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For instance, if I play the middle C or any note before a song starts, I can instantly guess the key of the song(I think this is known as RP - relative pitch).

Another trick I've used is finding out the lowest note I can sing with my voice and use it as a "reference pitch" to guess the key of a song. However, sometimes I have soar throat etc. so this is not a reliable way to find the key.

So the question here is if I have no instrument around, how can I figure out the key of a song? Can you memorise a certain note(like the middle C) and go from there or how does one train to achieve such a thing?

  • Possible duplicate of: music.stackexchange.com/questions/1169/… - see the answers there. – tarun May 13 '15 at 14:05
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    I don't think this question is about developing perfect pitch (but the answers there are definitely useful). – Matthew Read May 13 '15 at 14:11
  • One possible cheat is if you can hear an air conditioner or other similar device: Electric devices usually hum at a consistent pitch within your electric grid (Which usually includes but can be more than the country you live in.) I attended a concert where the performer claimed that pitch is roughly Bb in the USA. – amalgamate Jun 8 '15 at 19:32
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Yes, you can absolutely memorize a pitch an use that as a reference. I only have a passable sense of relative pitch but I've been able to memorize A440.

Like anything else, memorizing a pitch requires practising and testing. When I started out I'd listen to a recording of an A440 sine wave, then grab my (out of tune) guitar and try to tune the A string to match, then check and adjust until it was in tune. Once I was able to get it tuned quickly, I started doing the opposite — tuning first, trying to imagine the pitch in my head, and then verifying against the recording or with a tuner. Once you're getting it perfect every time you can stop verifying all the time and make use of it!

  • How long did this take you? weeks, months, years? – lobi May 13 '15 at 15:39
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    @lobi Good question. I believe it was less than 2 months. – Matthew Read May 13 '15 at 18:08
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    Nice idea. I did it with the first note of a well known tune. If I don't keep doing it every few days, the skill tends to go off pitch, so keep checking!! – Tim May 14 '15 at 12:58
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    Matthew is right on here, just remember that just because he did it in 2 months, if it takes you longer don't stress on it, you will get it. If you play guitar try the low E or A first depending on whats easier to sing, – Jay Skyler May 18 '15 at 15:09
  • You can also relate it to your instrument instead of or in addition to a song: As a guitarist, there was a time when I knew E this way because of all the time spent tuning the guitar. I can attest that it does go away if you stop working on it. – amalgamate Jun 8 '15 at 19:35
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The way I do this is by choosing a note at the bottom of my vocal range as my reference point. It is a very recognizable place in my vocal range because if I try to go lower, the sound quality suffers dramatically. So you're going for the feeling and the timbre, not just recognition of the note.

If there's a string instrument in your vicinity, that could give you a clue as well. You can get it to resonate sympathetically with certain notes. That resonance is audible in a subtle way, and sometimes visible, too.

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    Doesn't your vocal range change a bit during the day or depending on your state of health? When I try to use the lower end of my voice as a reference pitch, I notice that in the morning my lowest note might be about a whole tone lower than later in the day. When I have a cold it's even more ... – Matt L. May 17 '15 at 13:19
  • Me too. And I just noticed that the OP noticed this too -- oops! - - - At any rate, the fact that there's a pattern, and the fact that most tunes aren't written in keys with tons of sharps or flats, can help. - - - I suppose one could carry around a little circular pitch pipe, if all else fails. – aparente001 May 17 '15 at 13:29
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No, without a pitch reference you can't tell. But there are many ways to find a pitch reference, including "perfect pitch".

And, once you have that reference, "guessing" doesn't come into it. You know for sure!

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My solution is to hum along to the song for a minute to get the feel (vibe), and then hum one a constant note which will most likely be the root or a perfect fifth above the root.

Then play each key on your instrument whilst humming until you find a match. Once the root is found the key will most likely be minor if its modern music.

If this fails and your song is digital run it through detection software Free software link

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