I always seem have difficulty determining whether a song is in a major scale, or the relative minor. (the 3rd note back into it, but minor)

Lets use the Pokemon theme song for example. As I remember, it starts on G, and ends on G (vocals start on D, but the synths start on G) (I don't know the chords.)

So this makes me think it could be in G minor, however, it doesn't seem very sad, and it also seems to revolve around the Bb note a lot, so it could be Bb major, which is the equivalent major scale to G minor.

But still because it starts and ends on G, I'm leaning more toward G minor. Maybe switches to Bb major for the chorus. But that's just a guess.

All I have are guesses based on the emotion of the song, and I'd like to have a more concrete idea on how to figure out key signatures.

Yahoo Answers is completely useless on questions like this.

  • 1
    You have to realise that a song doesn't need to be in one key. Key changes can happen throughout the song, so this may explain your confusion.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 20:59
  • Dr Mayhem, true enough. Most songs do stay in the same key,and in one that does change rather than modulate, the change is often a dramatic move with an 'odd sounding' chord to signal this. Not certain if moving between relatives contitutes a key change - possibly just a modulation ?
    – Tim
    Commented May 18, 2013 at 6:25
  • Good point Tim - this example is modulation, not a key change.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 20:47

1 Answer 1


First and last chords usually designate the key of a piece - start from home, end back at home after the journey. This way even a non-musical listener will feel a proper trip out and back.

Songs in a key will use the same chords whether they are in maj. or relative min. BUT often the min. will use a major fifth in order to return to the root. Thus - in this tune, the fifth is D maj., to get back to Gmin. If it was in Bb maj, the fifth chord used is F maj., and there would rarely be a D maj. chord in there. D min.would be the one used.

Sad is only one feeling evoked by minor keys - dramatic, serious and moving are others, but it's somewhat subjective.Try putting into words what an orange tastes like !

As it is, you're right, this song starts in Gm, then goes to F, Eb and Bb, the turn-around chord predictably being D maj. Then the 'chorus' moves to Eb, Bb etc.,so it's slipping in and out of your relative maj.There are no key changes here, only modulations in and out of relatives.

  • 1
    Pieces often start on the dominant, not always the tonic. They end on the tonic 99.99% of the time.
    – Luke_0
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 1:46
  • "Songs in a key will use the same chords whether they are in maj. or relative min." No, if a song is in C, for example, the relative minor (Am) will not involve the same chords. With the same chords, the tonic is still on C, not A.
    – Luke_0
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 1:51
  • Luke, when a piece 'starts on the dominant', it's often the anacrucis. The first full bar is usually in the tonic. Chords in C maj: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bm7b5....Tonic is C. Chords in Amin: Am, Bm7b5, C, Dm, Em OR E, F, G...Tonic is Am. So where's the difference, apart from E/Em ? 'Twas always thus in a diatonic world.
    – Tim
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 7:38
  • Just out of interest, I looked at 100 random songs. 8 of them started as you indicated. 8% is hardly 'often'. Most of the others started on the tonic chord, or had less than a full bar start on the dominant, going straight to tonic in the first full bar.Please explain you comments; I don't understand.
    – Tim
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 8:08
  • What pieces did you look at? For example, take a look at the second or fourth movements of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Although the fourth is an anacrusis, the next measure stars with a D while the signature is G. Look at King Cotton. This is also fairly common in hymns. By common, I mean about 10-25%.
    – Luke_0
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 13:29

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