#1
Hi,

I am having trouble with a song I'm writing. I have a chord progression I dig, but I don't know what I can add to it to make an interesting song. I figured if I knew the Key the progression was in, I would know what notes I have at my disposal. The problem is I don't know how to work out what key I'm in. The chords I'm using are: Am, Em and... whatever this is:

|-0-|
|-1-|
|-2-|
|-3-|
|-3-|
|-x-|

Some sort of C I think, that chord is the tonic.

Thanks in advance.
Pestilent winds
Rotting earth
Fire streaks the skies
Slow decay
Putrid stench
The Light chokes and dies
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
...In vacuo...
#2
That looks like Fmaj7/C, as in, an F major chord with a 7th on top (open E), and a C in the bass (the 3rd fret, A string).

Off the top of my head, that looks like it'd be in the key of A minor; the Am is the i, Em is the v, and the Fmaj7/C is a VI. So the chord progression would be i - v - VI.

Don't take that for certain, that's just my best crack at it. Hope that helps a bit!

Edit: I got to that answer by knowing how to build chords, and from some basic functional harmony stuff. They're two good areas to read up on if you're struggling with this stuff
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Last edited by HeretiK538 at Aug 1, 2013,
#3
You're absolutely right about the chord. TECHNICALLY it's not in "true" A minor, it's in C major, it just starts on the vi chord. In C major it would look like this:

vi iii IVmaj7

If you want to stay in the key, these are the following notes you have at your disposal:

C D E F G A B

These are the chords:

C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished
#4
Quote by Tim-Blink182
You're absolutely right about the chord. TECHNICALLY it's not in "true" A minor, it's in C major, it just starts on the vi chord. In C major it would look like this:

vi iii IVmaj7

I was kind of thinking that, but vi - iii - IVmaj7 seemed a bit weird to me, so I assumed it'd be in Am rather than C. I guess both work, but I'll go with what you said, you can justify it better than me. Cheers!
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#5
Quote by Tim-Blink182
You're absolutely right about the chord. TECHNICALLY it's not in "true" A minor, it's in C major, it just starts on the vi chord. In C major it would look like this:

vi iii IVmaj7

If you want to stay in the key, these are the following notes you have at your disposal:

C D E F G A B

These are the chords:

C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished


What is "true" A minor?
#6
Quote by Tim-Blink182
You're absolutely right about the chord. TECHNICALLY it's not in "true" A minor


What makes you say that?

Listen to the progression. It resolves clearly to Am. Therefore, the key is Am.

If you want to stay in the key, these are the following notes you have at your disposal:

C D E F G A B

These are the chords:

C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished


Or, you know, B major (V/V), E major (major V), D major (borrowed from parallel major), Bm (ditto) ... etc etc etc.

You always have access to all 12 notes, and there are lots of very common chords which are not diatonic and which don't mean you're moving out of your key.
#7
Quote by HotspurJr
What makes you say that?

Listen to the progression. It resolves clearly to Am. Therefore, the key is Am.


Or, you know, B major (V/V), E major (major V), D major (borrowed from parallel major), Bm (ditto) ... etc etc etc.

You always have access to all 12 notes, and there are lots of very common chords which are not diatonic and which don't mean you're moving out of your key.

This.

TS, why do you need to know the notes you "can" use? Are you trying to write a melody? If so, just try singing something over the chords and finding the notes on your fretboard. But if you are looking for how to continue the song, just trust your ears. Maybe you want to repeat that chord progression? What's next? Try to listen. You can even do a key change if you want. It will sound good if it flows. The main thing in songwriting is to make the song flow.

And yeah, the key is A minor. Why it's not in C major? There are no C major chords, it doesn't even resolve to C major.
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#8
Hey thanks for all the replies. I think I might have made a mistake in my OP which might explain the confusion here. I wrote it like the progression goes Am, Em, Fmaj7/C but I was actually just listing the chords. The progression goes Fmaj7/C, Am, Fmaj7/C, Am, Em. It resolves to the Fmaj7/C chord.

I don't know if that will clarify anything for you all. I don't know any theory myself, I should, but I keep putting it off.

