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Verse: Em and A Chorus: Em G D A

Seemed like with everything starting on Em, it might be the tonic but that would suggest an Am which doesn't sound right for me.

So the other options would be:

  • D major: with with Em as the ii
  • B minor: the relative minor

As the notes are the same my thinking was to continue with the bridge to see if the D or the Bm plays a bigger part as well as how the notes in the melody play out.

Keen to hear any suggestions.

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    It's not entirely clear what your question is. Are you looking for a single key that includes the four chords you named?
    – Aaron
    May 1 at 5:22
  • Interesting that there are no votes for Q or A..?
    – Tim
    May 2 at 12:58
  • @Tim Some sites here have an unwritten rule: if it's worth it to you to answer, it should be worth it to you to upvote the question :-)
    – Richard
    May 31 at 18:24
  • @Richard - seems so unwritten, no-one's read it ! So upvotes may sort of have a stated reason (an answer to the question), while downvotes... I'll be swayed here and upvote! But the whole rigmarole has taken a month to blossom, interesting?
    – Tim
    May 31 at 18:42

4 Answers 4

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You seem to have fallen for the fallacy that so many do in the earlier stages of becoming a musician - that a song is in a key, and that then presupposes all chords in that song must be diatonic to that key.

Not the case at all - as probably 90% of all music stands testament to. O.k., there are lots of 3-chord wonders within the pop world, often 4-chorders too, all diatonic. However, using chromaticism and borrowed chords is rife. It's what, to an extent, separates the wheat from the chaff, making pieces sound more interesting rather than mundaine.

With chords of Em, G and D, The key signature would most likely be 1#, signifying key G or/and key Em, possibly 2# (see later). We are well aware that the majority of pieces in key Em will have Am somewhere, but A major fits rather well, and can also be explained theoretically, which is where I think the question arose from.

Consider key Em. There are different scales which are associated with that key, and that reveals notes D/D♯ and C/C♯. That C♯ could explain where A major comes from. Another reason could be when one considers maybe the song is in G major. Often v/v is a chord found, that being the V of D, thus A. Yet another explanation is that, due to 'home' feeling more like Em, the key isn't actually Em, but a mode, namely E Dorian (a minor mode, the Dorian of D, hence 2#), which will contain that C♯ note.

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  • The Em does feel like the home. Focusing to find out where the C# could fit in, putting it in the bass maybe. Will try see what some notes in G major feel like over the existing recording. Thanks.
    – Justin
    May 4 at 1:36
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Allowing for the key of E minor, an A major chord — and specifically the C# — is perfectly acceptable, particularly in ascending melodic passages. In that case, however, it would be expected that D# would also be used rather than D natural. (Using both C# and D natural would place the song in the dorian mode rather than minor.) In descending passages, D major and A minor chords (that is, D and C natural) would be expected.

The A major chord could also be justified through "modal mixture" as being borrowed from E major.

It also could be that the piece modulates. Unless it's important to the music to remain in a single key, allowing for modulation could free up the compositional possibilities significantly.

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  • Thanks for your thoughts. The D# isn't fitting in with the lyrics. Just calling it borrowed from E major works for me but it would have been nice to have a scale for reference. For additional melody parts and bass. Will have a look over the dorian mode.
    – Justin
    May 4 at 1:29
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  • Tonic = home note, center of harmony. The listener interprets other pitches and intervals most importantly relative to the tonic.

  • "The song's key is E minor" = E is the tonic, and the listener expects to hear an E minor chord when the harmony is at rest. E minor is the tonic chord. The E natural minor scale is assumed as a basic "normal" reference pitch grid, and differences from that scale are noted as special, potentially noteworthy places in the song.

  • Any note can be played in any key, as long as the listener's sense of center is not changed. Even then, if the sense of center does change, then the key changes, but that's perfectly OK too. So what if the key changes? So what if it doesn't?

Ask yourself: does Em feel like the center? If it does, then it's your key. If it doesn't feel like the center, it's not your key. The key signature only gives a suggested default scale that contains pitches that tend to get used a lot in the key. But along the way during the song, particularly in minor keys, there are usually modifications, alterations to the scale degrees. These are done by playing chords and notes.

