I am trying to write a guitar accompaniment to the piece "Fair and Tender Ladies", but I have no clue what I need to do to figure out what key that piece is in.

Also, the instrument playing the piece is in the Key of D. Does that mean the piece is automatically in the Key of D? How does that whole thing work?

8 Answers 8


Regarding the key of a song, that can be a challenge when only viewing part of the melody or a bit of a song as in your example "Fair and Tender Ladies". If you can listen to a recording of the song in its entirety, it helps to get a better feel for the tonality as a whole, especially if you can write the chords and melody out. From there you can begin to identify the indicators of the key. Chris Lercher and Silver Light make good points of recommending the Last and First chords of the song, as does Jim Womack with looking for the most prominent chord. Unfortunately there's not one single variable to use to determine the key. A number of factors and indicators have to be taken into account and even in the end, two well trained and experienced musicians may differ on the final answer.

There's a nice video of the Carter Family performing the slightly different version on CMT http://www.cmt.com/videos/?artist=504715. It's in 4/4 instead of 3/4 and the melody is a little different, although it's close enough to know it’s the same song. The melody appears to be up a 4th from the manuscript you provided and the chords they're playing to accompany the melody are C, G, and Dm. C is both the first chord of each section (version, chorus) and the most prominent chord throughout. It also 'feels' to me to be in C, which is completely subjective, but one of the factors I use.

To compare apples-to-apples, we next need to transpose the chords down a 4th from what the Carter Family did, since their melody was up a 4th, so we can apply them to the melody you provided. The chords down a 4th would be G, D, Am. That would make G the first chord of each section and most prominent. Since the key signature has no sharps or flats, however, the key would be G Mixolydian (G-G in the key of C). Mixolydian, which is also Major/Ionian with a flatted 7th, is very common in folk music from the British Isles and subsequently the Appalachian Mountains and Southern US.

To your question about the instrument being in D - Many standard instruments are in different keys like the Alto Sax (Eb), Tenor Sax (Bb), Trumpet (Bb), Clarinet (Bb), and various recorders. There can be as many keys of each instrument as there are keys in western music: 12. Even though an instrument is in a different key, it can still play in all 12 keys, unless it’s a diatonic only instrument like some dulcimers. Instruments in different keys are much like cities in different time zones. People in each city can be a part of the same event around the world at the same moment, but for each of them it's a different time on the clock. Concert C could be considered GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

So how do you figure out what key something is in that's written for one of these instruments in a different key? First determine the key of the instrument and what that key's relationship is to C. If the instrument is in D, then when a person plays what she/he considers a C to be on the instrument, it will sound the same as D on a guitar. If the instrument is in Eb, then when a person plays what she/he considers a C to be on the instrument, it will sound the same as Eb on the guitar. In order for different keyed instruments to play together, the music manuscript is transposed appropriately. For the instrument in D, the part is written down a whole step, so the first note G on the manuscript is actually a concert A. For the instrument in Eb, the part would be written down a minor 3rd, distance between C and Eb, so the first note G on the manuscript would be a concert Bb.

If I understand your question correctly, the instrument playing with you is in D and reading the manuscript you provided. Take the three chords G, D, Am, and transpose them up one whole step to A, E, Bm, and consider it A Mixolydian.

All that being said, when it comes down to it, it's what sounds good for what you're trying to do. There are many possibilities of chord combinations to play under that melody. I would recommend trying different ones and see what you like.

Good Luck!!!


The primary method we learnt at school, was to look at the last chord of a song. The reason is, that any tension in the music will "ask" for a resolution, which is then naturally granted at the end of a part or a song.

Alright, sometimes it's not - some songs intentionally add a disharmonic chord at the end, but you can usually feel this, and it's relatively easy to tell by a little bit of experimenting, which chord would provide the most natural resolution. You also don't necessarily have to play a song until the end (which wouldn't help you anyway, if the key changes during the song). Just play the first few bars, and then try to bring the song to an end as quickly as possible - if you find, that there's just one chord which can end the song perfectly, then this is your key.

  • 1
    This is a good rule of thumb. :-) Worth noting however that it can fail a lot of the time, and there are other (more complex) rules that are rather more reliable.
    – Noldorin
    Commented May 28, 2011 at 23:13

Take all of the notes used in the chords of a progression and find what key they fit into. If it's all natural notes and the most prominent chord is Dm than it'd be D Dorian.


I don't have an academic, theoretical approach. I sit down with my axe, play along with the tune and hit notes. Depending on the style, there are common most-used keys. C is big. So is E, especially (and obviously) in guitar music. So play note series from those key scales. If it fits, you have a shared set of chords to work with. Start with that. Then you'll find a match that you can apply basic theory to by finding related chords. Likewise, if you have a I, the odds are good you'll hit a V or II up in there.

