I'm developing a method for students to identify the key of a song by ear. I've seen a lot of videos on YouTube where they say that you should try to identify a common note and that will be your tonic. That's not necessarily true since other notes can be common to all chords depending on the chord progression. Also, the tonic is not always common to all chords in the chord progression so that blows that idea out of the water. What is a good approach to thinking about this concept?

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    This is just my opinion - I expect people will disagree. I don't think any one method will work for every single song out there. Honestly, I think the best way to figure this out is to practice a lot of fixed-do solfege and then be able to identify your "do," or tonic, in your music. This is what I do unconsciously when I listen to popular music. Jul 14 '14 at 6:30
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    I second that. I think you have to just learn to identify the tonic pitch by ear training / singing and then decide if it's major, minor, modal or bacterial/fungal
    – Grey
    Jul 14 '14 at 7:26
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    I wholeheartedly agree with you both. I call that method "completing the scale"...where you hone in on a note in the song then continue up/down the scale until you find a place of "rest", which is Do.
    – 02fentym
    Jul 14 '14 at 16:43

If the song is simple enough (or we just focus on a section with no modulations) and we have a pitch reference (or perfect pitch!), then identifying the key boils down to identifying the tonic and the modality (major, minor, something else).

With proper training, identifying the tonic is easy. You just need to find the note that gives the feeling of closure. That's the tonic. Identifying the tonic, in my opinion, is the most basic skill that every musician should have: Everything else is built around it!

Next, we need to determine the modality. To do that, we need to identify the essential notes in the melody (because there maybe non-essential chromatic ones too). Then we look at the scale that has these notes and that is based on the tonic that we've identified earlier. Most likely it's gonna be major or minor, but beware: It maybe in another mode or scale like, say, Dorian or Phrygian #3.

Unfortunately I don't think one can come up with an objective, algorithmic procedure. It is necessary to feel the sense of closure that the tonic gives and feel which notes are essential and which ones are merely chromatic decoration.

Finally, there are quite a few pop songs with ambiguous tonics, especially between relative minors and majors.

  • the relative would give a key sig. at least, and songs do 'modulate' between relatives easily. Dorian (or other modes) - I often feel that going back to parent key chord is 'home'.Thus Dm (Dorian) to me, is C maj.
    – Tim
    Jul 14 '14 at 7:53
  • Thanks for that answer. It's true, there are a ton of pop songs that are modal in nature. For example, "Royals" by Lorde is mixolydian. However, even if something is modal, you can always just call it major (technically wrong, but note-wise is the same).
    – 02fentym
    Jul 14 '14 at 16:46

Unless those students have perfect pitch - absolute pitch is an accepted term- this is nigh on impossible. They will be able to identify WHICH part of a piece has the tonic in it, but that's a different 'skill'. I say skill as absolute pitch is often an inborn thing, although it can be learned to a degree.

Finding that tonic part of a piece:often, but not always, it will be the start bar (full bar, not anacrucis), and usually the last bar, particularly of a verse. The last bar of a chorus could be, there again it's sometimes just the opposite, the V to take the piece back to the tonic to start another verse.

Not done a study, but wouldn't be surprised if in a given piece, there are more tonic notes throughout it than any other. Counting them could be tedious...Obviously, the tonic is 'doh' in the floating solfege, and recognising that is key. Pun intended.Without a reference point, as in a note or an instrument to help, it's not impossible, but improbable.

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    You can find plenty of examples where a melody hardly touches the tonic. For example, try the verse of "Putting On The Ritz". The first note is often not the tonic. The tonic is often (but not always) the last note. I'm sure an algorithm could find the tonic, but it would not be a simple algorithm.
    – slim
    Jul 14 '14 at 10:14
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    @slim - out of interest, just taken a load of random songs (100+) and it seems a ratio of 2-3, so yes, often isn't the right term ! Several fell into neither category, but we're agreed on the last note.What's less than often and more than sometimes ?
    – Tim
    Jul 14 '14 at 12:55
  • Hey Slim, I tend to agree with you. That's an algorithm I'm currently working on...the only thing is that you'll need to know some basic musical theory (key signatures, identifying a key from a collection of notes, learning how to ignore notes that don't belong to the key). I think it can be broken down so that it works with at least 80% of songs out there.
    – 02fentym
    Jul 14 '14 at 16:48
  • You don't need perfect pitch to hear where the tonic is. It can let you NAME it straight away, without reference to an instrument, though. Dec 10 '16 at 0:46
  • @LaurencePayne - the OP asked about 'identifying the key of a song by ear'. It is a little nebulous. Identifying which pitch in a song is representative of the key should be easy, any decent muso ought to be able to recognise that. However, to then say what the actual name of the key is requires absolute pitch, which may or may not be referenced to the question.
    – Tim
    Dec 10 '16 at 7:29

I always tell people to run up and down a single string until they hear the note the song would want to end on, then try major and minor chords rooted on it, if not already obvious whether it's major or minor.


There is website called " theta music training" there are plenty of different music ear training games.

There is a specific game called " Tonic Finder " It is a game to help your ear to recognize the key or tonic. there are several levels... the first 3 are free... then you have to pay a subscription fee to unlock the higher levels...


I think a personal constant hearing of the solfa been played on audio or your instrument will help with being familiarized for future ear recognition and identification.

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