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If you don't have the music notation available, how can you determine what key a song is in by just listening? Must one have perfect pitch to do this or is there an easy way or a trick that can help you narrow it down.

The most difficult to figure out - are musical pieces that are played on guitar in alternate tunings which make it difficult to tell what chords are being played. Below is an example of a song that I can't find any visual and very few aural clues to help me.

Perhaps there are multiple ways to identify the key in the absence of a key signature or being able to tell from watching the musician - what chords or scales are being used in the piece. Please share any ideas that work for you. Hopefully one will work for me.

  • The easy way: buy the transcription from him. :-) The hard way: take courses in music theory and ear training and learn functional harmony. I do like this question, and I'd like to see some answers that approach my second option. There is a similar question here, but that's written from the perspective of a composer, so I do think this one has value on its own. – NReilingh Feb 25 '15 at 23:11
  • Well, the transcription usually wouldn't say the key of the song would it? Assuming it's guitar tablature of course, I mean, I KIND of know how to find a key if it's sheet music, but not really with tablature. I found some sheet music of that song online and assuming it's correct the key would either be D Major or b Minor. Which do you think it'd be? – GloatenFree Feb 25 '15 at 23:18
  • Standard notation (which he sells) does include a key signature, and it looks like you've found an accurate version (two sharps). So, all you've got to do is figure out if he's playing in a major or minor mode. Have a guess? – NReilingh Feb 25 '15 at 23:24
  • Well, I THINK it's in b minor, but I don't want to say for certain. How would I go about figuring that out? I mean sometimes even if a song sounds minor it's in a major key. – GloatenFree Feb 25 '15 at 23:32
  • You are correct! But any more should be contained in the longer answer that hopefully someone will provide. – NReilingh Feb 25 '15 at 23:46
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Unless you have perfect pitch, knowing the key of a song by ear is difficult. Even if you have good relative pitch, truly knowing the key without official transcription or your axe can be a bit of a guessing game.

Solo guitar music however, if tuned in standard EADGBE, can be a little easier to identify by ear if roots are played on open strings and you're use to hearing those open strings. The same could be said about open string harmonics, but I digress with irony as the piece in question is not in standard tuning.

I find it easiest to identify key signatures by using a piano. Not only is it easy to find roots and melody, but also for me it's easy to visualize harmony (I'm traditionally a string player...).

The piece in question is undoubtadly in b minor. Unless I'm mistaken it's a drop B tuning, and it begins and ends with those open string harmonics, not to mention the progression which centers around b - G, ultimately resolving back to b-.

Why not D Major? If it sounds minor, then it is minor. Minor keys sound sadder than their brighter major counterparts. Minor compositions are written with the same key sig as their relative majors e.g. a minor = c major, no flats/sharps. This piece would be written with two sharps (C# and F#). The C# is especially pretty as the nine / flat 5 repeated throughout.

  • Hey, thanks for that. I get it now, probably not easy to do without perfect pitch. – GloatenFree Feb 26 '15 at 14:25
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    I really don't think perfect pitch is a necessity at all. I personally don't have it, but from practice and education I am very able to identify a songs key, as well as what chords are being played, and where a song transposes. Very few musicians have true perfect pitch, but many can identify the key of a song. – Mark Feb 26 '15 at 19:15
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While I taught as a TA for a university-level ear training course (we called it Aural Skills), our professor showed us a trick for identifying do (also called the tonic, or key of the song, piece, or excerpt). The trick is to listen to the music, and if it isn't apparant what the key is, choose any pitch that you can hear, and sing downward, stepwise, pitch by pitch, until you come to a note that feels like "home," or a stopping point that feels like do.

Just use "la, la, la" or any syllable (the same each time) out loud to sing these pitches. Most of the time, this worked pretty well for our students, particularly for music that wasn't too complicated, or that didn't modulate very much.

See Aural Skills Acquisition: The Development of Listening, Reading, and Performing Skills in College-Level Musicians, by Gary Karpinski. This book is well worth buying if you're interested in how students learn ear training (aural skills).

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    Luckily the singing lessons at my school focused heavily on solfege so i always read the solfege first before learning any song . this helps me to instinctively pick the right "do" instantly most of the time (as long as the key doesn't change in the first three bars), even when i have no sheet music with me. – mey Feb 27 '15 at 7:25
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    I've tried this with songs on the car radio and it works. – PJNoes Jun 24 '15 at 19:55
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You don't need perfect pitch, but you will need a pitch reference. Use your ears to decide where the 'home' note is. Sing or hum it. Check it against any available instrument.

Be aware that 'what key is this song in?' may be a complicated question. It may start in one key, end in another. Even within one section there might be confusion between a major key and its relative minor - it can sometimes be hard to tell whether you're in D minor or F major (and there may be no 'right' answer). Or the song may use free harmony, with no defined tonal centre.

It's probably more important to know 'what chord is needed NOW?' than to worry about the overall key.

  • This answer is better than the others which don't address the fact that the tonality may not be clear. Analyze harmony first, then determine the tonality. – Michael Curtis Dec 20 '18 at 15:58
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At one point early in my guitar education I learned the major scales up the strings from the nut to the twelfth fret. Now when I play along with the stereo, I can quickly find the root note of the key by finding the half step interval between the seventh and the root on the first string of the guitar. When I first learned this method, I had to be careful not to confuse it with the half step interval between the third and fourth degree of the scale, but with practice I got so I could usually go right to the leading tone - root of the scale just using my ears and the first string on my guitar. It has enabled me to enjoy playing along with some of the best players I've ever heard, just by turning on the stereo!

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