So I'm listening to a song, and the pitches used are these:

C, D♭, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭

Seems like the key of A♭ major, right? Or perhaps F minor. (Indeed, the song seems to be in a minor key.)

But no, the tonic is clearly C. I mean, 85% of the chords are C minor. (The others are F minor, G minor and B♭ major.) And most of the melody lines start or end on C as well. And the baseline is mainly C. It seems clear that C is the tonic here.

So what's going on? This scale nearly matches the C minor scale, except shouldn't that be D♮, not D♭? Is that an accidental, or is this actually a different key? Clearly the G minor and A♭ major chords include D♮, not D♭. However, the melody unwaiveringly uses D♭. I'm not sure what's going on...

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    What's the last bass note? What's the song? The last chord/melody/bass note is often much more important than the most common of those elements in understanding the tonal center of a piece. – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '19 at 19:59
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    Sounds like you encountered a piece in C phrygian. C phrygian is like C minor except the second degree(so D in this case) is flattened(in this case to Db). If the piece ends with a C minor chord or the last note is C, then it is definitely C phrygian. – Caters Mar 13 '19 at 20:26
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    Agree with Todd Wilcox, this isn't enough information to answer the question. – user48353 Mar 13 '19 at 20:28
  • If 85% of the chords are Cm, and most of the bass notes are C, you might have a modal piece on your hands, in which case talk of keys may not be very relevant. – ex nihilo Mar 14 '19 at 1:07
  • Are you sure there are any B flat major chords in this piece and they aren't B flat minor chords instead? B flat major chords contain D natural, which is not in your "pitches used". – Dekkadeci Mar 14 '19 at 6:59

If C definitely feels like home, it's in some scale other than major or minor. I think that one's called Phrygian. It may or may not be useful to think of it as the third mode of Ab major.


Could be f minor:

If the bass steps down in seconds like this:

  1. F Eb Db C (1. line) this will be the phrygian cadence

  2. the same bass line fits to this tune in the 2. line: f g, ab bb c

  3. same bass and melody in thirds: c bb, as bb c

  4. C Db C C


F F Bb Bb

C C Fm Fm

(F = tonic, C = dominant)

I know half a dozen of songs with this chord pattern

but your information is really too incomplete!


I generally classify such pieces as "C minor with Phrygian implications". (This is from listening to them and knowing them only by ear.) If those notes in the OP are truly the only notes in the piece, then I eventually figure out that the piece is in C Phrygian.

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