• Resolved: The Misconception Of The Terms Note And Key

    in Beginners,Experienced players,General Music,Piano,Scales,Theory

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    If you’d want to know the difference between a note and a key, then this lesson is for you.

    The terms note and key are usually used interchangeably because both terms are related. However, they differ in so many ways – especially in meaning.

    Most of the time, C:

    …is considered as a note and a key as well. However, the consideration of C as a note differs from the consideration of C as a key. This situation of NOT knowing when C is a note and when C is a key, is a common misconception among a vast majority of musicians.

    Attention: If you’re yet to come to terms with the difference between the use of the terms note and key, then you need to invest the next 10 minutes or so in reading this blog because in today’s lesson, we’re resolving the misconception of the terms note and key.

    A Breakdown Of The Term Note

    So, what is a note?

    A note is a musical sound of a definite pitch.

    There are several pitches on the piano:

    …which can be grouped into sets of twelve notes.

    “Check Them Out…”

    First set of twelve:

    Second set of twelve:

    Third set of twelve:

    Fourth set of twelve:

    Although there are several pitches on the piano, they are considered as twelve because this set of twelve notes:

    …is a duplicate of this set of twelve notes:

    …and so is this set of twelve notes:

    Check out the following pitches:





    Although they are four different pitches, they share the same letter name in common.

    Therefore, there are basically twelve notes on the piano. This means that despite the fact that a piano can have as much as 88 notes, these notes are duplicates of the twelve known pitch-classes.

    An Answer To The Question “What Is A Key?”

    If you’ve been around musicians, you probably must have heard any of these popular phrases:

    “The next tune is Autumn Leaves and we’ll be playing in the key of Bb”

    “I want to bless God with this song – Total Praise. Pianist, can you put me in the key of Db?”

    “Attention guys! After the next verse, We’ll be modulating to the key of G”

    …or similar ones at least.

    Before we go any further in this lesson, let’s discuss the concept of key elaborately.

    The Concept Of Key

    In the last segment, we defined notes and classified all notes into a 12 pitch set:

    The concept of key focuses on the establishment of a given note as a tonal center, as such, having its unique relationship with other tones.

    The establishment of a key center involves these eight components:

    • Tonic
    • Supertonic
    • Mediant
    • Subdominant
    • Dominant
    • Submediant
    • Subtonic
    • Octave

    Altogether, these eight components establish the tonic (which is the first tone in the key) as the key center. Nevertheless, beyond the establishment of a key center, every key has its unique character, which can either be major or minor.

    The character of the major key is synonymous with goodness, day, light, happiness, and so on. On the other hand, the minor key has a contrasting character that is synonymous with day, darkness, evil, and so on.

    The simplest major key to think of is the key of C major:

    …which is established by all the white notes on the piano from C to C, and its relative minor key – A minor:

    …which is established by all the white notes on the piano from A to A.

    Therefore, when a particular piece of music is in a given major or minor key, it means that the elements of that pieces (from notes, to intervals, to chords, to chord progressions) are derived from the eight degrees.

    “Here Are The 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:

    “Also Check Out The Minor Keys…”

    C minor:

    C# minor:

    D minor:

    Eb minor:

    E minor:

    F minor

    F# minor:

    G minor:

    G# minor:

    A minor:

    Bb minor:

    B minor:

    In a nutshell, a piece of music played in the key of E major:

    …will have E:

    …as the key center and feature these eight notes:

    Resolution To The Misconception Between A Note And A Key

    From what we’ve learned in earlier segments, it’s crystal clear that a note and a key are different.


    …is a note, just like every other note on the keyboard:

    …and is usually considered as a key on the piano. But the consideration of C:

    …as a key is wrong and this is because a note cannot make a key, in actuality, it takes a collection of eight notes to form a key.

    The goal of these eight notes:

    …is to establish the note C:

    …as a key.

    Therefore, the note C:

    …can either be established as the key of C major:

    …or the key of C minor:

    In a nutshell, representing the note C:

    …as key C is wrong, and this is because C:

    …doesn’t have a major or minor character.

    In addition to that, a key must have all of the following:

    • Tonic
    • Supertonic
    • Mediant
    • Subdominant
    • Dominant
    • Submediant
    • Subtonic
    • Octave

    …and the note C:

    …does not have any of those.

    The note C:

    …doesn’t have a dominant, but the key of C major:

    …does – G:

    “In A Nutshell…”

    A note and a key are two different concepts and should be considered as such. The note C:

    …can be used to established other keys apart from the keys of C major and C minor.

    The note C:

    …is the supertonic in the key of Bb major:

    …the mediant in the key of Ab major:

    …the subdominant in the key of G major:

    …the dominant in the key of F major:

    …the submediant in the key of Eb major:

    …the subtonic in the key of Db major:

    Final Words

    The scope of a key is more advanced than the scope of a note. I’m sure that from all we’ve learned in this lesson, you now know when its appropriate to use each of the terms – note and key.

    In another lesson, we’ll further this discussion by learning more about tonality, key and scale.

    See you then!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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