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I trying to teach myself guitar and one song I want to perform for a friend (soon) is Akon's "Don't Matter." I can't read sheet music (but i want to learn) but i found the chord progression of the song. It is A-E-F#m-D, from some research I discovered that this is the stereotypical pop-punk chord progression I-V-vi-IV.

But I am just a beginner at guitar and have a lot of trouble with F chords due to my smallish hands and lack of experience.

I don't know any music theory but i know that the key of a song can change and it should still be recognizable as that song (though this is a mystery to me because i don't really understand the concept of key).

If I play this is the key of G the chord progression becomes G-D-Em-C which is a lot easier for me to learn and play.

I am wonder how exactly this affects how one hears the song, how does changing the key change how you hear it and perceive it? What exactly is key and why is it important?

And lastly, if i try to sing this song while playing it do i have to sing it differently if i change the key?

10 Answers 10

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What does changing key mean?

Changing key means you need to sing slightly higher or lower. For example try this chord progression (La Bamba, or most of Twist and Shout, or many other songs.)

    Key of C: Chords C F G
    Key of G: Chords G C D
    Key of D: Chords D G A
    Key of A: Chords A D E
    Key of E: Chords E A B

Any of these will work. The reason the song is still recognisable is because the relationship of the notes has not changed. (they are ALL raised/lowered by the same amount.) In all cases we have three major chords, starting with the I of the scale, then the IV (5 semitones/frets up from the I) and then the V (7 semitones/frets up from the I.)

These patterns are somewhat disguised by the different fingerings you have to do to keep the chords near the nut, so try the following in order to see it more clearly (don't bother with the 1st and 5th string if you can't manage the bar chord. If you are using a pick or strumming with your thumb it's a good idea to rest a finger of your right hand on the 1st string to silence it.)

    Key of G      Chord G   C   D 

                  e-----X---3---5
                  B-----0---5---7
                  G-----0---5---7
                  D-----0---5---7
                  A-----X---3---5
                  E-----X---X---X

Now add 2 to each of the numbers in the above tab and play again. Now you're playing in A (chords A D E.)

What is a key? (a simple explanation for strummers)

There are many ways to say what key is, but one of the most useful is to identify which chords belong to each key (that doesn't mean you can't play others, but it helps you to know which are most likely, and any that don't belong will stand out to your ear as being unusual.)

Another very useful thing is the cycle of fifths, which is covered elsewhere and you should learn all you can about. It's basically a series you get by going up 7 semitones/frets at a time. Here it is in brief.

    Gb Db Ab Eb Bb F C G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# 

And here's the same thing in a zigzag (which is easier to remember because the notes on each line are consecutive, but is not as fundamental in concept.)

    Gb  Ab  Bb   C   D   E   F#  G#  A#
      Db  Eb   F   G   A   B   C#  D# 

You probably know that every major key has a relative minor key, for example C major / A minor. It's easy to pick out the chords that belong to this or any key from the cycle of fifths, according to the example below.

The root notes of the three major chords of C major fall consecutively in the circle of fifths: F C G with the C in the middle. The root notes of the three minor chords of A minor fall in a similar pattern: Dm Am Em with the A in the middle.

As I said A minor is the relative minor of C major, and additionally you will note F C G is followed immediately by D A E the cycle of fifths. So you will find that many songs use exactly this group of 6 chords F C G Dm Am Em and those are the songs in the key of C.

I hope this is useful to you in knowing which chords belong to a key.

As I say, these are the basic rules, but musicians are free to break them (and nearly every exception to the rule is well studied and has a name.) The most common change (so common I can't even call it bending the rule) is the sustitution of a minor chord by its major version.

  • 1
    I write an answer, review it on my screen, it looks lovely, with nice grey boxes of text. Then I post it and SUDDENLY it interprets all my single notes as chords and starts shoving chord boxes everywhere (and not necessarily the fingering I wanted even when there were chords.) So I have edit to bastardise my nice formatting. Please Mr Computer, print what you showed me when I was editing or Leave Well Alone! – Level River St Mar 6 '14 at 11:18
  • @user2237160 Two things: Feel free to upvote; And study that circle of fifths, the basis of harmony (supposedly invented by Pythagoras the triangle guy.) Most songs have chords selected from 6 consecutive notes on that list, three major then three minor (though the song may not use all 6 and may change some that "should be" minor into major.) If all you want to do is strum, then that set of 6 chords is a good working definition of what the key is. – Level River St Mar 6 '14 at 22:05
  • Your 3rd para, starting with 'these patterns'. The thinnest string is the first string. Why would that need to be muted? If you mean the lowest (fattest), then how do you mute that with a finger whilst strumming with the thumb? – Tim Feb 12 '17 at 9:56
  • @Tim this is for an absolute beginner. Note the entire parenthesis: (don't bother with the 1st and 5th string if you can't manage the bar chord. If you are using a pick or strumming with your thumb it's a good idea to rest a finger of your right hand on the 1st string to silence it.) i.e when reducing an A shape to just 2nd 3rd and 4th strings because you can't bar properly, little or ring finger on the 1st string prevents a downstrum going too far. – Level River St Feb 13 '17 at 0:54
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A simple way round this is using a capo. Put it on fret 2, and use your suggested chords of G,D, Em, C. It will put you into the original recorded key. However,because the voicings of each of the chord have now changed, it will sound a little different. Not wrong, just different.

