• The “Minor Chord Test” To Finding The Key Of Any Song

    in Piano,Playing By Ear

    In my free lessons, the first concept I cover is “Finding The Key Of A Song.”

    Without a doubt, it is the #1 skill needed to start playing by ear. Not the only… but one of the foundational skills because if you can’t start your song-learning process by finding the key, you’ve started on the wrong foot and the endeavor will be an uphill battle.

    Finding the key eliminates 90% of other possibilities and puts you in a single “world,” with a single scale, and certain inherent chords that will be used an overwhelming majority of the time. Without this “key,” you’re just guessing, hoping to land on a tone or chord that sounds right. That’s no way to proceed and ultimately leads to burnout (i.e. – “taking 10x longer to learn songs on your own”).

    Once you watch the free lesson, you’ll be introduced to many key-finding strategies. But in this post, I want to cover the “Minor Chord Test,” which is introduced towards the end of the lesson. Here’s why I created it:

    One of the techniques I teach is “humming.” But instead of humming the true key center, I find most beginners hum other notes that are closely related to the key center. For example, in any given key, the key center is the first tone of the scale. In C major, “C” is the key center. Pretty simple, yeah?

    The C major chord is : C + E + G

    The “E” in this chord is the third degree of the scale. The “G” is the fifth degree. I’ve found these are the most commonly mistaken key centers. And it makes sense because they are closely related to “C”. They inhabit the same major chord. In fact, if you’ve been in a choir, you’ve probably gotten accustomed to singing one of these notes, as that is how voices harmonize — by singing different notes in a chord. Some groups in the choir get the “C” note… others get the “E”… others get the “G.”

    But when it comes to finding the key of a song, you must feel confident that you are choosing the TRUE key — the 1st tone of the scale (aka – “the tonic!”).

    So once you’ve hummed and matched your voice to the piano, you should have a prospective key held down. This is where you apply the minor chord test.

    Step 1 – You’ll need to determine which minor chord to use for your test. Ask yourself, “Which minor chord in regular root position has this note (I’m holding down) as its highest note?”

    For example, the Bb minor chord is: Bb + Db + F

    Step 2 – You’ll need to test against the other notes in the minor chord.

    Now, say the key of the song you’ve determined is F

    You’d want to use this Bb minor chord to test your answer. What you’ll do is play the other notes in this Bb minor chord to make sure they aren’t closer matches.

    So if you think F is the answer, you’re going to use a Bb minor chord (because it has “F” as its highest note) to test your answer. The Bb minor chord gives you two additional keys to test — Bb and Db.

    If you hit the “Db” and it sounds REALLY GOOD, possibly better than your original answer (F), you may have a change of heart. If you hit the “Bb” next and it sounds better than your original answer, same thing.

    Note: Both will never sound good.  You’ll never have to choose between 3 “good sounding notes”. One should sound way off. The next tone should sound either really good (better than your original answer) or okay… but not better than your answer.

    Why does the minor chord test work?

    Since the most common mistakes are choosing the 3rd and 5th degree instead of the true key (which is the “1”), the minor chord trick helps to make sure you’re not doing that.

    If your guess is F and you pick the Bb minor chord to test against, think about what those other notes in the chord are:

    Db – This is one of the tones in the Bb minor chord you’re testing against. What relationship does “F” (your answer) have to Db? Yup, it’s the 3rd degree. F is the third degree of Db major. So if you were, in fact, mistakenly guessing F (the “third”) when you should be picking “Db,” the minor chord test will lead you right to it! That Db should sound so good against the song you’re learning that you ditch the F faster than a speeding bullet.

    Bb – This is the other tone in the Bb minor chord you’re testing against. Again, what relationship does “F” (your answer) have to Bb? F is the 5th degree of Bb. So as you can see, we’re testing against another commonly mistaken tone. If “F” was truly the 5th and not the true key, the minor chord test would have led you to Bb, which would have sounded much closer than F. You’d ditch F and go with Bb.

