So this has been bothering me for some time now; I've been making beats for maybe 7-8 years now but my earlier work is heavily-sampled. I just started actually picking up piano, but on my own, learning from Youtube tutorials and different websites with info on chords , scales , reading music and all that stuff.

I believe I've come to understand a lot of useful information and it has really helped and also re-shaped the way I listen to music now. I've always gravitated more towards jazz and synthy mellow lounge dreamy type stuff (lonnie liston smith , stereolab , roy ayers , toro y moi , stevie wonder) , music with lots of 7th chords .

This is where I become confused. From what (I think) I understand , a major scale is made up of 8 notes right ? And with those notes I can form chords and play within that designated key , and it's obvious to me playing sharps/flats over a song in the key of C major doesn't sound very pleasant .

It seems to me most of this music that I listen to jumps from this key to that key to another key then back to that key without any problem and just complete disregard for playing these 8 notes assigned .

for example:

listen to the first 8 bars

It's in the key of D major for 3 bars , then it drops 2 semitones to the key of C Major for 2 bars , then its back in D major for 2 bars then it climbs 3 semitones to the key of F Major for the last 1 bar before it loops again .

  • D,E,F#,G,A,B,C#,D
  • C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C
  • F,G,A,A#,C,D,E,F

three different keys in 8 bars , all changed abruptly

I hear it in house music all the time .

How does this work ? There must be some formula, right ? Because in my opinion it sounds really nice , when in actuality it could sound terrible if not done properly , which makes me believe there is a science to it . Is there a name for it ? what is the relation between these keys that make it possible to do this , and how would i know which ones work and which don't ?

  • 1
    Intro chords are Bm6, Fmaj7/A, D7/A, Bbmaj7. This and "Baby Lulu" I would argue to be Stereolab's greatest harmonic achievements. They show that the key can shift continuously; there are no solid boundaries, but look how long Tim Gayne (sp?) worked to get to this point. I would've never seen this coming from the early albums. The last few minutes of this song is particularly amazing.
    – Steve Clay
    Feb 28, 2015 at 13:01

3 Answers 3


First of all, it's not changing key, it's just using chords not strictly in the key. You're allowed to deviate from the 7 notes that are strictly in key, only extremely boring music doesn't.

Second, your chords are a little off. The first one is B minor, not D major. The second is A minor, not C major. It's a little noisy so it's hard to hear, but there's certainly not an F major. I think there's an F# diminished though, which shares some notes.

(Third, and just a technicality, but F major has a Bb, not an A#)

This is all solidly in B minor with some borrowed notes. There are some fairly standard ways to borrow notes outside of the key (the simplest is with a secondary dominant), but there's also a lot of great music that does wild things that are difficult to classify. If it sounds good it sounds good.

  • thanks for answering !! im a bit confused though so sorry if i come off dumb , im still a rookie . isn't B minor the relative key to D major ? and the same with A minor/C major ? to elaborate more on what i meant by "key" in my question , i came to my conclusion using the whole step/whole step/half step/whole step/whole step/whole step/half step" formula , by playing what sounded to me like the correct notes for each time the chords seemed to switch , for the first 3 bars all the notes in the D major scale sounded good , and so on . . Feb 27, 2015 at 21:15
  • you say its all solidly in B minor , but i couldn't play all the B minor notes without some sounding off at some point . why is that ? Feb 27, 2015 at 21:17
  • Yes, B minor and D major are relative, but they function differently. In particular, the first chord is a B minor chord (B D F#), not a D major chord (D, F#, A). And yeah, not every note from the B minor scale will work with every chord (in particular B minor's C# will clash with the A minor (A, C, E) chord), but that's true no matter what.
    – MattPutnam
    Feb 27, 2015 at 21:24
  • @shakirgivens There surely are no "dumb" questions. Yours is a good one. Matt makes a good point that these keys are relative, but they revolve around the tonic (first note). So while D and Bm have the same notes, they either sound more like B is home, or D is home.
    – Mark
    Feb 27, 2015 at 22:00
  • 1
    @MattPutnam is it maybe going a little far to say that only boring music doesn't go outside the 7 notes? I think there are some beautiful pieces that are purely diatonic major pieces, just as there are other good'uns that are strictly within other modes. Feb 28, 2015 at 13:26
  • Some music stays in a key. It really only uses the 7 notes diatonic to that key.
  • Some music stays in a key for a while, but then modulates to another key. Then it might modulate to another one (that would be literally multiple key changes).
  • Some music has a clear root note (tonic), but uses notes and chords outside of a seven-note scale built on the tonic without really establishing a movement to a different key.
  • (and there's more)