Quote by MaggaraMarine
This.

TS, why do you need to know the notes you "can" use? Are you trying to write a melody? If so, just try singing something over the chords and finding the notes on your fretboard. But if you are looking for how to continue the song, just trust your ears. Maybe you want to repeat that chord progression? What's next? Try to listen. You can even do a key change if you want. It will sound good if it flows. The main thing in songwriting is to make the song flow.

And yeah, the key is A minor. Why it's not in C major? There are no C major chords, it doesn't even resolve to C major.


I only want to know what chords I "can" use as a guideline so I have a general idea what I can work with, rather than my usual hail mary approach all over the fret board, which is not a productive way to write. I'm trying to write more riffs that flow nicely with the chord progression I already have. I don't tend to write a vocal melody until after I have all the guitar parts written.
Pestilent winds
Rotting earth
Fire streaks the skies
Slow decay
Putrid stench
The Light chokes and dies
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
...In vacuo...
#9
Quote by Abomination94
Hey thanks for all the replies. I think I might have made a mistake in my OP which might explain the confusion here. I wrote it like the progression goes Am, Em, Fmaj7/C but I was actually just listing the chords. The progression goes Fmaj7/C, Am, Fmaj7/C, Am, Em. It resolves to the Fmaj7/C chord.

I don't know if that will clarify anything for you all. I don't know any theory myself, I should, but I keep putting it off.


It still sounds like it wants to resolve to the A minor, thus, it would be in the key of A minor.

I only want to know what chords I "can" use as a guideline so I have a general idea what I can work with, rather than my usual hail mary approach all over the fret board, which is not a productive way to write. I'm trying to write more riffs that flow nicely with the chord progression I already have. I don't tend to write a vocal melody until after I have all the guitar parts written.


The key of A minor has these notes: A B C D E F G and the chords are: Am Bdim C Dm Em F G

Is that what you were wanting?
#10
Yeah, I guess it is. Thanks guys. I was confused because I thought the key was determined by the tonic and when I play this progression I think it sounds like it wants to resolve at the Fmaj7/C.
Pestilent winds
Rotting earth
Fire streaks the skies
Slow decay
Putrid stench
The Light chokes and dies
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
Ave finis!
...In vacuo...
#11
Quote by Abomination94
Yeah, I guess it is. Thanks guys. I was confused because I thought the key was determined by the tonic and when I play this progression I think it sounds like it wants to resolve at the Fmaj7/C.

The key IS determined by the tonic. But, in this case, the tonic is not Fmaj7/C. In this case, it is Aminor. Play your progression. Where it does sound like it's home (read: what chord does it resolve to)? When you play Aminor. Therefore, Aminor is the tonic, and the key is Aminor. Understand?

Edit:
I played the chords in the order you specified, just to doublecheck. Aminor is most definitely the tonic and where the progression resolves to. If you end the progression Fmaj7/C or Eminor, it still sounds like it's unresolved and wants to go somewhere. The microsecond you pluck Aminor, it sounds as if it likes to be on that chord, if that makes any sense. As I said, the key is Aminor, and the tonic is Aminor.
Last edited by crazysam23_Atax at Aug 1, 2013,
#12
Quote by Abomination94
Hey thanks for all the replies. I think I might have made a mistake in my OP which might explain the confusion here. I wrote it like the progression goes Am, Em, Fmaj7/C but I was actually just listing the chords. The progression goes Fmaj7/C, Am, Fmaj7/C, Am, Em. It resolves to the Fmaj7/C chord.


I still hear it as mostly resolving to Am, although it's not as strong. There's a little ambiguity in there, and I think you could get a resolution to F with emphasis and/or a melody line that really really wanted to push to F ... but Am is a little more natural.



I only want to know what chords I "can" use as a guideline so I have a general idea what I can work with, rather than my usual hail mary approach all over the fret board, which is not a productive way to write. I'm trying to write more riffs that flow nicely with the chord progression I already have. I don't tend to write a vocal melody until after I have all the guitar parts written.


Well, here's the secret:

You don't write music but picking one of the many available chords, and seeing how it sounds. There are too many possibilities, and the music never seems to come out well with this approach.

