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We have had a thread about starting a Music Theory Study Group. There were a couple of members who were interested, but this group never got started. One of the problems is, I think, who wants to start at the very beginning and discuss staff, grand staff, treble clef and bass clef, notes and ledger lines, note durations, rests, measures, dotted notes, ties and slurs? Probably nobody.

So instead, I just start somewhere and write some lines about a subject and if there are a couple of people who like this, I might start some more threads about a subject within music theory. And maybe others also start a thread about something within music theory that they are studying! That would be so nice. You are all of course, very welcome to comment critically, if you don't agree with anything that I have written, or if you would like to add something.

So here it comes, my first, and hopefully not my last, text. cool

Key identification

When looking at an excerpt of music, it can be good to know how to identify which key you are in. This is how to proceed.

* Check the accidentals, and identify the possible major or minor key.

* The note that most strongly defines the key you are in, is the leading note. It points towards the tonic note. See if you can find the leading note close to the tonic both of the major and the minor key. This process is done with harmonic and melodic versions of the minor key, because they have a raised leading tone. This raised leading tone close to the tonic is a strong indication that the excerpt is in a minor key and not in a major one. And of course, the absence of this raised leading tone indicates that the excerpt is in a major key.

* In melodic minor, the 6th and 7th tones are raised. Thus, any time you see two accidentals one tone away from each other, your excerpt could be in a melodic minor key. For instance, A minor melodic has f# and g#.

* If you are still unsure, you can check the possible tonic notes in the melody. The melody needs to centre on the tonic, and definitely end on the tonic.

* However, you can also get confused by an accidental in the excerpt that can act as a passing tone, which is a melodic embellishment (typically a non-chord tone) that occurs between two stable tones (typically chord tones), creating stepwise motion. The typical figure is chord tone – passing tone – chord tone, filling in a third, but two adjacent passing tones can also be used to fill in the space between two chord tones a fourth apart. A passing tone can be either accented or unaccented.


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You know, often the best way to figure out theory is to just use your ears. Musicians can hear the music in their head but if you can't then simply play it. It will be obvious if it's major or minor.

But it's a good start. Understanding the harmony also helps. Phrases often end on cadences of V or I and that's a give away of what key you're in (or whether the music has modulated to another key). For instance, if the phrase ends with the chords G7-D then you're definitely in D major regardless of what's the key signature or accidentals.

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Animisha - a good start and also a good idea.

I'm thinking that no topic may be "too simple". It is sometimes surprising what one doesn't know - or even what we thought we understood, but didn't.


Similar to yours:
First step would be the key signature. Next we need to determine whether it's major or minor - and what you said. We'll probably have V-I (or V-Im = V-i) chords, esp. at the cadences. As soon as it's minor you'll probably have accidentals at the 7th degree, and you can basically eyeball that ..... an accidental always at the same note. For C major vs. A minor; G#'s for the leading tone turning the Em chord into an E chord or E7. If you have no sharps or flats, your question will be "Is this C major, or A minor?" The music will probably end on the Tonic - usually on with the Tonic note in the melody, but not always.

Meanwhile music often modulates - a typical thing is an ABA structure where the first part is say in C major --- the middle is in G major (the Dominant key, 5 up) - ----- then back in C major. No key signature change, but suddenly you have pepperings of F# accidentals. Again you can look for cadences where the music seems to "complete" an idea, D7 to G. Knowing this pattern you might also predict that the music might go to the Tonic key. In Eb major you'd expect the music to modulate to Bb (the 5th degree) etc.

If we don't have this, music is a lot harder. Glad you brought this up.

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Originally Posted by Bart K
For instance, if the phrase ends with the chords G7-D then you're definitely in D major regardless of what's the key signature or accidentals.
I meant A7-D of course.

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For key identification ----- the general first step is to look at the key signature LINK (for score sheets that is)

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Originally Posted by Bart K
Understanding the harmony also helps. Phrases often end on cadences of V or I and that's a give away of what key you're in (or whether the music has modulated to another key). For instance, if the phrase ends with the chords G7-D then you're definitely in D major regardless of what's the key signature or accidentals.

Very nice, thank you! cool

Originally Posted by keystring
Similar to yours:
First step would be the key signature. Next we need to determine whether it's major or minor - and what you said. We'll probably have V-I (or V-Im = V-i) chords, esp. at the cadences. As soon as it's minor you'll probably have accidentals at the 7th degree, and you can basically eyeball that ..... an accidental always at the same note. For C major vs. A minor; G#'s for the leading tone turning the Em chord into an E chord or E7. If you have no sharps or flats, your question will be "Is this C major, or A minor?" The music will probably end on the Tonic - usually on with the Tonic note in the melody, but not always.

Meanwhile music often modulates - a typical thing is an ABA structure where the first part is say in C major --- the middle is in G major (the Dominant key, 5 up) - ----- then back in C major. No key signature change, but suddenly you have pepperings of F# accidentals. Again you can look for cadences where the music seems to "complete" an idea, D7 to G. Knowing this pattern you might also predict that the music might go to the Tonic key. In Eb major you'd expect the music to modulate to Bb (the 5th degree) etc.

Thank you Keystring! cool

Originally Posted by SouthPark
For key identification ----- the general first step is to look at the key signature LINK (for score sheets that is)

This is what I meant by:

Originally Posted by Animisha
* Check the accidentals, and identify the possible major or minor key

but I see that I could have written this much more clearly! smile

Thank you all three of you! I almost feel my understanding of this subject widening in my brain as I read your comments.


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Originally Posted by Animisha
This is what I meant by:

* Check the accidentals, and identify the possible major or minor key

Aha! I see. Thanks. I see what you mean now!