I've learned some fairly advanced songs this way. Song structure is largely universal. Once you've learned one song, you've probably just learned 20 others. At least.


In most cases, you need to figure out the what the first chord of the song is. If it's C, then, most likely, the whole song will be in C. If it's Bm, then the key is Bm. This is not always true, some songs even change keys multiple times, but 95% of the popular music falls down to this.

Other common situation, is when song starts on different note of the scale. In this case, if you are not sure, look at the very last note (or chord) played. Usually, it's when everything "goes home", to the root note of the scale.

Also, the instrument playing the piece is in the Key of D. Does that mean the piece is automatically in the Key of D?

Yes, in the most cases, all the instruments are in one key and in the peace you gave link to - it's last, resolving, note is D, so, it's possible to suggest that the song is in D.

  • the lack of F's (F nat/#) and the presence of C nat, makes it seem more D dorian[?] than a D maj/min key.
    – brian
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 11:55

The techniques of looking at the starting and ending chords are a good starting point. Nothing is foolproof, however.

Once you think you've identified the root note, I find it helpful to play the scale from that note (while the music is playing in the background) and see if it sounds "right". I do a major first, and if that doesn't sound right, then a minor.

If either has sour notes, then you may have a mode on your hands. In that case, I just try different root notes for the major scale until I find what sounds right, then determine the number of notes away I am from what I think is the real root note. 6 notes up would be Aeolian (aka minor), for example.

I've only learned one song in 50 that turned out to be in a different mode, so I think it's rare in popular music ("Dirty Work" by Steely Dan is in Mixolydian, I believe).

You can easily google scales and modes if you need background on them.


To find the key of a song, you must find the tonic. In the key of C Major or C Minor, the tonic or '1' is C. The notes in a scale or key are like a family - they are all related, and they centre around the '1' or the tonic of the key. This is the tone that sounds most 'at home' - the one that fits better than any other note.

If you're new to this process, just start playing notes one-by-one over the song you want to learn, and observe how they sound. The tonic will sound like it fits just about anywhere in the song. When you have a candidate for the tonic, next play the tone a fifth above your candidate. The '5' is always the second most stable tone in any key. This tone will also sound like it fits in most parts of the song, though not as strongly as the tonic.

If your candidate tonic note and the note a fifth above it both sound fairly stable, next try the note a half-step below your candidate tonic. If your guess is correct, this note will be the '7'. In most parts of the song, the '7' should sound like it is 'pulling' toward the tonic. If you feel tension when you play the '7', then resolution or stability when you play your tonic guess a half-step up, there's a good chance that you have found the tonic.

Finally, if you can't tell whether the key is major or minor, try playing the tone a minor third up from the tonic ('b3') throughout the song and compare it with the sound of the tone that is a major third up from the tonic. In general, the tonic and b3 (minor third interval) will match with a minor key, while the tonic and 3 (major third interval) fits with a major key.

The above process may take a bit of work at first if you've never done it before, but eventually you will begin to recognize the sound of the tonic quickly without having to consciously go through all these steps. Spend some time practising with a mix of songs you like, just trying to find the key for each one. Let me know if you find one that's challenging!


As a supplement to all the other great answers here:

It's also worth noting that being able to spot a different tuning is very useful. For example a lot of the music I enjoy is a half-step down or better. While listening to the song I could follow any of these great suggestions to figure out what key it's in based on my standard tuned guitar, but I may be making life much more difficult on myself than I could be. Playing anything in Eb on a concert pitch guitar is quite annoying, so being able to hear that "half-step down" or alternate tuning can save you a lot of difficulty in learning the piece. Some pieces are impossible to replicate unless you hear the difference in voicing supplied by an alternate tuning--songs in DADGAD are a good example. Without a cut capo it's nearly impossible to replicate DADGAD on standard tuning--so your quest to learn any song in this tuning would be futile and frustrating if you didn't notice the key differences between the voicing of DADGAD and standard tuning right off.

In order to learn how to spot different tunings I have listened to enough music such that I have the voicing of many chords memorized--such that when I hear a player strum a chord I can make a very educated guess as to what he's playing regardless of tuning. I can spot DADGAD, drop D, or drop C, and many standard chords (E, Asus, G, etc ad nauseum) on a dime, even if the player is a half-step down. How? By listening to the nuances of the instrument and simply memorizing the voicing of each tuning or chord. So, don't just play: listen.

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