Keys

When you mention the word “KEY” to the beginning musician, the usual reaction is a blank stare.  Most have heard of them, but are more or less clueless as to what they are or how they’re used. But the word itself signals something of importance.  And in the case of music, KEYS give you both the scale and the underlying harmonic road map in the form of CHORD QUALITY (MAJOR, minor, diminished).  If the chords you’re wanting to use don’t exist in a single KEY, you can still MODULATE (change KEYS) in several different ways.

This page has the following sections:

WHERE KEYS COME FROM

Back to the mother scale.

The following graphic shows the 15 keys associated with the CHROMATIC scale – 3 of which are ENHARMONIC (use the same tone).  The half-tone INTERVAL between each SCALE DEGREE is exactly the same and the various scale notes have no inherent CHORD QUALITY.

chromatic-keys

But when you pick a specific KEY from the CHROMATIC scale, the HEPTATONIC scale associated with that KEY represents the chord qualities that fit within that particular KEY.  The following graphic shows the CHORD QUALITY of the various scale degrees of the C MAJOR scale.

REMINDER: UPPERCASE Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) represent MAJOR chords and lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii) represent minor and diminished chords.

key-chord-quality

Which results in the common chord choices of: C / Dm / Em / F / G / Am / Bdim / C

CHORD CHOICES

But don’t be fooled into thinking that your chord choices are limited to MAJOR and minor TRIADS – they’re not.  There’s absolutely no reason you can’t substitute an Em7 for Em or a G7 (dominant 7th) for G.  You absolutely can!  And that’s the beauty of it.  Find the KEY and CHORD PROGRESSION that works for you and experiment with the different chord types.  Once you find your chords, figure out the notes that each contains and a melody can usually be worked out fairly quickly.  Of course, if you’re staying in the same KEY for all of your chords, the choice of available notes should be kind of obvious!

ADVICE: If you’re an aspiring singer/songwriter, the best advice I can give you is to find the KEY (or KEYS) that fit your voice and work inside them as much as possible.  You’ll put less wear-and-tear on your vocal chords and spare your audience the horror that is off-key singing!

RELATIVE KEYS

One big happy family..

Each MAJOR KEY has a RELATIVE minor key and each minor KEY has a RELATIVE MAJOR KEY.  The relative minor KEY of any MAJOR KEY will always be the SUB-MEDIANT (vi) scale degree and the relative MAJOR KEY of any minor KEY will be its MEDIANT (III) scale degree.

relative keys of C major and a minor

As you can plainly see in the above graphic, even though the KEYS of C MAJOR and A minor are relative (and therefore ENHARMONIC), the chord progressions (patterns) created from each will be completely different.

Try the following 2 chord progressions and listen to the difference.

I / IV / V / I in the KEY of C (resulting in C / F / G / C)

C-1F IVG VC-1

LISTEN

i / iv / v / i in the KEY of A minor (resulting in Am / Dm / Em / Am)

Am-1 Dm ivEm vAm-1

LISTEN

It’s also fairly common with minor PROGRESSIONS to make the v chord MAJOR.  Substitute an E MAJOR for the Em in the above PROGRESSION and notice the difference in the sound.  The E MAJOR chord doesn’t exist in the KEY of Am but somehow it still seems to sound okay.

LISTEN

More on that a little further down the page.

PARALLEL KEYS

The same thing but different.

A parallel key refers to MAJOR and minor keys with the same ROOT note.  For example the parallel KEY of C MAJOR would be C minor.  The parallel KEY of G MAJOR would be G minor and so on.  The graphic below shows that the relationship between the C MAJOR and C minor KEYS is a tenuous one.  They both start and end on C but the CHORD QUALITIES of each are much different.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t work together!

parallel-keys

Hear the difference for yourself.

Play the I / V chords (C, G) in C MAJOR, then BORROW the iv chord (Fm) from the KEY of C minor and then go back to the V / I chords (G, C) in the KEY of C MAJOR.

c_g_f_progression

LISTEN

You’ll quickly hear how BORROWING a chord (in this case Fm) from a PARALLEL minor KEY (C minor) can take you from the brightness of MAJOR chords to a slightly darker minor chord and then back again.

PIVOT CHORDS

If you need more than one chord from a different KEY, you’ll probably want to look into MODULATING between the KEYS via what’s commonly referred to as a “pivot chord”.   A pivot chord is simply a chord that both KEYS have in common that can be used to move smoothly from one key to another.

As a concrete example of this, play the following chord progression:

FGDF

So far, there’s nothing terribly hard about this progression – everything’s MAJOR and easy to play.  But, there is no single KEY that contains all of these chords.  F MAJOR and G MAJOR are in the KEY of C but the D chord in the KEY of C has a minor chord quality.

So what to do?

The most obvious choice would be to look for the closest KEY that has the desired chord type AND a shared chord from the progression that’s common to both.

In this case, the KEY of G MAJOR fits both of those requirements.

key-pivot-chords

The G chord acts as the pivot between the two keys.

An astute observer will notice from the above graphic that the KEY of G has a single sharp in the form of f#.  Anytime you see KEYS that are a single SHARP or FLAT apart, you should intuitively know that they exist side-by-side on the circle of fifths (and Columns of Fifths).

SUMMARY

The important things to take away from this page is that there are different ways to use chords from different KEYS.  Which you use will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish musically.