I have a hard time figuring out if a song with a certain key signature is major or minor. I know some sound minor and are and some sound major and are but some sound opposite of what they actually are(major sounds minor and minor sounds major). How can I tell if any song is major or minor?

  • The simple answer here depends on whether the notes used are from the major or minor key, so as long as you can work out what notes are being played this should be easy. If you can't tell whether notes are in a major or minor key, you probably need more practice and familiarisation with keys.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 2, 2014 at 19:52
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    Do you have the music or are you doing this by ear? Also are you confused on relative keys (E.g. C and Am), parallel keys (E.g. A and Am) or unrelated keys (E.g. C# and Em)? Mar 2, 2014 at 19:53
  • I do it both by ear and when I have actual sheet music. Parralel and unrelated I can tell apart. It is usually the relative major and minor that gets me confused.
    – Caters
    Mar 2, 2014 at 20:26
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    @Dr Mahem - the notes in a major key are the same as those in its relative minor.There's only the leading note in a harmonic minor that's different.
    – Tim
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:04
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    @ Caters - The key sig. on the music can only give you a clue to the major or relative minor. As in 3# - A maj./F#min. The clue is often in the last chord/bar of the piece. Or even the last main note. It will align with the key usually.
    – Tim
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:07

5 Answers 5


In the middle of a song, it's difficult to tell if it's major or minor - at that point, it could be on any chord, major in a minor song, vice versa, and going somewhere else anyway ! Just stick to the last chord in a song to get the question answered. If recognising one chord in isolation is not easy, you need more exposure to blends. Get a friend to play and try to feel if it's a major or minor chord.Experience will help a great deal.

Try to understand the difference between C maj and C min. C maj and Amin.

Some songs will appear to be minor and end up major. Is 'Fly me to the Moon' maj/min ?

  • +1 You have to wait until a song sounds resolved to determine whether it's major or minor because when the harmony is resolved, you can cheeky hear the tonal center. As Tim pointed out, an overwhelming majority of songs resolve at their ends.
    – Kevin
    Mar 2, 2014 at 21:57

Can you find the root note?

Start with the root note and sing Doe a Deer. If "deer" sounds sharp or off then the piece is in minor.

  • Or Frere Jacques, or Obladi, or Row, Row, Row Your Boat...
    – Tim
    Sep 28, 2020 at 7:49

In some degree it is possible to learn by training, but you need to have some chord-capable instrument and be able to get known chords out of it. Try to compare C versus Cm, E versus Em, A versus Am etc. Pick the middle of the sound range, not too high and not too low. After some practicing it should be possible for you to tell them apart. Minor chords always sound way more sad and romantic for some reason.

You do not need to identify all individual notes for that, you also do not need to separate between same type of chords (C from C# for instance) that is much more difficult task.


I'll elaborate on Tim's note from the above answers. First learn your relative major and minor keys. These are the major and minor keys that have the same key signature; the relative minor is always a minor third (3 half steps) below its relative major.

Now, look at the key signature. Which major or minor key are we talking about? Let's say the key signature has no sharps or flats. It is therefore either A minor or C major. Now, look for two things in the first few bars of the piece. Do they center around an a minor chord or a C major chord? Also, look for a G# occurring a lot. This is a raised 7th tone in a minor and is very common. If you see it, chances are good you're in A minor. If you don't, you might still be in A minor, if the music still centers around the A minor chord instead of the C major chord.

Keep in mind that a lot of music bounces back and forth between relative major and minor in the same piece. It's very easy to set up, and adds interest to the music. The best example of this that I can come up with off the top of my head is "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (the original American version of the tune, not the vapid Vaughan Williams "adaptation" of a British folk tune which the British inexplicably prefer to use). The piece is in a major key, but the part that goes "but in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light" is in the relative minor.

  • like Beethoven's 5th symphony starts in C minor and has some Bb major chords and C major chords in the 1st movement before it goes back to C minor and the 4th movement of it ends in a C-G7-C cadence.
    – Caters
    Jul 4, 2014 at 1:38
  • That's actually a very good example, but I would describe it a little differently and stick to the first movement. The relative major of C minor is Eb major. The piece starts as if it is going to begin in Eb; the first notes are easily thought of as part of an Eb chord followed by part of a B7 chord. Then it takes off in C minor. Then, the second theme (the part announced by the French horns, and then going into that more sedate contrasting melody) is in Eb.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 11, 2014 at 1:40
  • I think of it as Cm I(first inversion) followed by Gm7 I and the part with the Bb, Eb, D, F, Eb, C, C, Bb sequence in the woodwinds as being in Bb major because I hear a Bb major chord before that theme and and quite a bit more A naturals in it. I also hear in the first movement at 5 minutes a theme in C major before I hear the very end of it in C minor once again and I hear F minor in between the C minor theme and Bb major theme and between the Bb major theme and the C major theme and even some D minor between the Bb major theme and the C major theme. At the end there is a Cm G7 Cm cadence
    – Caters
    Jul 12, 2014 at 20:59
  • Correction to mine: followed by part of a Bb7 chord. @caters: I'm not sure how you come to your conclusions, but I see the opening of the first movement in Cm, with a secondary theme in Eb.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 12, 2014 at 22:31
  • well I listen to it and that supports my conclusions and I have also looked at the sheet music which also supports my conclusions.
    – Caters
    Jul 13, 2014 at 16:15

This might not be the answer if you've never had any interval ear training, but it would be good to add it here.

What I usually try to look for is a V-I drop. In a lot of songs, it is used to determine the scale.

In some classical pieces, it used somewhere in the beginning of the song. For instance, if the song is in C harmonic minor, there would be a G - Cm drop. Whereas, if the song is in C major, there would be a G-C drop.That would help you understand the scale.


In C major and C harmonic minor scales, the V chord is the same. It's G-B-D. So, if I hear a G and then a C/Cm, I would know that the song is in C major or C harmonic minor scale respectively.

@AlexanderTroup, my teacher played a lot of V-I's on the piano, some where minor and some major. That was my ear training material. (There were more chords, not just V-I).

It is quite often seen as: IV-V-I (and in jazz, II-V-I)

But, in some more complex songs, this might not exactly point out the scale.

  • can you tell apart a V-IM and V-Im? if so, what was your ear training material(if any)? Mar 4, 2014 at 17:07
  • IM is major tonic and Im is minor tonic
    – Caters
    Mar 4, 2014 at 18:59
  • @AlexanderTroup, I'm sure I understood 100% your question. I added a little more info in my answer. I had a error. The minor drop I was thinking of was on C harmonic minor, not natural. Mar 4, 2014 at 22:08
  • Also, if there are just two chords ( a simple V-I), if the I is minor, then it's V-Im and if it's major, it's V-IM. I'm not sure what you're asking :P Mar 4, 2014 at 22:09
  • I guess I'm asking if you can tell the differnce(by ear) between a minor and major chord when it's in a song. My secondary question is how you learned it :D Mar 4, 2014 at 22:39

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