Have you noticed that sometimes you can recognize a song just by listening to about 3-4 notes? We can transpose those 3-4 notes to a different key, and I bet you would still recognize it. Even if I played them with a different instrument you would still recognize it! Just so long as those notes are played in the right rhythm, it is recognizable.

Isn't this because there are 7 notes in a key The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th 7th (8th), and those 7 notes are proportional to some different key... if you get what I'm trying to say.

Wouldn't this mean that every key is the same thing? That every song ever made is just a different arrangement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th 7th (8th) (excluding jazz)

That is amazing, and it means that music has more to do with rhythm than notes.

Every key is the just the first, second, third, ect, in a higher/lower proportional tone? So this means all keys are "the same"?

  • 1
    I think there are 12 notes in a key, and the arrangement of them changes color of sound. Rhythm is very important and often overlooked, because it is the other half of playing. For song recognition that is just because we humans tend to pick up on melody quite quick. The melody of a tune sticks and understanding melody in song creation is quite powerful.
    – blusician
    Jul 6, 2017 at 21:32
  • The Well-Tempered Clavier by some minor baroque composer might well be worth researching (and listening to).
    – thrig
    Jul 6, 2017 at 22:53
  • The rhythm does not need to be identical, variations on a theme probably all have different rhythms but you can still recognise the melody it was built on
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 7, 2017 at 6:51
  • @NeilMeyer - funnily enough, it's something I do to show students how important the rhythmic pattern of a song is. I play all the right notes, in the right order, but change the note values,and chances are they don't recognise what the tune is - because, simply, it's not the same tune as original...
    – Tim
    Jul 7, 2017 at 16:44
  • Also check out the Parsons code classification of melodies according to their contour. Starting with the first note, each successive note of the melody is either a Repeat of the previous note, or goes Up or Down. musipedia.org/pc.0.html?&L=0 Jul 9, 2017 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


Welcome to the world of 12 EDO, where all the notes have been subtly moved by just a little, to make any tune sound just as good in any key. A couple of hundred years ago, an instrument could be tuned to sound good in one key. But try to play a piece in a different key, and it would sound slightly out of tune.

That's when it was realised that by moving the pitches very slightly, the same tune would sound pretty good when transposed to any of the 12 keys. It's called equal temperament.


You are essentially correct, in that a song or melody played in a certain key can be transposed to any other any other key - that is, can be played starting on any note and still be recognizable - but here's the nub. When we talk about the key of a piece - for example, A major - we are talking about a collection of 7 notes (In this case, A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G#, or Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti). If you start in a different key - say, C Major - you would have a scale made of different tones (C,D,E,F,G,A,B); HOWEVER, they still occupy the same place in the key (Do, re, mi, etc.), and so it's easy (when you know your scales!) to transpose keys on the fly.

But in the western musical tradition, tempered instruments have 12 distinct tones! A major scale, like many common used scales, is merely a collection of tones. Most scales - for example, the major and minor scales - use 7 distinct notes just like the major scale. And while you might start a scale on the same note - in this case, A - the specific pattern of notes you pick determines the key. A major, as we have seen, is comprised of a whole step, another whole step, a half step, three whole steps, and a half step (the last half step is between G#, or ti, and A at the top, or Do):

A | A# | B | C | C# | D | D# | E | F | F# | G | G# | A


Alternatively, a minor scale has the pattern, whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole:

A | A# | B | C | C# | D | D# | E | F | F# | G | G# | A


Either of these scales can be transposed to different keys, and although the specific collection will change, the pattern of steps, and therefore the solfege (do, re, mi etc.) will not change. These patterns are called modes; the most common are major and minor. Although a scale or melody may start on the same note, it is not necessarily in the same key. Thus, the key is determined by two factors: the starting note (1st and 8th, or Do), which we call the tonic, and the mode, which have different names.

So what are the different modes? First think of a C major scale - no sharps or flats, all the white keys on a piano - C,D,E,F,G,A,B,(C). If we play the notes in this order starting on C it sounds like C major - we call this the Ionian, or major, mode. But what if we played the same collection of notes, but starting on a different note - like A for example? We get the Aeolian, or minor, scale. Starting on different notes will yield more exotic scales. (https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Music_Theory/Modes)

If you're interested in understand more about the nature of the scales, and music theory in general, i recommend studying the Circle of Fifths (for reading keys/music) as well as learning solfege, which helps immensely with audiating, the process of accurately expressing what you hear in your head. Once you can hear it, you can sing it, and if you can sing it, you can play it, and if you can play it, you can retire to a cottage in Florida at the age of sixty three for some quality time with the local beach bunnies.

  • You mean tonic sol-fa to be moveable doh. Solfege is fixed doh - always C and used certainly in France and other continental countries.
    – Tim
    Jul 7, 2017 at 6:50
  • And actually, trying to audiate in solfege is damned difficult compared with tonic sol-fa. I play with French musicians and they find it really easy, though.
    – Tim
    Jul 7, 2017 at 16:47
  • I was indeed referring to movable do; in the U.S. (and by extension American English) this is generally what is meant by solfege, although I admit I should be a bit more careful making assumptions about my audience!From the wiki page: There are two current schools of applying solfège: 1) fixed do, where the syllables are always tied to specific pitches (e.g. "do" is always "C-natural") and 2) movable do, where the syllables are assigned to scale degrees ("do" is always the first degree of the major scale). Jul 11, 2017 at 4:52
  • It's an interesting read about the two - similarities/differences/history. In my 'Oxford Companion to Music': two paragraphs are dedicated to 'solfege', while seven pages explain 'tonic sol-fa'. It would be interesting to try to explain one to someone who is used to the other! I've tried and bewilderment is the usual result. Also - have a read of your second para., one sentence is odd.
    – Tim
    Jul 11, 2017 at 6:25

It's not the notes which are used that matter. Rather, it's the intervals between the notes that help distinguish and identify a melody.

So instead of thinking of a melody as a series of notes; think of it as a series of intervals. This way it doesn't matter which note you start on. If the intervals are identical then the melody will be recognizable regardless of the key you're playing in.

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