Putting the capo on fret 5, you could use E,B7,C#m and A, the troublesome one being C#m maybe. Or capo 8 and use C,G,Am,F. There's going to be a barre chord again !

Moving a song up or down by a tone or semitone will probably not cause many listeners concern - most wouldn't notice This topic has been discussed many times on this site.

The bottom line for you, I'm sorry to say, is to learn your barre chords, as then you'll be able to play any song in any key in any place on the guitar. If you're finding it really uncomfortable, get the action checked.It may be too high for you.

Yes, you will have to sing it differently, but once you start playing the new chords, your voice will adjust automatically. Don't worry about that.

  • Capo is one solution, but playing open position chords on an acoustic guitar often sounds nicer than barré/capo (in my opinion), so the transposition could have a point in itself. – Meaningful Username Mar 6 '14 at 8:04
  • A good capo, well applied, ought to give an 'open string' sound to whichever fret it's applied, at least up to 5 or 6.One could even down tune by 2 frets and put the capo on fret 2, - would most people notice ? – Tim Mar 6 '14 at 8:08
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Due to the different voicings of guitar chords in open position, a song can sound quite different when played in different keys. But if one uses a capo to change key, then this effect is lost.

Depending on the range of notes (tessitura), changing the key can also be very important for the singer. It may mean the difference between being able to sing the song and not being able! There have been several questions here on this topic.

Most people have relative pitch - they can tell what the notes of the scale are, but not what the absolute pitch is. Thus for these people, changing the key won't matter too much. There are some (lucky?) people who have absolute pitch, thus for them, changing the key will make a difference.

Of course, some people are tone deaf....

  • first para - the effect may be lost, but if that capo is more than 5 or 6 frets away from the nut, the chords will not sound too similar.Maybe to the tone deaf... – Tim Mar 6 '14 at 16:39
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G is just a whole tone down from the original key of A. That corresponds to going from fret 5 on the low E string to fret 3 on the same string. You would have to sing it one step lower in order to transpose the whole song. (Playing the song in G while singing it in A will create some interesting harmony though...)

Since it is just a whole step, this transposition will likely not be noticed by most people.

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Music is really a relative thing - if you think in terms of 4th, 5th, 3rd etc from a root note, that's how it really works. within a limit, songs played a few tones either side of their original recorded key will sound the same.

you can see this in operation in an instrument (say a guitar) - if it's not tuned to the universally agreed "concert pitch", but is in tune with itself (ie, the musical interval between the strings is as it should be) then tunes played on it will sound fine.

If you then tried to play that non-concert-pitch guitar along with another instrument which IS tuned to concert pitch, the two will mismatch and not agree on what pitch a "C" is (for example)

Lots of older records were recorded not at concert pitch- the whole band were tuned just slightly flat or sharp (because before digital stuff came out, tuning wasn't such an exact science and more open to human/technical error), but it's ok because they were all tuned with each other so it sounds fine.

The concept of "Concert pitch" is that it's an agreed frequency for certain notes to be. Eg an A is 440 cycles per second. Digital tuners are calibrated to this, so if you tune your guitar with a modern tuner it'll be set up to the universally agreed standard, and you'll immediately sound in tune when playing with other musicians tuned to concert pitch (er assuming you're playing the same thing haha)

The "Key " of a song is just the starting point for the chords/melody to start - if you think of the I-V-vi-IV sequence, it's a relative thing describing intervals based on a starting point, and the key just defines the starting point.

(Though be aware that some songs start and 'resolve' to a key which isn't the starting chord - eg Back in the USSR by the Beatles starts in E7 but resolves such that the whole song is in A)

Regarding singing : one of the reasons that people change the key of a song is so that it's easier for them to sing- some people can sing higher than others (wonem have a higher range than men), and not everyone cxan reach the high/low notes involved in some tunes. So you can just slide the starting point up or down in pitch a bit to suit your voice.

Will you have to sing it differently ? Yes- the tune will be the same relative to the new chords you're playing, but it'll be slightly lower. You'll probably find that when you start playing it you can sing it straight away- humans are pretty remarkable like that :-)

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Yes, you have to sing it differently when the key changes. Higher or lower in pitch. the range of the singer or instrument to play the melody is one of the primary reasons for you to change key. If the song is not so guitar based (i.e. Dust in The Wind, Stairway to Heaven) the key change should not affect how it sounds but that is for you to judge. You could also play it in G and use the capo in second fret to maintain the original key. Or you could use a simplified version of the F chord without the barre.