Instead what you want to do is to listen to the silence, and try to figure out what sound you WANT to hear. Then you look for it on the fretboard. So you're not "hail marying" - you're looking for a specific sound. The trick is to do your best to identify that sound BEFORE you start looking for it. The better your ear is, the more complex things you'll be able to "want to hear next" and the better you'll get at finding them on the fretboard quickly.

But THINK, then PLAY. It leads to much, much better music.

Do you have to study theory? I think it helps - but let me explain why. Theory - at least for those of us who play contemporary poplar music (rock, folk, pop, metal, etc) is NOT an end to itself. Rather, it is a tool which helps you learn concepts.

The idea is that by studying the concepts - learning them in abstract, and listening to them in practice - what you do is you put them in your ear ... so that now they become things that you'll "want to hear" when you're composing. I may study, for example, a ii-V-I (a theoretical concept to define key) ... what happens once I "get it" and can hear it in practice is that my ear, automatically, sometimes decides that's what it wants to hear when I'm composing a song.

Sometimes, sure, I'm stuck, and I fall back on theory. But for the most part, the good stuff comes from my brain first. And studying theory (as well as its practical application!) is how you get it in there.
#13
Quote by HotspurJr
I still hear it as mostly resolving to Am, although it's not as strong. There's a little ambiguity in there, and I think you could get a resolution to F with emphasis and/or a melody line that really really wanted to push to F ... but Am is a little more natural.

I think the ambiguity mostly comes from the fact that Fmajor shares many notes with Aminor. (Fmajor's key signature is: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E; while Aminor's key signature is: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.) But without emphasis or a strong F melody line, the default resolution will remain at Aminor. Right now, unless TS is emphasizing it in a way he hasn't shared with us, I'd still call the key Aminor and say the tonic was Aminor. Therefore, the progression would be VI, i, VI, i, V. Just my thoughts.
#14
Well, in this case I think it's not so much about the notes, as it is that both the maj7 extension and the C in the root destabilize the F a little. And even though we don't have a strong cadence because of the way the chords are order, the strongest movement still comes through the Em-Am change even though you've got that F chord in the middle.
#15
Yeah, it's the maj7 that makes it sound like it's in A minor. And usually the I chord doesn't have the fifth in bass unless the next chord is a V chord. I6/4-V is really common. It just doesn't sound resolved the way it is here. Also vii minor chord in a major key is pretty rare.
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#17
A tip til next time you are encountering something similar Abomination94, you can figure it out yourself by going through a few simple steps, starting with writing down the notes of the chords you are using like this (or doing it in your head of course):

Am = A C E
Em = E G B
Fmaj7/C = F A C E (even if you didn't know the chordname you can figure out which notes are in the chord, by counting using the open strings and going through the musical alpabet on the fretboard)

Then write down the different notes you have, which in this case is: A B C E F G

The next step is counting how many sharps and flats you have, in this case none which makes it either a C major or A minor scale.

But if you had a F# in there, you'd know it can't be C major (C D E F G A B C) or A minor (A B C D E F G A). And if you for example also had a C in there you also know it can't be a D major (D E F# G A B C# D) or B minor (B C# D E F# G A B) scale since they have the C#, and suddenly you can be sure that it's the step between which is G major (G A B C D E F# G) or E minor (E F# G A B C D E). Just like if you have a C# you can be sure it's not G major or E minor since that has the C. See where I'm going?

Hope it helped instead of confusing you!

//Robert
#18
Quote by Arzosah


Hope it helped instead of confusing you!


Unfortunately, it will confuse him the moment he starts studying even slightly more complicated music.

Or, heck, even simpler music: If the chords of a song are just G and C, what key is it in? Counting sharps won't tell you.

Or what about a song like The Face's "Stay with me" - which nobody would ever consider complicated ... but has the chords A, B, D, all major. B has a D# in it, and the D has a D. Can't find the key there by counting sharps.

Or Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." Chords are F, G, Bb, and C. The G has a B-natural and the Bb has, obviously a Bb.
Last edited by HotspurJr at Aug 10, 2013,
#19
Quote by Arzosah
Hope it helped instead of confusing you!

