pure major or minor), which is not unusual for rock.

The point is that the key of a song is not only about the scale. Learning to hear the tonal center is sometimes more important.

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A complete song need not be just in one key, and stay in that key throughout. I guess that's one good thing about relative key signatures - they are identical.

There are many songs which may be in relative major for the verse, and move to relative minor for the chorus - or vice versa. There are many songs which move between the two relatives during the verse/chorus.

Often a telling clue is the dominant harmony - but not always. In the relative minor, often its dominant will use a 'proper' leading note - let's take key C/Am. In key C there's a G note, whereas in key Am, that often gets changed to G♯ - the leading note of that key, but not actually part of the diatonic set of notes making up C major. There again, that may just be a move to modulate for a short time to the relative minor, or even just to get to a bar or two where Am fits best.

Most pieces have a tonal centre, which feels to most like 'home'. This is usually the clue to the piece's key. Does it feel like it can stop at that bar, and be at rest, finished? In a piece such as you proffer, which sounds most like 'at home'? As mentioned in the previous para., a perfect cadence will usually offer the best clue.

Incidentally, major chords are written using capital RN, minors use lower case.

And with some pieces, it's (almost!) impossible to say what the key is!

Sweet Home Alabama, Unforgettable and Fly me to the Moon come immediately to mind. Maybe someone can convince everyone which key is accurately the 'correct' one for each! But does it really matter?

EDIT: to directly answer what I think is the question - let's take a sequence vi, IV, I, V. That could also be written in relative minor as i, VI, III, VII. In any given key, that sequence will be the same chords - e.g. in key C - Am, F, C, G.

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The answer lies in which chord is used to finish the piece (or section thereof.) If a piece ends with V-I (with I being D major and V being A major for example), one would say that that section (or piece) is in D major. To end a piece in the relative minor (same key signature but that's just for notational convenience and not universally used during the Baroque), one would have V-i with i being a b minor chord and V being F# major. (The V chords could be V7s without changing the analysis.)

Try playing A7-D or A-D then F#7-b or F#-b and listen to the difference. This applies to Common Practice Period harmony (which is still commonly used) where the chord on the dominant is a major (even if needing an accidental) in a cadence. (A almost said accidentally major....)

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  • 'If a piece ends with V-I with I being D major ... the section is in G major???? – No'am Newman Sep 30 at 5:17
  • Tim edited this to correct the typo. (Thanks) – ttw Sep 30 at 12:54

The problem goes away if you consider D and Bm to be two sides of the same key. They have the same key signature. The Roman numeral analysis system - in the form you talk about - assumes that either the major or minor side is clearly more prominent, in order to assign number one to a scale degree. You should make a decision: do you want to subscribe to this idea of two possible "ones", or normalize the situation and have the major side's tonic be number I always, even for tunes that are "in minor". Who cares about the numbers? You know where D and B are, what notes are in the default scale specified by the key signature, and how to play the song, isn't that enough?

The tonal center can sway back and forth in a song, and it's often more or less ambiguous. It can even feel like moving completely outside the original major and minor side tonics, and then we talk about a potential modulation. Insisting on moving the number one around all the time is useless IMO. The whole Roman numeral thing and functional harmony is a simplified model for harmony exercises and theory classes. Just a tool to get a perspective on a static harmonic snapshot. But real music isn't so clear and static, it moves and morphs around.

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The song you quote with the bass line la,fa do,so and the chords Bm G D A can’t be identified as B minor or D major without listening to it.

vi IV I V is one possible solution referring to major (beginning on the 6th degree)

but this progression is ambivalent and it can be interpreted in Bm as i VI III bVII (b stands for the minor 7th degree of aeolian mode).

If we listen to the melody and we have somewhere a home feeling on each of these chords it may help us to decide whether the song is in Bm aeolian or in D major.

without a hint of tonic (see other answers): Yes it can be interpreted in both keys. But surely it makes sense to capital letters to assign Roman numbers of major chords and i, vi, for the minor chords.

If you have no other indications I agree with you that you say the song is in D as it begins with D.

But songs like this don’t need to be analyzed by R.N. It is sufficient that you know i VI ... in minor vi IV ... in major. You can practice this analogy back until to early Baroque music.

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  • OP said the song starts on Bm. – Tim Sep 30 at 9:41

As others have pointed out, whether a song is in a major key or its relative minor is often a matter of debate or opinion. However, there are some clues that can point in one or other direction.

First, in specifically the harmonic minor there is a key difference, the raised leading note: thus here you would expect an A# in B minor but it would be difficult to explain in D major. Assuming that I've got the right song ("Take Me Home" by Avicii), there is an A# on the last beat of the bar every second time the chord sequence repeats, making a V-i progression back to the tonic. I would analyse the chord sequence (in the guitar at the beginning, which is a bit more revealing) as i - VI - IIIc - VII i7d - i - VI - IIIc - VII V.

Second, in the bass line, dominant to tonic is a very strong sequence to establish a tonal centre, so looking for F# - B or A - D progression at a cadence will also be helpful. Thinking of the end of the song now, we have the bassline

B - G - D - A - B - G - D - F# - B

For both of these reasons I'd say that the song is unambiguously in B minor.

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The answer to your question is yes.

The notation you use is relative to tonic. Establishing which sound is the tonic (and whether it changes) is completely outside of this tool. Consider anything noted as II-V as carrying a standard disclaimer "assuming that X is the tonic".

If you have a song with chords: C F C F C F, it might be a I-IV-I-IV, it might be a V-I-V-I. Depends on the rhythm, melody and even the listener. You can "make" yourself hear different tonics for the same progression in a similar way you can make yourself hear different "1" in a repeated drum loop.

There's some modern research concerning this, the classical theory just assumed that all people have roughly the same musical background and follow the same convention.

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