• The Real Musical Picture Of A Key

    in Piano

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    If you’re interested in finding out the real musical picture of a key, then you arrived at the right page.

    Although the musical key means different things to different music scholars, I’ll be showing you an ideal picture of what a key actually looks like.

    With the right concept of key, you’ll understand and appreciate the principles of tonal music and why some things are the way they are.

    Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the concept of the key.

    A Review On The Concept Of Key

    According to Jermaine Griggs, “…the term key is used to describe an environment created by a collection of eight notes, geared towards the establishment of a particular note (known as the tonic) as the key center.”

    The entire keyboard layout:

    …is a product of the duplication of these twelve notes:

    Each of these notes can become a key when an environment of eight tones is created, with the goal of establishing the given note as a key center.

    For example, the note C:

    …is just a note, until an environment of eight tones is created, where C:

    …is established as the key center.

    A collection of all the white notes on the keyboard from C to C:

    …produces an environment where C:

    …is the key center, hence, it is known as the key of C.

    The Components Of A Key

    Every musical key has eight components:

    The tonic

    The supertonic

    The mediant

    The subdominant

    The dominant

    The submediant

    The subtonic

    The octave

    Without eight of these components, a key cannot be established. In the key of C major:

    C is the tonic

    D is the supertonic

    E is the mediant

    F is the subdominant

    G is the dominant

    A is the submediant

    B is the subtonic

    C is the octave

    Without these key components, there won’t be a key.

    The Real Picture Of A Musical Key

    One of the common ways to represent a musical key is using its traditional scale. The picture that comes to the mind when the key of C is mentioned is its traditional scale – the C major scale:

    …and this is because it consists of all of the notes in the key of C major.

    In the real picture of a musical key, the tonic – which is the first component in a key – is located at the center of the key environment, with other components around it.

    “Here’s A More Detailed Explanation…”

    In the key of C major:
    …is the tonal center.

    On the right side of the key is the dominant – which lies a fifth above the tonic (G in this case):
    …and on the left side of the key is the subdominant – which lies a fifth below the tonic (F in this case):
    So, tonic (C):
    …dominant (G):
    …and subdominant (F):
    …gives us a basic structure of the key:
    …with the tonic at the center.

    “Let’s Talk About The Mediants…”

    In between the tonic and the dominant (C and G):

    …is the mediant (which is E):

    …and in between the subdominant and the tonic (F and C):

    …is the submediant (which is A):

    With the mediants:

    …we’ll have a better picture of the musical key:

    “Then, Other Elements…”

    Above the tonic (which is C):

    …is the supertonic (which is D):

    …and below the tonic (which is B):

    …is the supertonic (which is D):

    Adding these other elements to the picture of the key we got earlier:

    …produces the real picture of a musical key:

    The tonic (at the center):

    …the dominants (at both ends):

    …with the mediants:

    …and other elements (adjacent to the tonic):

    “Check Out The Real Picture Of All Twelve Major Keys…”

    C major:

    Db major:

    D major:

    Eb major:

    E major:

    F major:

    Gb major:

    G major:

    Ab major:

    A major:

    Bb major:

    B major:

    Final Words

    I’m glad you have the real musical picture of the key.

    In subsequent lessons, we’ll explore other ideas in this regard, ranging from how it affects the flow of chord progressions, to how it determines where songs start or end.

    See you then!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.


    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 William Branner

    I really enjoy being on Jermaine’s mailing list. But I am a play-by-ear guy, never had a lesson, but if I can hum a particular melody I can do a fairly decent job of playing it. I have played in the local hospitals lobbys for 12 years, twice weekly all afternoon usually.
    So having said that: I have always been greatly puzzled about the purpose of each note in a given scale having a name: tonic, dominant, media to, etc. Why not simply call them the fifth, third, seventh, etc? Would love to read about that, as I see nothing at all to gain from calling them anything else. Thanks.


    2 Chuku Onyemachi

    Check out this lesson, William:


    Thanks for the feedback!


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