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You can play a song in any key, and it sort of sounds the same, except for being higher or lower in pitch.

However, some keys are easier to play on particular instruments. On a guitar, playing a C chord is relatively easy, but playing an Ab chord requires a barre and is more difficult. Picking out a melody in the key of G, A, or D for example is much easier on a guitar than in Bb or C# say.

But on a Bb clarinet, it's Bb that's easy.

On a fiddle or mandolin, and playing Celtic (Irish & Scottish) music, most tunes tend to be in D, G, A, Am, Em and a few others, because it's easy to play. Keys like B are hard to play in, so there aren't many tunes in that key.

  • Sometimes, using barre chords in a piece that needs damping for the rhythmic pattern, they are easier to use to get the effect than playing open chords, which are not particularly easy to damp, having open strings. Picking out a melody in G,D or A probably involves some open strings, which sound different from the fretted ones, so the tune doesn't sound so level, tone wise. Using all fretted strings solves that - and vibrato can be used on any - difficult with open strings. – Tim Dec 5 '16 at 9:27
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I struggle with this all the time with singers, my 2 cents is you are doing a cover tune and a cover tune is suppose to be done like the recording if you want to change it and do your version of it then by all means do that but DO NOT call its cover, when you change keys of songs you mess with the over all tone and the feel of the song for me I hate going to see a cover band and they don't play anything in the right key to me you are not a cover band, cover bands cover songs like the CD. Just my 2 cents, carry on 😉

  • So, a song is written, and recorded by several people/groups, in different keys. Which is the 'authentic' one? Unless one has absolute pitch, one won't usually be able to tell whether the key is correct - unless one knows the song, can play it, and is there watching the performance. Even then, the band may be tuned down! This doesn't particularly answer the OP's question, and doesn't make much sense - maybe 2 cents! Welcome to the site, but please read the ins and outs of what makes good answers. – Tim Dec 5 '16 at 9:19
  • Some bands play their own songs in different keys on different recordings. I don't think it makes the songs worse at all. But I agree with Tim that this doesn't answer the question very well. – J. P. Petersen Dec 5 '16 at 11:27
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Different keys really have different personalities.

If you really want to experience a change in feeling, transpose your song in A to the key of E-flat. That big distance from A to E-flat will make my point vividly.

Using the formula you gave us of I-V-vi-IV, that chord progression in E-flat is
Eb-Bb-Cm-Ab

Yes, understandably for guitar, sometimes the flat keys are more difficult to deal with than the sharp keys. Nevertheless, try it.

Or if you have a musician friend who's played for a while, ask them to play the 2 chord sequences in A vs. E-flat to hear the difference. (You'll definitely hear the change in mood on a piano, organ or other keyboard instrument where you can play the chords fully, esp. with roots.)

Since you asked about singing, that's one big reason knowing how to change key is important. You may be asked to accompany a vocalist with your guitar. The singer has their range, and they will feel more at ease in another key. Apparently you've experienced this already in deciding to lower this song from A to G.

If you really want to explore this concept of key, go for all 12 major keys. When we first learn to transpose, it helps a lot to write it down. Go ahead and fill in the chords for starting out on A, Bb, B, C, etc.

Also, take note of the different senses. In addition to hearing the chords, what do they look like with your fingering? What does your hand position and touch feel like? And are there any keys you tend to like more than others? While ideally we'd like to be proficient in all keys, we do have our personal favorites like ice cream flavors.

Enjoy!

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Lot of answers, but what I think you're looking for is a simple answer that makes intuitive sense.

Keys are just a set of related numbers. They can change, but everything in the set remains the same, relatively. Think simple first grade math:

Here is a set of 3 numbers -->> [ 1, 3, 5 ]

If you add 1 to each number you get [ 2, 4, 6 ]

Different set of numbers, but they all moved/changed the same -> by 1

Keys work exactly the same. You can test and hear this for yourself w/o needing to use chords. Just use root notes on the 6th and 5th strings.

..............................

Play:

E (6th string) -3---------
A (5th string) ---3-5------

Then play:

E (6th string) -4---------
A (5th string) ---4-6------

..............................

See how everything moves up 1 fret? (You added 1, simple math)

It obviously sounds different, and that difference means a different key. But the relationship of the notes sounds the same. You could move that up 1 more fret and it would be a different key, but sound "the same"

E (6th string) -5---------
A (5th string) ---5-7------

Etc. And keep going. Keys are really that simple.

.........................................

Take a look at a keyboard layout to see how notes repeat. In other words, tab really holds you back from learning music in the sense that say "6th string, 5th fret" doesn't mean anything except to other guitarists.

Keyboards don't have frets, so "6th string, 5th fret, then play 6th string, 8th fret" doesn't mean anything on piano. But, when you can understand and say, for example, "I'm playing an A, then a C" ->> this is something a piano player can understand, etc.

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