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I'm in the process of learning about keys. I'm looking at the song Cherub Rock by the Smashing Pumpkins. The tabs I see online say that the song is in the key of E major. The main riff of the verse consists of playing octaves on E, F#, G#, A and D while droning on the low open E string the whole time. So here I see the key is E. In the chorus, however, they play a chord progression from E D A C G. It seems like maybe the key has switched to C or something other than E. There is a solo that seems to be in E major toward the end.

How should I name this key? My knowledge is very limited so even the most basic pointers are welcome.

  • "The main riff of the verse consists of playing octaves on E, F#, G#, A and D while droning on the low open E string the whole time." If that's all I had to go on, my first guess would have been that it's in A. For one thing, D, E, F, G# over an E clearly outline an E dominant, and pedaling on the dominant is a common way to build tension. But after listening to the song, I completely agree that it's in E, mainly just because E sounds like the "rest tone" when you play it along with the song. So, it's not necessarily enough just to look at the set of notes, you need to listen. – Bruce Fields Jan 29 '16 at 1:03
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You can have chords outside the key and still be in the key. The song does not modulate (change key). The chords you see as outside of the key of E major can easily be viewed as borrowed from the parallel minor. This gives you the chords D, C, and G and these chords give you a slightly darker sound before going back to the main riff.

The song never looses it's tonal center of E even though some chords are not squarely in the key. So you can just say the song is in E major.

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    Thanks, Dom, that makes it more clear where he took those chords from. So to further clarify, how would one know whether the key is E major with chords borrowed from minor instead of e minor with chords borrowed from the parallel major? Would the scale of the solo and the riff trump that of the chorus in general? – grinch Nov 22 '15 at 18:32
  • @stevenpomerville you can typically tell by the progressions themselves and and whether the tonic chord is major or minor as that is a huge tell like in this case. There are exceptions though for example Unchained by Van Halen is in a minor key despite using a major tonic. – Dom Nov 26 '15 at 3:14
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The idea of a piece of music being in a key only works neatly when that music sticks to the set of seven notes implied by a particular key signature. As you've noticed, some music - quite a lot of music, in fact - doesn't fit this pattern, and wants to dip its toes in the water of the other 5 notes in the 12-tone scale (and beyond, in the case of blues-influenced music!)

What most people do here is see that the piece has a tonal centre of E, and a basically major tonality (G#, the major third, rather than G, the minor third, is in evidence for most of the piece), and as the piece doesn't clearly move to another key for any length of time, it would simply be notated in E Major, so that's what would be called the key...

But if you hear a clear change in tonal centre during the D A C G section, you are free to consider that the song modulates - sometimes it almost seems that some rock progressions are switching key with every chord change. If thinking in terms of borrowed chords is helpful and works for you as a way to not have to mentally change key, then use that.

Rock music is often a mixture of usages of major and minor keys, other modes, the blues scale (which is a bit different again), and sometimes is just about throwing a chord shape or two around the fretboard and making it work. Bear all those things in mind - rather than just thinking in terms of a piece being in one key - and it will hopefully start to make more sense.

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