I am writing a song, and the progression for the verse is Fmaj7, Emin7, Fmaj7, Am, G and so on. The chorus is a cyclic Am - G - F. I've had one musician tell me it should be written as in F, as it opens on an F chord, however I've also been told it should be in Am, as the G chord uses a B natural (which wouldn't work in F) and the song ultimately ends on a C (Am is the relative minor). Which would you count it as?


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    "It starts with an F, so it must be in F" is a rule of thumb that is often wrong. The arguments for Am are more convincing, and if the song ends on a C, you could make a case for it being in C, not Am. – Your Uncle Bob Aug 22 at 2:43
  • A better thumb rule is the final chord as root key. Many songs begin ii-V7-I or with another degree. – Albrecht Hügli Aug 22 at 7:41
  • 'Home is where the key is!' – Tim Aug 22 at 10:41
  • The key can change, so home is moving. Add a cycle extension to every chord and make every chord a momentary key. Problem worsened. – ggcg Aug 22 at 11:20

What is the purpose of identifying the key? If you are writing it out and need a key signature, pick the one that matches the notes used most frequently. If you have mostly unaltered notes, and only a few accidentals here and there, use a key signature with no sharps or flats ("C"). If not, use one that matches the altered notes most used.

If you are not writing this out in notation, then it really doesn't matter what key it is labeled as. The player needs to know the chords, that's it.

Key can really get ambiguous, and often times it can move back and forth between different keys that are closely related. Music has long left traditional tonality and often follows non-standard chord progressions. In my opinion, it is useless to label something as a key other than to show which set of notes is most commonly used in the piece.

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    "The player needs to know the chords, that's it." Um, what about melody? OP is writing a song, and surely a sense of a tonal key center would expedite the process of developing a melody? Knowing a key center is one thing, but just knowing one's seven standard notes to play doesn't mean one will know how to write the melody. – user45266 Aug 22 at 3:47
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    Suppose OP were actually attempting to write in the key of F Lydian. With the method you propose, OP might be unable to clearly convey the tonal center of F, possibly making it sound like C major or A minor. – user45266 Aug 22 at 3:49
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    @user45266, the key signature does nothing to clearly convey the tonal center of a key. It only is there for a short cut, grouping all or most of the accidentals in one place. If the song was in F major, all/most of the Bs would be flatted. Much easier to put a Bb in a key signature than to write a flat before every B. The key signature will not distinguish between C major, A minor, F lydian or whatever. That is the job of the composer who makes the chord progression and melody convey the key. – Heather S. Aug 22 at 10:06
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    @HeatherS. - There are two popular camps for the notated key signature of modal pieces: the key signature that minimizes the number of accidentals used, and the key signature that conveys the tonic. For example, for a piece in E Phrygian, the two camps would use key signatures of no accidentals and one sharp, respectively. I'm a fan of the latter camp because I find that music with modal leanings often don't strictly stick to that mode (e.g. I once transcribed a piece with a C minor key signature and a C tonic that had both D flats and D's in the melody). – Dekkadeci Aug 22 at 10:26
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    @Tim, that will work only in songs that stick to one key or follow a standard chord progression. If the song is original and you just want the key, you are basically asking to make up your own progression instead of following what the composer chose. – Heather S. Aug 22 at 10:43

It is not true that the key of a song has to be the same as the starting (or ending) chord. This may be common in some styles of music, and may be a good starting point for teaching music theory and composition (since you have to start somewhere, and there are a lot of rules, and the rules are meant to be broken). At first glance I would also not be inclined to say it is in Amin since you don't have any chords from harmonic or melodic minor scales. If you had movement from E7, or any E chord to Amin that would really make it feel like Amin. If you understand poly-chords and chord substitutions you may see the Fmaj7 as a sub for Amin. In fact maj7 chords sound very minor, and min7 sound maj. This has to do with the intervals in the chords. A maj7 chord has the base triad (1, 3, 5) and with the 7th you have the minor triad on the 3rd (3, 5, 7). The Fmaj7 has Amin embedded in it, and strumming Fmaj7 - Emin7 - Fmaj7 definitely has the sound of an Amin progression. That being said, I would still feel more comfortable calling it a true Amin key if I saw an occurrence of G# somewhere. As it stands, I'd write it in the key of C as that seems to be consistent with the information provided. The fact that you don't have resolution to C (until the end) is somewhat irrelevant. When it comes to improvising one can let the chords provide aural information for choosing tonal centers. If you really want to follow the rules of thumb then take the fact that Amin is embedded in Fmaj7 as a way to justify calling it Amin, the Fmaj7 can be seen as an Amin(b6) inversion, or something like that. I would refrain from calling it Fmaj not only because the Bb is not there but you have no traditional movement from the V of F to the I (no C-->F movement). In some sense the Fmaj7 --> Emin7 --> Fmaj7 has the character of i --> v --> i in Amin. By the way the chorus looks like the solo part to Stairway to Heaven.

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