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I’m not really one for music theory, but here’s an interesting discussion on Ask Metafilter about key. Particularly good is the post by chrismear that’s very in-depth and also has audio examples. I still don’t understand key but now I’m pretty sure I thoroughly don’t understand it.

Posted on - April 12, 2004 [at] 3:24 pm by Brad
Tagged in -

4 Comments on this post

habnem on Key
April 12, 2004 at 6:03 pm

Those people all made it too difficult. A “key” is just the root–that is, the key that you’re in–and all the notes in the scale you’re using. Therefore, if you’re in the key of C major, you will very seldom hear any notes other than CDEFGAB — no sharps or flats (any sheet music will also show you this). There are some exceptions, like modulations, but in any given song, they’re few.

(i just realized this is going to be longer than i thought. ah well, it’s all for educational purposes)

C major is also nice because, if you’re playing in it on a keyboard, any combination of three white keys spaced two apart is a chord. The chords that comprise the key of C major are: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished (B-D-F). In fact, that pattern (major-minor-minor-major-major-minor-diminished) is the same for any major key as you follow the scale: the key of G (one sharp at F) is G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor, F# diminished.

This is where Roman numerals come into play, and if you can count (and write Roman numerals), it’s not too tricky. Returning to the key of C-major, we have C major (I), D minor (II)… etc., up to B diminished (VII). Usually, when someone actually uses the word “key,” they’re referring to I, IV, V, VI (minor), and sometimes III (minor)–after all, I don’t know how to play B diminished on a guitar, you probably don’t either, and it never comes up anyway.

This limited pallette is why there aren’t very many chord progressions in the world–think of classics such as “Louie Louie” and “Wild Thing,” and you’ll recognize them as I-IV-V ad nauseum (for example, C-F-G). “Heart and Soul,” meanwhile, is I-VI (minor)-IV-V, or, as played on piano (which is really irritating, by the way), C-Am-F-G. Practically every popular song of any era, especially those in major keys, has one of these two chord progressions somewhere in it.

Now, that was about as simple as I can think to put it. If you’re still confused after that… well, take a music theory class, I guess (:

habnem on Key
April 12, 2004 at 6:19 pm

Oh yeah… it should also be noted that if you ever find yourself looking at printed music with roman numerals on it (not very often), it is common to denote minor chords in lower case. In this instance, “Heart and Soul” would be I-vi-IV-V.

This also reminds me of the other overused chord progression, which you’ll hear in Pachelbel’s “Canon,” Green Day’s “Basket Case,” Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” Blues Traveler’s “Hook,” and a lot of others… it goes I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V (in C-major that would be C-G-Am-Em-F-C-F-G).

Now I really think I’m done.

Chris Mear on Key
April 12, 2004 at 6:47 pm

Thanks for the link, Brad! Yeah, I can understand how it might look like I made the post overly-complicated. Indeed, the idea of key is quite simple in the case of most popular music that has simple harmonies, and very defined chord sequences. When you apply it to classical art music (my area of expertise), though, it becomes a more nebulous concept, and consequently harder to define. That’s just my opinion, though.

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