None of what you said takes into account non-diatonic chords. Yes, it works perfectly for diatonic chords. But the reason people always say that the tonic (and therefore the key) is what the song resolves to is because when dealing with chords, you're not always going to get strictly diatonic chords.
#20
Quote by crazysam23_Atax
None of what you said takes into account non-diatonic chords. Yes, it works perfectly for diatonic chords. But the reason people always say that the tonic (and therefore the key) is what the song resolves to is because when dealing with chords, you're not always going to get strictly diatonic chords.


You are correct, it does have its flaws when it comes to that, but it's a quick and easy way that helps you figure out the key 99 % of the time. And the rest 1 % of the times it still gives you something to start with, then you can figure out the rest/embellish depending on if you're transcribing or writing music yourself.

If you have an quick and easy way that takes non-diatonic chords into account I would love to hear it, I've never learned one so please share if you do (I'm being serious, not ironic)!

//Robert
#21
Quote by HotspurJr
Unfortunately, it will confuse him the moment he starts studying even slightly more complicated music.

Or, heck, even simpler music: If the chords of a song are just G and C, what key is it in? Counting sharps won't tell you.

Or what about a song like The Face's "Stay with me" - which nobody would ever consider complicated ... but has the chords A, B, D, all major. B has a D# in it, and the D has a D. Can't find the key there by counting sharps.

Or Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." Chords are F, G, Bb, and C. The G has a B-natural and the Bb has, obviously a Bb.


My answer to you is pretty much what I just answered the other guy, yes you are correct it has it flaws but it easy and quick, plus it gives you a starting point to work from. Was just trying to share an easy tip my own students think is useful in the beginning, but I see your point, in the end it's a matter of opinion which is good since this is a forum and it's good to discuss

Do you by any chance have any better tips to share on this subject as a starting point when trascribing/writing?
#22
Knowing how to spot cadences and resolutions will help you determine key when you're dealing with non-diatonic harmonies. In more modern music, watching root movement patterns is a good guide.

Consider a chord sequence: Gmaj7, Cmaj7, Bbmaj7, A7b5, D7#5#9. There's no question it's in G, but Trying to deduce a key signature from the notes in the chords alone is useless. Look at the root movement, and the obvious ii V I makes it clear what the key is.
Last edited by cdgraves at Aug 10, 2013,
#23
Quote by Arzosah
You are correct, it does have its flaws when it comes to that, but it's a quick and easy way that helps you figure out the key 99 % of the time. And the rest 1 % of the times it still gives you something to start with, then you can figure out the rest/embellish depending on if you're transcribing or writing music yourself.


It doesn't work anywhere close to 99% of the time - and that's the problem. Far more than 1% of songs use non-diatonic chords or have few enough chords as to be ambiguous from a accidental-counting perspective. (A song can have four chords and still be ambiguous, even leaving aside parallel majors/minors: what key is a song with C, G, Am and Em in?)

The examples I gave you aren't obscure songs, or songs that do unusual things. We're talking about the basics of late 20th century popular music here. The major II and the bVII are extremely common chords. the bIII, iv, and bVI are not what anyone would call rare.

If you have an quick and easy way that takes non-diatonic chords into account I would love to hear it, I've never learned one so please share if you do (I'm being serious, not ironic)!


Listen for the resolution.

It's really that simple, and it always works. Yes, sometimes the resolution is a little ambiguous. If you have a hard time hearing resolutions, start working with the functional ear trainer (a free download from miles.be).
#24
Quote by HotspurJr
It doesn't work anywhere close to 99% of the time - and that's the problem. Far more than 1% of songs use non-diatonic chords or have few enough chords as to be ambiguous from a accidental-counting perspective. (A song can have four chords and still be ambiguous, even leaving aside parallel majors/minors: what key is a song with C, G, Am and Em in?)

The examples I gave you aren't obscure songs, or songs that do unusual things. We're talking about the basics of late 20th century popular music here. The major II and the bVII are extremely common chords. the bIII, iv, and bVI are not what anyone would call rare.


Listen for the resolution.

