I was listening Hotel California by Eagles and decided that F# is the key/tonic for this song. Thus it has to be F#-Phrygian scale. But over the internet I see that it is B-minor. It means it has same notes but with another tonic.

Do I feel wrong key or B-min is just simpler to think of?

P.S: I am quite new to music theory and just discovered usage of key and scales.

UPDATE. 4 months passed. Now I know that B is the key for the song. It just feels right to end musical phrase with it.

  • 5
    Scale and key aren't necessarily the same things.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 12:41
  • 7
    When you say "decided that F# is the key/tonic" what made you decide? I ask if it was just informed by theoretical reasons, by ear, or a mix of both. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 12:51
  • 6
    I've noticed that almost every part of song ends with F# — this was the main reason. I checked it playing this one note with whole song and it seems to feel like "in place". Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 13:15
  • 6
    The F# is the 5th of B, so it will be present int the B chords (in this song), and is "naturally" consonant, which can lead to the perception that is the tonic, and in some harmonies with inverse chords the 5th will be the lower note. As my experience (that should not be taken as universal), I would not focus so much in the theory to understand the underlying harmony, but in training the perception of the relations of chords first, and then see how the theory describes that sensation. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 15:03

4 Answers 4


As @Tim commented, "Scale and key aren't necessarily the same things."

I can imagine why you feel that F# Phrygian is the "scale" since when analyzing the melody, it studiously avoids the characteristic leading tone of B-minor (which is A#), except in one place where the A# functions as a "shout": the "them" in "I thought I heard them say:". But then the melody immediately drops back down to F#, which is the "melodic center" (statistically speaking), followed by modulation to D major ("Welcome to the Hotel California") where the "melodic center" remains F# and the note A instead of A# is prominent (the "Cal" in "California"). The final verse #6 also ends in F# ("you can never leave."). So you can be forgiven for thinking the piece is in F# Phrygian since all the notes except that one A# belong to that scale.

But harmonically it is a different story. What follows is a tonal center analysis where I will argue that it is B minor.

  • The starting instrumental ad lib begins squarely with B minor, as in the beginning of each of the 6 verses ("On a dark desert highway", "There she stood in the doorway", etc.). The chord progression for each verse is identical to the ad lib (which is 2 verses long). Each verse has a conventional B minor tonal center: starting with B minor, modulating twice to E then to D before going back to B minor. Although the final chord of each verse is F#7 (instead of the usual B minor), one distinctively feels it's hanging unresolved, wanting to go back to tonic (B minor) and IS resolved in the beginning of the next verse and reinforced 6 times (the form is V1 - V2 - Ref - V3 - V4 - Ref - V5 - V6).
  • Similarly, the chord progression in the Refrain ("Welcome to the Hotel California"...) makes one feel that the tonal center is also B minor, although it starts with B minor's related D major key in the subdominant (G -> D), modulating back to B minor at "Such a lovely place" (F#7 -> Bm cadence), and ends with B minor's dominant chord to prepare for the verse which begins in B minor, making it a very conventional iv-V7-i cadence (Em -> F#7 -> Bm).
  • The final instrumental ad lib also follows the chord progression of the verse, repeated 5 times. In the final 2 repeats the lead guitar plays broken notes of each chord in the chord progression, so completely unmoored from the melody by now. No more F# Phrygian feeling is left at this point. Finally, at the end of the 5th repeat (F#7 broken chord) the listener expects the 6th repeat of the verse which begins in B minor, but then the ad lib abruptly ends in B minor, thus leaving the final two chords to form a V7-i cadence (F#7 -> B minor), making it decisively ends in B minor.

So this piece is distinctive in that although the melodic center is definitely F# and the "scale" can be argued to be F# Phrygian (statistically), the tonal center ("key") is certainly B minor. By convention, the notation follows the tonal center, that's why although melodically it's F# Phrygian, the key signature is in B minor.

  • The melody's avoidance of G# means that it could also be interpreted as being in D major if accompanied by chords suitable for that key. One of the things that makes the tune very interesting is that bar 5 of the verse and bars 1 and 5 of the refrain mark points where the harmondy sounds like it is modulating into D major, and if the chords continued in that vein such moulation would sound quite "nromal" to anyone who wasn't familiar with the piece.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 20:20
  • @supercat Yes, the melody seems rather oblivious to the harmony changes, that modulates to E (A -> E in bars 5-8) then to D (G -> D in bars 9-12) in the verse. Also modulates to D (G -> D in bars 1-4) in the Refrain. Here's the chord analysis courtesy of HookTheory, although I didn't see this while I was writing my answer (used a regular score). Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 22:30

You're mis-hearing it. Listen to the very last note/chord of the piece — that's the most likely place to find the tonic. For example, in the recording below, the last notes are clearly B, and they sound final. There's not a feeling that we've been left hanging. This is the function of the tonic: to feel at rest.

