6

When I search the key of a song on Google, I always get 2 keys which have a relative relationship. For example, when I search the key of the song Emotions by Mariah Carey, I get C major and A minor. Is it because it's hard to hear the difference? Also, when I look up a song which is in E minor, I also get results which tells me it is in G major.

8

If you're sure that a piece (or section of a piece) is using the C Major/A minor scale, then which it is* depends on what note you hear as the 'home' note.

In the case of the Mariah Carey piece, I personally can clearly hear the main chord pattern coming back to an 'A' root (and A minor chord), and there's no chord based on C in the main pattern, so I struggle to see how someone could hear 'C' as the root. (There are some other things going on harmonically elsewhere in the piece - I'm just talking about the main pattern). So I'm happy to call it A minor.

There might be other cases, though, where it's not so clear. You can point to many factors which indicate which out of the two possibilities is the home note - phrasing, which notes are on the strong beats, what other chords are used, types of cadences, etc... but ultimately they may not be decisive, and it can be a subjective thing as to how they're interpreted by the ear.

One thing that might often swing the balance would be the flexibility be in the 6ths and 7ths. If you start hearing F# or G#, that could be a clue to the use of A minor rather than C major.

Nevertheless, I think the answer to your question is.... 'usually'.

(*of course, a piece with no sharps and flats might be D dorian, if D sounds like home, or G Mixolydian if it comes back to G).

  • How do you know that a note is an A though and not a C? Do you have perfect pitch? Or did you use a piano to check or with developed relative pitch? – Stallmp May 5 '18 at 12:43
  • 1
    @Stallmp you may not know whether the note is an A or a C, but you can hear whether it is minor or major from the intervals alone. – leftaroundabout May 5 '18 at 12:44
  • @leftaroundabout That's interesting. How can you distinguish a C major piece from an A minor piece by using intervals? I thought topo morto just simply heard the A – Stallmp May 5 '18 at 12:46
  • 2
    @Stallmp as leftroundabout says, I could hear that the chord it was coming back to was minor-sounding, but I had to check on a guitar that it was 'A' as I don't have perfect pitch. – topo morto May 5 '18 at 12:47
  • 4
    @Stallmp Just from a fair number of years playing and transcribing songs I can usually at least tell a major from a minor chord 'instinctively'. (I'm not fantastic - if there are lots of fancy embellished chords and modulations, I get confused!). On this song (as with many others) listening on a system with a bit of bass helps as that will help you pick out the bassline, which will usually indicate the root of the chord. – topo morto May 5 '18 at 12:56
8

Relative keys share a scale: a song in C major generally uses mostly the C Ionian scale,

X:1
L:1/4
M:
K:C
%%score T1 T2 A B
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] C D E F G A B c d e f g a b c'

and a song in A minor will at least part-wise use the A Aeolian scale, aka natural minor scale.

X:1
L:1/4
M:
K:Am
%%score T1 T2 A B
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] A B c d e f g a

Both of these contain the exact same notes (at least on 12-edo instruments, but actually also in many other tuning systems). Thus, a naïve analysis based on “what notes are used in the piece” won't necessarily be able to distingiush between relative keys.

That doesn't mean one can't hear the difference though. Some pieces are really ambiguous, but many aren't. For instance, if a piece has the melody ending on C and never uses an Am harmony, it's pretty safe to say the piece is in C major.

X:1
T:Twinkle Twinkle
L:1/4
M:C
K:C
%%score T1 T2 A B
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] "C"C C G G | "F"A A "C"G2 | "F"F F "C"E E | "G"D D "C"C2 

If the melody ends in A, you have lots of A notes in the bass part, or the Aeolian scale is regularly left in favour of harmonic or melodic minor, then the piece is probably in Am.

X:1
T:Greensleeves
L:1/4
M:3/4
K:Am
%%score T1 T2 A B
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] A | "Am"c2 d | e3/2 ^f/2 e | "G"d2 B | G3/2 A/2 B | "Am"c3/2 B/2 A | "E"^G3/2 ^F/2 ^G | "Am"A3

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.