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How do you distinguish between major and minor keys? Please tell me which chord progression is correct for the chorus of “Africa” by Toto.

  • For A Major → 6-4-1-5 ?
  • For F♯ Minor → 1-6-3-7 ?

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    Correct for what purpose? Jul 30, 2022 at 15:25
  • It'll surely have the same key signature.
    – Tim
    Jul 30, 2022 at 16:59

2 Answers 2

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The meat of the chorus of this song is that four chord progression that has become probably the most common chord progression in pop for the last two decades:

VIm-IV-I-V

Or sometimes (but not in this case) it starts on bar 3:

I-V-VIm-IV

I’m going to preface my answer by saying that this entire song has a diatonic sound but is deceptively very chromatic. It uses standard diatonic chord progressions but cleverly uses pivot chords with multiple functions to modulate from one key to another and make unexpected shifts. For that reason it is difficult to nail down a definitive key for either the verse or chorus.

That being said, back to your question. @piiperi_Reinstate_Monica made a very good case for all sides (+1) But I am going to go out on a limb and say that I believe the key for the chorus is A. Here are my reasons:

  1. When the chorus ends it winds up on that I-IIIm vamp (in the key of A), which is also one of the main elements of the song.

  2. My main reason for considering the chorus to be in A and not F#m is the chorus melody, which basically is ^1 and ^7, the tonic and leading tone of the key of A. The words “away” “more” and the first syllable of “Africa” really sound like home to me.

That being said this is a masterpiece of a tune open to many interpretations, many of which can be given legitimate explanations.

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  • +1. It 's far more in key A than key F#m. The C# chords are all minor, so no leading note. In key A, of course, there's the E chords with that leading note. Not a definitive fact, but a pretty convincing one. But aren't they really the same key anyway...
    – Tim
    Jul 31, 2022 at 8:38
  • When I listen to it, the F#m feels like the tonic and the A doesn't. Would you say that when you listen to it, the A feels like the tonic and the F#m doesn't? Jul 31, 2022 at 13:55
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    @TannerSwett Yes, and my reasoning/explanation is the two numbered sentences towards the end of my answer. This just applies to the chorus, not the verses. The fact that we hear it differently doesn’t make one right over the other. This song has a lot of harmonic motion and some of it is atypical and non-functional. Jul 31, 2022 at 18:38
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It's a matter of subjective opinion, perspective and purpose. Both options are justifiable.

Justification for "it's in minor"

  • In my opinion, it feels slightly more minorish. Ending the thing on an F#m chord feels, in my opinion, more in line with the general feeling in the chorus.

Justification for "it's in major"

  • Someone might feel that the major side is more important, and that an A major chord would be a more suitable ending. I mean, the feel for harmony is really learned and depends on each person's history, and someone can actually feel that it's in A major.
  • The verse starts in major (though B major).
  • The song as a whole is not very heavily in either major and minor, and because of one's personal history, everything is in major by default, unless extremely clearly stated otherwise.

Justification for "it's not really clearly in minor or major, but I'll use the major-side tonic as the center"

  • Particularly in pop music, relative minor and major keys can be viewed as one single bi-polar key. It has a minor side (F# minor) and major side (A major). Sometimes the center of balance leans slightly more on the minor side, sometimes slightly more on the major side. I certainly feel that way. I really dislike it when people write Roman numerals and it's not clear where even the "one" is. It does more harm than good. Just standardize on "one" being the major side tonic and "six" being the minor side tonic. This is not the 1800s, we're not analyzing Tchaikovsky or anything.

Bonus track

Let's put it FULLY IN MAJOR. Play with a jolly Bluegrass feeling. Banjo and violin.

Africa in major

Then let's put it FULLY IN MINOR. Play with a jolly Polka feeling. Accordion and mandolin.

Africa in minor

Which one feels closer to the original? Your call.

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  • Third point for "it's in major" doesn't seem like it belongs under "it's in major"
    – Edward
    Jul 30, 2022 at 15:47
  • @Edward good point! I added a third way, "neither major nor minor". Jul 30, 2022 at 15:48
  • I traditionally hear "vi-IV-I-V" music as actually being in a minor key - the relative minor. F-777's "Dance of the Violins" is a great example of this, as I hear its "vi-IV-I-V" as i-VI-III-VII instead.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 30, 2022 at 21:13
  • @Dekkadeci Yes, here the first chord seems to be important. If we turn the Africa chorus upside-down like: A - Bm - F#m - C#m ... it's still kind of in major? Despite 3/4 majority of chords being on the minor side. While keeping the melody the same of course. :) Rhythm and form are important. But I don't want to exclude the possibility that other people just feel differently, and it comes from whatever they're used to expecting. Jul 30, 2022 at 21:20

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