    I get a lot of questions about the “minor” part. It throws some people off. The minor chord has nothing to do with playing in minor or using minor chords in your music. It just gives you an easy way to figure out if you’re mistakenly guessing the 3rd or 5th of the true key — that’s it. Forget about “why a minor chord and not a major chord is being used.” Because a major chord doesn’t have the same notes and the rule wouldn’t work if you picked the major chord that has your answer as the highest note. It wouldn’t deliver you what I explained above. Hope that makes sense.

    Reference

    Here are all the minor chords to test with:

    If your answer is C, use the F minor chord because it puts C on top: F + Ab + C

    If your answer is  C#, use the F# minor chord because it puts C# on top: F# + A + C#

    If your answer is D, use the G minor chord because it puts D on top: G + Bb + D

    If your answer is D#, use the G# minor chord because it puts D# on top: G# + B + D#

    If your answer is E, use the A minor chord because it puts E on top: A + C + E

    If your answer is F, use the Bb minor chord because it puts F on top: Bb + Db + F

    If your answer is F#, use the B minor chord because it puts F# on top: B + D + F#

    If your answer is G, use the C minor chord because it puts G on top: C + Eb  + G

    If your answer is G#, use the C# minor chord because it puts G# on top: C# + E + G#

    If your answer is A, use the D minor chord because it puts A on top: D + F + A

    If your answer is Bb, use the Eb minor chord because it puts Bb on top: Eb + Gb + Bb

    If your answer is B, use the E minor chord because it puts B on top: E + G + B

     

    Closing Thoughts

    Your ear must be the final judge. If you had the right answer all along, the other tones in the minor chord test should not sound right. If your decision sounds good, be confident in it. If one of the other tones in the minor chord work better, don’t be afraid to jump ship.

    To see this test in action, watch my 30-minute video on “Finding The Key Of Any Song”.

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Pete

    This is great Jermaine!

    Reply

    2 J Shani

    I love Jermaine’s simple and down to earth teaching style. His approach really helps me understand chord progressions in a completely new way.

    Reply

    3 Gerry Witters

    Thankyou for helping out, superb information.

    Reply

    4 uditha

    extremely helpful for a beginner like me. thanks again….

    Reply

    5 martins oyise

    SO SO HELPFUL
    THANKS

    Reply

    6 Daniel

    Thanks for this.

    Just a little elaboration on why the minor key. The minor key is composed by the root, a minor third and a perfect fifth. The distance between the second and third note is a major third. If you picked the major key, in which the second note is a major third, the distance between the second note and the third would be a minor third, and it wouldn’t work as well.

    Reply

    7 Peet

    This is great so much easier to be confident about picking the key. Does this work for songs in a minor key?

    Thanks!

    Reply

    8 Jermaine Griggs

    If you suspect the song to be in minor, you’d have to reverse the chords to major chords.

    So if I think the key is D minor, I would pick the “MAJOR” chord that puts D on top.

    That would be G major. I would test my “D” guess against B and G.

    The B makes sure I’m not accidentally picking the 3rd tone of the B minor scale instead. Testing G makes sure I’m not accidentally picking the 5th tone of the G major scale instead. If D still stands, it’s likely the true key. D minor.

    Reply

    9 Peet

    Excellent, thanks!!!!

    Reply

    10 James

    Thanks alot J. for bringing out the piano genius in me.

    Reply

    11 Tom

    Jermaine,

    Good info here. I’m a guitar player by trade but took a lot of my cues from keys & horn players. Early on I read an interview with Miles Davis where he said (roughly) that every musician should be able to sit at a piano and play the basic (no inversions) major & minor triads for every chord, and that doing that would improve your ear.

    There’s no question that this works/worked for me. I even found that my basic keys knowledge also helped with my own ability on harmony vocal parts.

    For my own personal knowledge base I made it a point to identify what three keys any minor chord would (theoretically) belong to – same for the major chords as well. It helps (for me) to know the relationships between the IIm & IIIm and the VIm and IIm.

    On the fretboard, which runs both up and down and across, a direct contrast to keys (as well as the natural inversion of many “basic” guitar chords), this kind of knowledge and memory work is key (for me) to improvisation.

    Anyway…thanks for the article…anything you can input into your own personal musical bank is crucial (even 40+ years into the journey)…much appreciated.

    Reply

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