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In popular music, lets say I have a song that appears to be in C major. The progression could be something like C > Em > Am > G.

This progression could also be in G major However. So, let's say we look at the melody but only the C major pentatonic scale is used and the F# or F is absent which would have been able to tell us the tonality of the song.

As a last resort, is it possible to listen to where the notes of the melody fall to get an idea of the tonality. For example the phrase could end on the G note on both the Em chord and the G chord. This kind of gives you the feeling that the song is actually in G not in C even though the chord progression starts on C and uses chords from the diatonic C major scale. Does music work in this way? I mean, the G note does feel like home in this case even without a more unambiguous chord progression being used so my question is: Surely the melody is just as much a determining factor not only in terms of which notes are used but also on what note the melody ends. Is this correct?

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    In a word: yes.
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 15 at 10:19
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In popular music, lets say I have a song that appears to be in C major. The progression could be something like C > Em > Am > G. This progression could also be in G major However.

The key isn't just a question of what the chords are - it's about the note (and tonic chords) that the piece seems to come home to. So with one phrasing, C > Em > Am > G could be fairly clearly C major. With another phrasing, C > Em > Am > G could be clearly G major. A key isn't usually something you use to describe an abstract collection of chords - it's something that describes an actual piece. When you listen to the phrasing of the actual piece, it may make it clear where the piece comes home to.

Of course it's also true that a certain phasing and articulation of those chords might still leave the 'home note', and therefore the key, ambiguous...

is it possible to listen to where the notes of the melody fall to get an idea of the tonality

...but yes, as you say, the melody may change the feeling of the piece such that a particular home note becomes clear. In fact Every aspect of a piece may have an effect on what the key of a piece is perceived as - even things like the accenting of the notes and the volume of individual parts can have an effect.

And remember that ultimately this is subjective - two people might hear the same piece and perceive a different home note. Unless there's a statement from the composer about the key that you want to take as definitive, the key of a piece can be a matter of opinion.

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    As in Sweet Home Alabama?
    – Tim
    Jan 15 at 11:00
  • @Tim indeed - in fact that's one I am conflicted about as I hear it coming home to D, but the lyrics state "Lord, I'm coming home to you" with 'you' falling on G - so clearly they see the home chord as G major ;) A reasonable article about it here: guitarmusictheory.com/in-what-key-is-sweet-home-alabama
    – topo morto
    Jan 15 at 11:19
  • You'd think so, but at some concerts they finish with D - but that's not actually saying it's in D, or they think it's in D. They could, of course, be using an imperfect cadence... but I doubt it. To me it's key G, but that's just me!
    – Tim
    Jan 15 at 11:25
  • Aaaah but if you actually hold that D note Youuuuu and end on the D chord you will hear it makes more sense. To me it is in D and the C chord is a b7 chord. It probably just doesnt sound so "cadenc-y" when it ends on G. What scale they chose to play over it as a solo is irrelevant, I am sure the vocal melody is in D major, it is just unfinished
    – armani
    Jan 15 at 12:17
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    @armani at the end of the day, key isn't a feature of the music - it's a perspective from which you can look at the music.
    – topo morto
    Jan 15 at 12:19

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