The video is timed to the final chord. You can use a tone generator to compare the pitch if you don't have other means at hand.

  • Yes, whole song is ends with B. Is that the only reason in this case? Because as a part of training in scale-key detection exercise I did not listening to the very end of that song, just first half I think. Also I was looking for here for notes and I see that B itself almost unused. That is why I thought about F#. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 10:52
  • I listen the whole song again. You are right. F# notes keep something still hanging everywhere. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 10:57
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    @AlexanderC But one reason for your perception is that both the verse and the chorus end on an F# chord. This would be the “dominant“ chord forming a “half cadence“: it’s an end of a phrase but there’s a sense that it doesn’t really wrap things up; there’s a sense that some other chord is needed even after the F#. In this video they provide it with a big final Bm, but they could just as easily have left the F# hanging. “What’s the last note/chord“ is a pretty important indicator, but it’s not 100% foolproof. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 15:09
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    @AlexanderC Trying to get chord relations (harmonies) from scales could be misleading. Take for example the blues, you can play a (minor) pentatonic scale over a major chord. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 15:41
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    @AlexanderC - Andy calls that cadence a 'half cadence'. In UK it's called an imperfect cadence - just the opposite to a perfect one - V>I. Two different names for the same thing.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 11:33

While Bm and F♯ Phrygian both have the same set of notes (those from parent key D major), the main criterion for deciding on a key is where 'home' is. And F♯ certainly isn't it! That chord leads (usually) to B (or Bm in this song, often), and makes Bm sound like home - the place where the song could finish and and be at rest.

Interestingly, originally recorded in key Em.

EDIT - all that apart - some if not all the F♯ chords are dominant sevenths, and unless we're in Blues, a root chord won't often be a dominant seventh - those are usually the dominant chord of the key; just another consideration.

  • Yes. I forgot about home/rest/nothing_to_add idea of tonic. @aaron pointed me at the very end of this song and it is really B makes everything set. Add F#s in this song makes you waiting for continue. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 11:04
  • "That chord leads (usually) to B" is rather an overstatement, since the verses always start with the chords bm - F♯7 - Asus2. The A chord does contain a B note, but analysing this as a variation of back to the tonic is a bit of a stretch Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 11:14
  • @leftaroundabout - I meant generally, usually - it's the dominant, and that's its job. Or in this song, often - like the end of a verse.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 11:17

You said in the comments for why you chose F#:

I've noticed that almost every part of song ends with F# — this was the main reason.

That's true, but this is an important issue to beware of when using ends of phrases as an indicator of key. If the phrase feels like it "leads into" the next phrase, it probably hasn't resolved yet, and this means it's not what you want to be looking at.

Normally the last chord of a piece tells you the key, because that's the point where it normally resolves. If it didn't, it'd leave you hanging and feeling like you were waiting for more. Of course this is a problem when (as with Hotel California) the recorded version ends on a fade-out! In this case the live version gives you what you're missing, which is an actual end without a fade.

Of course there are songs or pieces which finish without resolution. Chelsea Hotel by Leonard Cohen is one I can think of immediately. The key is F but it finishes on a C chord. The effect is to leave you feeling like there's unresolved business - and that's entirely in keeping with a song about missing Janis Joplin after she'd died and wishing he'd treated her better.

Where you don't have a resolution, you need to look at whether the chords fit a key. The chords of Hotel California all match what you'd expect for Bm. They don't match F#m very well though - notably you'd expect to see C# in there, and it isn't. And the melody notes all correspond to Bm much more closely too.

  • How do I find information about chords matching? Is there any specific term that I should google for? Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 13:43
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    @AlexanderC Honestly you're diving headfirst into too much, too soon. You're asking to simply google something when it's at the very least a multi-month study exercise, including at least one solid textbook and plenty of ear training. Music theory study courses and textbooks exist. Google "beginner music theory textbook" and see what people recommend.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 1 at 12:13

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