Teleclass #5: “Pro Ear-Training: How to find the major key of any song!”
Skill level: Intermediate
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Video Recordings (over 1.5 hours!!!!): Unedited overhead and front-view during "live" teleclass
The goal of session #5 is to give you various techniques and “tricks” to find the key center (aka – ‘tonic’) of any major key.
The tone a 5th below the tonic is called the subdominant. Since the subdominant is the 5th scale degree, it is given the Roman numeral IV. In C major, F is the subdominant note or chord. The prefix “sub” means under or below.
This is why the circle of fifths really moves in fifths (both clockwise and counterclockwise). Example - G is a fifth up from C but F is a fifth down from C.
The tone a 3rd degree below the tonic (midway between the tonic and the subdominant) is the called the submediant. Since the Submediant is the 6th scale degree, it is given the Roman numeral VI. In C major, A is the Submediant note or chord.
The tone a 2nd degree below the tonic is called the leading tone – sometimes called the subtonic. The leading tone is often used since the note has a strong tendency to lead to the tonic, as it does in an ascending scale. Since the leading tone is the 7th scale degree, it is given the Roman numeral VII. In C major, B is the leading tone or chord.
i. Most commonly begins a song (but not always)
ii. Most commonly ends a song (but not always --- there’s always exceptions like a song ending on the Submediant major chord).
i. Techniques to finding the tonic:
1. There are twelve major keys on the piano
2. Therefore, when one aims to find the major key of a song by ear, there are 12 possibilities (1/12 possibility that you’ll hit the right tonic note the first try).
3. Relying on the genre of the music, this may help to narrow some of the possibilities
a. Example: Lots of contemporary gospel songs are played in flat keys (Db / Eb / Gb / Ab / Bb). You may go for these keys first.
b. Lots of blues is played in C / F / Bb / G
c. Lots of guitar-led songs are played in E / A / D / G
d. …so there are ways to hint at certain keys depending on the style and genre but there isn’t a SET RULE for this.
4. “Middle C” technique: Start at middle C and move chromatically up the keyboard until you hear the tonic note of the song (the “root” sound). More on this later.
i. 1 Major (C major)
ii. 2 Minor (D minor)
iii. 3 Minor (E minor)
iv. 4 Major (F major)
v. 5 Dominant (G major or G7)
vi. 6 Minor (A minor)
vii. 7 diminished (B diminished)
i. If I hear an E minor chord, and I know that usually the second, third, and sixth chords of a key are minor, I have to ask myself:
1. “E minor is the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th of what keys?”
a. E minor is the 2nd chord of the D major scale (so the tonic “COULD” be D)
b. E minor is the 3rd chord of the C major scale (so the tonic “COULD” be C)
c. E minor is the 6th chord of the G major scale (so the tonic “COULD” be G)
i. Ask these questions:
1. “C major is the 1st, 4th, and 5th of what keys?”
a. C major is the 1st chord (or tonic) of the C major scale (so there is a strong possibility that the C major chord you hear is the TONIC and therefore the key of the song… especially if it is the starting chord or ending chord of a song).
b. “C major is the 4thchord of the G major scale (so the tonic “COULD” be G)
c. “C major is the 5th chord of the F major scale (so the tonic “COULD” be F)
i. Hum the root of the song (aka – “the tonic, the keynote”)
ii. Find the note you’re humming on the piano
1. Can start at C and work up
2. Can pick a random note
3. Can try to guess the note and work up or down from there
iii. Confirm that it is the root with my “minor chord” trick (read below first)
1. Common problems with humming the keynote/root
a. The biggest problem is that you’ll be inclined to hum the “third” of the key or the “fifth” of the key as these are other tones of the tonic major chord.
b. So you’ll think E is the tonic, when really C is the tonic (E is the third of the C major scale).
c. Or you’ll think G is the tonic, when really C is the tonic (G is the fifth of the C major scale). The first, third, and fifth tones make up the tonic chord of a scale so this is understandable.
2. How to confirm that you are “truly” playing the tonic with my “minor chord” trick.
a. If you think you have the tonic, think of it as the highest note in a minor chord. So, if I think G is the tonic, then I need to ask myself, “in what minor triad is G the highest note?”
b. In C minor (C Eb G), G is the highest note. So I’d then hit the other notes of that minor chord to make sure those notes don’t produce a BETTER sound than the G. Perhaps, one of those notes is the TRUE tonic but I don’t know it until I press them to confirm.
i. For example, if I think G is the tonic, I’d hit Eb to see if it works better. Then I’d hit C to make sure it isn’t the true tonic as well.
c. What am I truly doing here?
i. I’m making sure that I’m not really humming the “third” or “fifth” tone of the TRUE tonic. See, G happens to be the third of Eb (so if I was mistakenly humming G, immediately playing Eb would give me the true tonic). And also, G is the fifth of C so the same concept applies.
ii. Using this “minor chord” trick will assure that you aren’t mistakenly humming the third or fifth when you SHOULD be humming the first tone --- tonic --- root.
i. How to test (again):
1. If I’ve arrived at C, use the minor chord in which C is the highest note (in root position of course).
2. That minor chord would be: F minor (F Ab C). C is highest note as I’ve mentioned above.
3. Test the other notes (Ab and F) to make sure that one of them isn’t the true “root” or “tonic.” There can only be one true tonic.
4. If they sound totally “off,” then perhaps your original key is the TRUE tonic. This just helps you to confirm.
5. REMEMBER: Your ear is the final judge!