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I've just started learning music theory so i don't know if my question is understandable.

I've been searching on google, youtube, and here how to be able to recognize the key a song is in by ear, or with the help of a piano. The problem is that in 99% of the answers I found that most people say to find the "I" chord, or the one that feels like "home", and most of them also had the help of a guitar (which I don't have). That's great and everything, but what about the songs that use a chord progression that has no "I" chord? How can I tackle them? It's my first time trying to do it so if anyone is willing to give me a tip I'd aprpeciate it

I'm mostly talking about game or japanese music in general.

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    An example of such a song will probably be helpful. It isn't clear if you're thinking of cases where the music is modal versus major/minor key, or a song that happens to not start/end on the same tonic, or just doesn't end on a tonic, etc. Jan 30, 2023 at 15:49
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    By the way, for many pieces "what's the key" is very clear-cut, but not all music is tonal (i.e. "in a key"), and some is ambiguous enough that two different analyzers could make different cases. I'd say, start practicing harmonic analysis on the easier cases! Jan 30, 2023 at 16:12
  • Does this answer your question? How to identify a key given a certain chord progression
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 30, 2023 at 16:26
  • As the question is written, it seems you may not understand what is meant by "I Chord". If you're reading notation that gives chords by their note names and qualities, (e.g. C, D minor, F7), the "I Chord" will not be identified in the music because that information is not necessary to perform it. If you edit your question to include a specific chord progression, someone might be able to walk through the process. See also this question (and my answer if you like): music.stackexchange.com/questions/116558/…
    – Theodore
    Mar 2, 2023 at 21:19

4 Answers 4

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Sometimes it's difficult, that's true. But listening intently to where things could come to an end (not necessarily the end) is the most used way.

Chords/harmonies I IV and V are the mainstay of most pieces, which could also have era chords, but let's stick with that for now. So, let's say we find two chords in a piece - F and C. That narrows it down somewhat. those could be IV and I, but they could also be I and V. The missing chords from the '3 chord trick would be G and B♭ respectively.

Cadences are the most telling places so knowing the difference between plagal and perfect cadences is very useful. F>C in the 1st example is plagal, whereas G>C is perfect in the second.

It's also telling to find which other (mainly minor) chords are contained within the piece. They're ii, iii and vi. Identifying those if indeed they exist will usually bring a good conclusion.

Also, look out for secondary dominants, which make it sound like a key change is imminent. They can usually be traced back to an original key, and always sound chromatic.

Another good guide is the last chord (if it doesn't fade out), although with a lot of modern stuff, it seems the fashion to eschew that idea. There might also be the fact that, as a film or game piece, it's written and played with no decided key!

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Regardless of whether or not the progression has a I chord, I tend to simply play the melody of the song (or a basic version of it, if it is a complex piece), and use that to identify the key, making adjustments and notating accidentals as I become more familiar with the song itself. If you know your scales, you can also try and improvise over the song, and use this method to identify which scales "sound" nice. If you could give me an example of a piece you are working on, I would be happy to walk through my thought process more in depth. Do understand that theory is entirely descriptive, not prescriptive. Different people may view the harmonic content of a song in different ways.

With regards to the home chord, do not rely on the song as a crutch. Familiarize yourself with the sound of resolution (there are plenty of youtube videos that provide ear training exercises for identifying progressions that resolve). this will allow you to identify the home chord yourself.

P.S, Laurence's answer is technically correct, but since you mentioned you are starting out, i doubt you are trying to work with non-modal music.

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An alternative is identifying the scale, e.g. via https://chord.rocks/.

Things you may encounter after entering notes from the melody:

  • several scale alternatives -> try them and see, which one makes sense
  • no scale -> add more notes, or remove a few
  • different scales in different parts of the song (e.g. modulation from classical music, jazzy switch etc.)
  • when major or minor scales are identified: set flat/sharp manually on that page.
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  • Hm. It is true that some pieces that are not tonal nevertheless have "a scale," i.e. we can talk about the set of notes it draws from. And, for other pieces, even after identifying the key, it could be worthwhile to also discuss the scale (e.g. key is C but the piece is pentatonic). But I'd warn the OP against relying on a tool to fill in gaps in understanding. Accidentals could throw off "scale identification," but 2 hours of music theory study could let the user identify most simple cases themselves. Jan 30, 2023 at 17:50
  • It always helps to „speak the language“ ;)
    – MS-SPO
    Jan 30, 2023 at 18:18
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If there's no discernible 'home' chord, perhaps the piece isn't 'in a key' in any useful sense.

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    And how would one figure that out one way or the other?
    – Aaron
    Jan 31, 2023 at 3:34
  • Aurally. Ultimately it's all down to aural. All 'theory' can ever do is label and codify something that SOUNDS good (or bad).
    – Laurence
    Jun 11, 2023 at 15:28

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