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My Old School:

This song is very confusing. Is it in E minor or G major? 4:31 ends in a G major chord, but 4:50 ends in an E minor chord. How do I identify which key the song is in, in this situation?

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    For what practical purpose do you need to know a single key for the whole song? What would that enable you to do? Feb 1, 2023 at 16:27

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Just describe the musical sections as makes sense.

The song starts and ends with instrumental sections in E minor while the main song is in G major.

Different keys for different musical sections is very, very common.

I can't help but think part of the problem is trying to conform to the classical convention of titling and then thinking of those pieces as in a key based on the work's title. Ex. Mozart's String Quartet No. 18 in A Major where the trio is in E major and the andante is in D major, and the autograph score probably doesn't even have a title written out.

The classical convention of starting and ending a piece in the same key is what normally determines the key given in a work's title, but that says nothing about the arrangement of keys within the work, and not all compositions neatly fit that convention.

Sorry for the "classical" digression, but I just don't understand the motivation for identifying a single key other than titling works.

Simply put you don't need to name or describe a piece of music with only one key. Even worse is trying to select one key for the sake of some music software.

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This song is an interesting case. Since G major and E minor are relative keys — that is, they share the same key signature — it would be fair to say it's "in the key of one sharp". That's how my band dealt with it when we played it.

However, from the point of view of analysis, there's another distinction that can be made. The intro and outtro of the piece are in E minor, while the main body of the piece is in G major. That's why one hears G major at 4:31 — the end of the main tune — and E minor at 4:50 — (near) the beginning of the outtro.

If I had to pin down a specific key, however, then I'd go with G major, since that's the primary key for the main body of the song, with the intro and outtro being "extra".

And that's the general rule, I think, for situations like this, where there's no obvious cadence in a single key, or the cadence is contradicted by a significant portion of the rest of the music: determine what key comprises the bulk of, or the main part of, the piece.

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    The key word in your question is “song”. The Em sections are just arrangement elements, interludes for guitar solos that have chord rhythms but no melody. Every part of the song, that has melody and lyrics, the verses and choruses are all in G. +1 Jan 31, 2023 at 9:03
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    You haven't answered the question. You've only answered it for this example (and that would be off topic)
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 31, 2023 at 12:40
  • I disagree - I hear the intro as already in G major, it doesn't make much musical sense to regard that first chord as a dominant. Feb 2, 2023 at 20:09
  • @PiedPiper In an attempt to address your concern, I've added a paragraph to the end.
    – Aaron
    Aug 1, 2023 at 1:14
  • @reinierpost I'm not sure I understand. The piece doesn't start on the dominant; it starts immediately on an E minor chord. Of course, it's perfectly fine to start a piece on the dominant. One example that happens to come to mind is Schumann's "The Poet Speaks", which is in G major but starts on D7.
    – Aaron
    Aug 1, 2023 at 1:17
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G major and E minor are very closely related keys. It's common for a song to switch freely between them. Or maybe there are clear sections in each key.

Maybe one key predominates, justifying you to label the piece as being 'in G major'. Maybe it's more of a mix, and trying to name a single key is futile.

Maybe you're really asking about harmonic analysis. In a fluid G major/E minor environment is an Em chord i or vi? When does it become useful to re-define a secondary dominant as an actual dominant, considering B7 as V7 rather than 'V7 of vi'? I guess the answer's in the word 'useful'. Are we just passing through or have we set up camp? Your choice.

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