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What key is the song in if it's just four chords repeated? Gm Eb Bb F.

One key identifier says Gm but another says Bb..

here is the song

  • 1
    Take a look at Tim's answere to this music.stackexchange.com/questions/104787/… question: The simple way to find a key is to listen to where the song feels at rest, where it's 'come home', where it could finish, and feel ended. That chord will generally speaking be the key chord. Not 100%, but broadly, a good 99%. – Olli Dec 3 '20 at 16:07
  • It's the Chords of Awesome, but starting at the third not the first, which is not uncommon. – Dave Jacoby Dec 3 '20 at 23:56
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The theory behind four chord loops is actually a hot topic in the music theory world these days.

This YouTuber has made several videos about the theory of four chord loops, and this one is particularly interesting because it outlines some of the work of musicologist Phillip Tagg.

Why Modern Musicians Love the Four Chord Loop

I'll point out the relevant ideas:

  • Tagg would say that asking what key this is in is the wrong question because the concept of a key comes from tonal harmony of European music in the 18th and 19th century. Those traditional cadences and progressions can sound predictable or corny to our modern years, so modern music uses the chords differently.
  • Even though they don't fit neatly into the tonal harmony system, these chords still have functions. In tonal harmony, we use words like tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, but Tagg classifies them differently, using the terms Tonic, Outgoing, Medial, and Incoming.
  • In Tagg's theory, each chord in a loop will have one of these functions.

In Tagg's theory, I believe your loop would look like this:

||: Gm | Eb | Bb | F :||

||: Tonic | Outgoing | Medial | Incoming :||

So the Gm and Bb are both landing points that the song toggles back-and-forth between. Nonetheless, the pull to Gm feels stronger to me because the Bb chord is the middle of a circle of fourths progression (Eb - Bb - F), so I don't feel as much of a rest there as I do on the Gm. That's why I've labelled Gm as the tonic.

What really makes four chord loops different from 18th century classical music is that the loops are designed to repeat endlessly, whereas classical music is designed for the harmony to start one place (tonic), goes somewhere else (sub-dominant), and lead back (dominant) to the start (tonic) over the course of a whole piece.

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    One interesting aspect of looped progressions is that the sense of expectation/resolution can come not (only) from the typical associations with the chord's function, but also simply from the expectations of the pattern repeating... – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '20 at 23:45
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I hear Gm as 'home' in that piece. Based more on how the chords are positioned than what they are.

But Gm and B♭ major are so closely associated as to be almost the same key. Does the distinction matter?

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There's a misconception that the first chord of a song denotes its key. That's where the Gm key idea comes from.

I'd argue that the F on the end of the sequence feels more like it will be the dominant, which would return the song to its next chord of B♭. But it doesn't. However, since key B♭ has that dominant, and there's no D chord, the dominant of Gm, B♭ would be my answer. But it's really academic! Key sig. will be the same, nevertheless!

  • This is hearing the piece as if it were in classical harmony. I don't hear it that way, but that's probably because I listen to far more modal, early, and ethnic music nowadays, that don't have the classical dominant/tonic relationships. – Scott Wallace Dec 4 '20 at 7:52
  • I agree as well for Bb. Anyway what would F be for a Gm key song? Seventh degree? That would be strange. F here sounds more like a dominant for Bb. – Basj Dec 4 '20 at 8:14
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    @Basj - the flat seventh in a minor key is quite often used instead of the dominant. So in key Gm, the F would be a sort of substitute dominant. – Tim Dec 4 '20 at 9:02
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  • In Bb:

    Gm Eb Bb F can be analyzed as vi IV I V, which is very common.

    It' just the 3rd variant listed of the classical I–V–vi–IV progression called "pessimistic" variant.

  • In Gm:

    Gm Eb Bb F can be analyzed as i vi III VII which looks strange to me.

    Anyway if Gm is the key chosen for the analysis, isn't having a F major chord (seventh degree) dubious?

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