What do notes do? What do chords do? They express things about harmony. Do they change the key? No, they don't, if they don't change your sense of center.

Try to make theory real. Theory is talking about music, theory is people describing what they do in music. The descriptions are theory, they're not music itself.

WHAT HAPPENS IN PRACTICE WHEN YOU PLAY A CHORD

  • When you play an A major chord, the chord says that the C scale degree is now sharp, A is natural, and E is natural.
  • When you play an A minor chord, the chord says that the C scale degree is now natural, A is natural, and E is natural.
  • When you play an F#7 chord, the chord says that F is now sharp, A is sharp, C is sharp, and E is natural.
  • When you play an Fmaj7 chord, the chord says that F is now natural, A is natural, C is natural, and E is natural.
  • When you play an Em6 chord, the chord says that E is now natural, G is natural, B is natural and C is sharp.
  • If you play only an A major chord for five minutes straight, then most likely your sense of center moves.
  • If you play only an A minor chord for five minutes straight, then most likely your sense of center moves, even though it was "in the key" in E minor.

Try this chord progression: Em - A - Am - G - F#7 - Fmaj7 - Em6

During the A chord, the C scale degree is sharp. During the Am chord the C scale degree is natural. During the Fmaj7 chord, the F is natural. These chords and notes, or any chords or notes, do not necessarily set a key. You have to play notes and/or chords in a very specific way to set a key. It is entirely possible to select notes and chords only from the E natural minor scale, and still FAIL to set the key to E minor in a listener's mind.

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  • Trying out with the chords you mentioned Em6 especially interesting with the C# in it. Everything I am playing says Em, Em, Em but the scale (and theory) tell me that it isn't natural.
    – Justin
    May 4 at 1:41
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    @Justin The only thing that matters is your ears. Theory is just people talking about how they do music. That talking can give you hints and inspiration and tools for finding things that your ears like, but the talking can also mislead you. A lot of people have heard other people talking about scales, and they've fallen victim to a huge misunderstanding about what it means. Remember, music theory = people talking about music-making. Try adding a maj7 in addition to the 6th in the Em6 as well. It's a sound. Do you like it? How do other sounds make you feel when played over that sound? May 6 at 9:16
  • @Justin don't let music theory get in the way of creativity.
    – r lo
    Jun 1 at 14:53
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica I wish I could upvote this comment by 10X. Great advice that I wish more people would follow.
    – r lo
    Jun 1 at 14:54
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Superficially, Em G D A is D major. I say superficially, because those chords merely match the key signature for D major, but they would also match A mixolydian, etc. etc.

If you had Em G D A and at least F# major or F#7 for the dominant, and for clarity of a minor tonic, the Bm chord, then B minor as a key would start making sense. Making a case for a particular key when neither the dominant nor tonic chord is present is pretty weak.

Any of those possibilities of key or mode are only really made clear by defining the tonic, either the tonic scale degree or the tonic chord.

You can define the tonic different ways. The traditional way is harmonically by moving a dominant chord by descending fifth root progression to a major or minor triad. That second major or minor triad then becoming the tonic.

You can also define the tonic with melody. For a tonic of D the melody would come to a rest on the tone D or possibly the other tones of the tonic chord D major.

You could also define the tonic with just chords and rhythm. Again, the basic idea would be to give emphasis to the tonic chord. You could do that by hold the tonic chord longer than the others. With chords Em G D A you might do ||: Em Em G G | D D D A :|| (one chord per beat in that example) to rhythmically give more time to D and make it the focus, the tonic.

You should be aware that your progression Em G D A doesn't have a root progression by descending fifth, so the traditional way to define a tonic through harmony isn't there. In Roman numerals you have D: ii IV I V. Assuming that repeats you have V going to ii. Traditional harmony would use things like D: ii V I or D: IV V I, something with V going to I.

You don't have to make your chords progress that way. But if you are groping about for a tonic, you should at least be aware of what is happening harmonically in terms of dominant to tonic.

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