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I wonder how you determine the key of this A. Honegger's piece (from Le Cahier Romand -1923):

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Fans of jazz chords will hear something familiar, but the influence of Debussy is clearly felt.


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Originally Posted by Nahum
I wonder how you determine the key of this A. Honegger's piece (from [i]Le Cahier Romand -1923)

Nahum, this is WAY beyond my meagre understanding of how to determine the key!


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I'll add some comments though maybe a little too complicated.

I think the first thing is to determine the composer and the period of the piece. Depending when it was composed, the compositional techniques are different. For example Faure in his later works does not use anymore V-I in cadential mouvements. More modern pieces may be written with more than one tonal key or use chromatic notes for adding color which makes the identification of the key more complex. Sometimes there is no tonal key.

Also, it depends if you are looking at an entire piece, the beginning of it or a segment somewhere in the middle.

So if we are talking at the most simpliest case which is entire pieces written in classical tonal harmony, typically classical period like Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, the simpliest and fastest way to determine quickly (and reliably) the key is to look at:

1-The key signature: the number of flat/sharps gives you 2 possibilities, one in major and one in minor
2-The first 4 or so bars and the ending harmony will tell you if the piece is in major or minor.

What determines major or minor is not the leading note which is always a major seventh, but the tonic triad. Tonal pieces almost always start by using the tonic triad harmony, melodically and/or harmonically.

When you say the leading note is raised in minor, actually it is raised vs the key signature, but from a scale perspective the VII degree is always a major one, whether we are in major or minor.

When using melodic minor, the VII degree is only raised (vs key signature) when ascending.

Practically a piece is in minor or major. The melodic minor is just a melodic twist which makes ascending and descending sequences sound more natural (by avoiding the minor third between VI and VII). It has no impact on the mode of the piece.


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That was cool
Originally Posted by Nahum
I wonder how you determine the key of this A. Honegger's piece (from [i]Le Cahier Romand -1923):

Not sure. C harmonic minor?

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That's typically a case of modern piece which does not use the classical tonal harmony. Though the piece is clearly in B flat, it is difficult to say if it sounds more major or minor as it alternates both harmonies. We are borderline on atonal music, so the question is moot.

More interesting are pieces like this one which is still tonal though it is not so easy to determine what key it is in exactly.

But all these examples are far beyond the purpose of Animisha topic which is to give simple and practical guidelines to determine the key for tonal (simple) pieces which follow standard harmony.



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Originally Posted by Animisha
Originally Posted by SouthPark
For key identification ----- the general first step is to look at the key signature LINK (for score sheets that is)

This is what I meant by:

Originally Posted by Animisha
* Check the accidentals, and identify the possible major or minor key

but I see that I could have written this much more clearly! smile
Actually, no, you were right the first time. You should look at all the accidentals and not only the key signature.

Say a piece is written with no key signature (C major) but puts a sharp on every F and every C, then it's most likely in D major not in C major. The composer simply wrote out the accidentals instead of using a key signature.

Since you mentioned specifically an excerpt of music in your OP I think it's important to consider modulations. In the middle of a piece you might be in a totally different key than the key signature implies and have accidentals all over the place as in the example above.

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My student played this piece a week ago at the exam. To deal with it we sat a lot over structural analysis; thus, from a certain randomness of dissonant harmonies, the beauty of music gradually emerged. Just on the functions of chords, we practically did not work; only noted are the stable harmonic points, and the fact that part of the chords are created through the movement of constituent voices. There is polytonality and polymodality (typical for the French), fragments of the semitone-tone scale , especially at the end, stand out very much; that IMO defines the main modal key: Bb the second symmetrical scale according to Messiaen.

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Originally Posted by Bart K
Actually, no, you were right the first time. You should look at all the accidentals and not only the key signature.

That's correct. We look at all the details.

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Originally Posted by Bart K
Since you mentioned specifically an excerpt of music in your OP I think it's important to consider modulations. In the middle of a piece you might be in a totally different key than the key signature implies and have accidentals all over the place as in the example above.

Yes, an excerpt was what I meant! For the pieces at my level, finding the key of the whole piece usually is easy, because almost all the time, I check the last note of the piece, or the last chord, and voilà, there is the key. But modulations are not so easy, especially when they don't have a clear ending but modulate smoothly back to the original key.


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Originally Posted by Animisha
Originally Posted by Bart K
Since you mentioned specifically an excerpt of music in your OP I think it's important to consider modulations. In the middle of a piece you might be in a totally different key than the key signature implies and have accidentals all over the place as in the example above.

Yes, an excerpt was what I meant! For the pieces at my level, finding the key of the whole piece usually is easy, because almost all the time, I check the last note of the piece, or the last chord, and voilà, there is the key. But modulations are not so easy, especially when they don't have a clear ending but modulate smoothly back to the original key.
Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes the best way to figure it out is to use your ears. Right after you play the excerpt which note sounds like the tonic? You can figure this out by trial and error.

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Would someone be able to point me in the direction of the best theory learning app for mobile? I have an iPhone. Thanks! Sorry if I should request this elsewhere smile

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Originally Posted by ethanw
Would someone be able to point me in the direction of the best theory learning app for mobile? I have an iPhone. Thanks! Sorry if I should request this elsewhere smile
Not an app but this web site is very good and has a mobile interface: https://www.teoria.com/

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Originally Posted by Bart K
Originally Posted by ethanw
Would someone be able to point me in the direction of the best theory learning app for mobile? I have an iPhone. Thanks! Sorry if I should request this elsewhere smile
Not an app but this web site is very good and has a mobile interface: https://www.teoria.com/

Thank you!

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