There is a tendency in beginners' music theory books to focus a lot on the first two types of harmony, and to focus on major and minor tonalities. However, there are styles of music for which the third type is the most common, including a lot of pop and rock songs.

In other words : A lot of music isn't really within the bounds of a key, in the sense that you might understand 'key' from reading a beginners' theory book.

So does that mean that the whole idea of keys is wrong? Not at all. As you noticed, if you play a chord progression that's really and truly in C major, using the chords according to diatonic functions, then you may struggle to work the black notes in unless you are setting up a modulation.

Music is like life. (how cheesy is that... but stay with me) There are many situations we can be in (at a funeral, in an amorous encounter, in the office, in the bathroom) and many things we can do (show a powerpoint presentation, recite poetry, urinate, remove your clothes). You can do anything in any situation, but it's not necessarily going to work out for the best.

My advice would be not to take anything you read about theory too seriously until you've read quite a lot. At a minimum, learn about scales and functional harmony, modulation (seems you have learned some of that already), blues scales, modes, borrowed chords, and especially extended and altered chords as found in jazz, and jazz substitutions.

Once you've done that, you'll be in a position to have a listen to a piece of music and see what kind of situation you're in, and what rules may and may not be good to follow.


You asked:

A major scale is made up of 8 notes right?

Really it's just seven notes, unless you add the repeat of the tonic (first pitch) at the end, at an octave higher.

And its obvious to me playing sharps/flats over a song in the key of C major doesn't sound very pleasant.

You'll soon learn that playing outside of the key can sound quite amazing! Just take a look at some of your favorite songs by Stevie Wonder - I can't think of any of his songs that stick to only diatonic chords and pitches (diatonic means involving only notes proper to the prevailing key). The Beatles have tons of songs with fascinating chord substitutions (such as Blackbird and Something).

I truly think you would benefit from a music theory textbook, as opposed to bits and pieces from the web. While it's likely that the tutorials you've found are very correct in what they teach, a textbook will give you a flowing connection from the first topic to the next (assuming it's a good book!).

Playing outside of the key becomes a somewhat advanced topic in music theory also, which is particularly why a textbook will benefit you. It's a cumulative quality of learning that will eventually get you to where you need to be. Eventually you'll get to a chapter or section that deals with closely related keys, and at that point you'll really start to understand some amazing things.

I purposely skipped your video, as it gets to be a little bit off-topic for this website, but if you have any more questions, please add them to the comments and I'll be happy to edit/answer for you.

  • We seem to be teaching music theory in a way that gives students the impression that using notes and chords "outside the key" is unusual. It isn't. It's absolutely routine.
    – Laurence
    Jul 17, 2016 at 11:10
  • @LaurencePayne It is not "absolutely" routine. In fact it is relatively uncommon. most pop songs are diatonic and stick to a single scale. Songs that do use "alterations" usually do so by borrowing, tonicizations, modulations or key changes. None of that is outside playing. Getting outside the key tends to result more bizarre sounds but playing outside the diatonic scale can sound perfectly natural. The problem comes from teaching that diatonic = key. That is, a key consists of only 7 notes and 7 chords. In fact, a key consists of an infinite number of notes and an infinite number chords.
    – user2691
    Oct 3, 2016 at 0:49
  • The reason why it is taught this way is, because once one has masted the diatonic system then they can easily build very large progressions in different "keys"... one just then has to master modulations. From there, one can learn about borrowing chords and substitutions, etc. My guess is that most "students" tend to quit after they learn the basics(the diatonic foundation) and never go on to learn how to expand that... then they get confused, etc. You can't obviously say "You have an infinite number of notes available, go make music!" but that is actually what is being "taught"(The goal).
    – user2691
    Oct 3, 2016 at 0:53

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