It's really that simple, and it always works. Yes, sometimes the resolution is a little ambiguous. If you have a hard time hearing resolutions, start working with the functional ear trainer (a free download from miles.be).



You bring some very fair points, maybe 99 % is a stretch yes, but I still think it's a good starting point. Let's just agree to disagree we see things a little differently then, thanks for sharing!
#25
Quote by cdgraves
Knowing how to spot cadences and resolutions will help you determine key when you're dealing with non-diatonic harmonies. In more modern music, watching root movement patterns is a good guide.


You are absolutely correct about that!


Quote by cdgraves
Consider a chord sequence: Gmaj7, Cmaj7, Bbmaj7, A7b5, D7#5#9. There's no question it's in G, but Trying to deduce a key signature from the notes in the chords alone is useless. Look at the root movement, and the obvious ii V I makes it clear what the key is.


I didn't say from the notes alone, I said as a starting point, but lets agree to disagree about it being useless then
#26
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYBwa-Rzrgc

The key of the song?

It only uses chords A, G and D that form the D major scale but the song is in A, not D. You can just listen to it and hear the resolution. It's clearly A and not D. Many rock songs use bVII chord so just by looking at the chords and what scale they would fit doesn't work in that many cases. It really depends on the music style but if we talk about rock music, it really doesn't work. Rock has lots of bIII and bVII chords. Listen to almost any AC/DC song and it will have some of those chords.

Another example - using a major IV in a minor song (and that's also very common in rock and pop music). For example listen to "We Don't Need No Education" by Pink Floyd. The chords in the song are Dm and G and in the chorus also F and C. If you see what scale the chords fit in, it's C major or A minor. But the song is clearly in D minor if you just listen to it. Also almost every Santana song uses a i-IV progression (at least in his first album). So also in this case finding the scale doesn't work. Accidentals are used in so many songs.
Quote by AlanHB
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#27
I'll quote myself one last time, then I'm out of this discussion if nothing new comes up:

1. Yes 99 % was just a quick number I threw down and maybe it's a stretch, but still I stand by that my tips is fast and good for a very high percentage of songs (trying to figure out exact % is impossible of course), so I still think it's a good starting point, but I've read your points and respect that you don't.

2. When I transcribe I use this method in my head as a starting point in a matter off seconds after I've listened to the chords, and then I have something to go on, as a way of minimizing the possibilites. If it doesn't work for that specific song I'll start using the tips you guys have written etc. after that, and I've only wasted about 10 seconds with that first step which I can live with

Maybe you're misinterpreting my answers, I don't disagree with all these other methods and I'm not saying there aren't all these songs that you're talking about.
#28
Quote by Arzosah

Maybe you're misinterpreting my answers, I don't disagree with all these other methods and I'm not saying there aren't all these songs that you're talking about.


We're not misinterpreting anything. You're saying something that is frequently wrong or misleading. That's not "let's agree we have different approaches." You are offering a shortcut which will QUICKLY cause confusion when applied to a great number of songs.

And the funny thing is that it's not really a shortcut - because somebody who's worked on their ear can hear the resolution instantly. You don't have to stop and think and count accidentals to figure out which notes are in which chords.

"Resolution" is perhaps the single most important idea in functional harmony.

I didn't say from the notes alone, I said as a starting point, but lets agree to disagree about it being useless then


Actually, your original post never used the words "starting point."
#29
I wasn't addressing anybody in particular, it's just a common misunderstanding. It's pretty normal to see people here saying things like "Em Am Dm... key of C!".
#30
Quote by cdgraves
I wasn't addressing anybody in particular, it's just a common misunderstanding. It's pretty normal to see people here saying things like "Em Am Dm... key of C!".


Yes, you are right that it's not always a done deal, or my fauvorite: "first chord is a C, it must be in C major!" So we have concluded it doesn't always work, but let's agree we have different opinions on how common it is.


Quote by HotspurJr
Actually, your original post never used the words "starting point."


Maybe I wasn't clear about this in my original post, or about the exceptions when it doesn't work, but that's clear now right so thanks for discussing and giving me the possibility to clarify what I meant. About the rest you wrote, we still disagree however.