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Thread: Trouble finding the key center of a progression.

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    Trouble finding the key center of a progression.

    Hello all. I'm having some trouble identifying the key center of a chord progression, and I was hoping someone here might be able to help me out. I tried using the process of elimination to find the key, but nothing seems to match. So I assume that either I've overlooked something, or this particular progression is using a "borrowed" chord, or that there is something else going on that I'm not aware of.

    The progression is Em7-A7-C-G. My first thought was either E Minor or G Major, but that A7 chord is throwing me off...it should be a minor in both cases, correct? Such a simple progression, I'm sure the answer is obvious...I'm just not grasping it. Thanks to anyone who can help me.

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    Well There are a few ways to approach this.

    1) Em7 - A7 could be a II-V in D Major. and the C - G simply could be viewed as a IV- I in G

    If there are other chords involved, please list them. It can make analysis a bit more coherent.
    Also, post the melody if there is one.

    2) You may see this as a VI-II7-IV-I in G. (Over the A7 you would be playing Amixolydian or G Lydian )

    It sounds odd to me, this progression. The movement from A7 to C feels off but if it were part of a larger progression with a melody It may sound fine.

    There are many tunes in which there is no clear tonal centre for the entire tune. More so In Jazz Standards than anything else. Usually you can find a general key though. So For this progression its closer to G than anything else, your just going to have to be aware that there is no C# in Gmajor and the A7 requires a bit more attention when your choosing scales ect..

    Em9-A13-C/D-Gmaj sounds much nicer btw
    Last edited by JazzMick; 10-01-2009 at 06:49 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JazzMick
    If there are other chords involved, please list them. It can make analysis a bit more coherent.
    Also, post the melody if there is one.

    Hi, and thanks for the response. I wasn't sure how exactly to go about posting the melody, so I took a moment and notated it and saved it as a PDF. Hopefully this will help clarify things a bit. Thanks for your help!
    Attached Files Attached Files
    Last edited by studiorat81; 10-01-2009 at 07:42 AM.

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    Thanks for notating it.

    I will stick with my original analysis on this, key of G(some might argue Em). For Improvisation the only chords you need to worry about will be the Asus and the A7.. Although as an improviser I would Ignore the Asus during a solo and just think of it as an A7.

    Did you write this?

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    OK, thanks so much for the input. I thought maybe I was just missing something, but then again, lots of my ideas seem to not quite follow the rules, so I'm not sure why I thought this situation would be any different. lol

    And yes, I did write this, although I probably wouldn't consider it as having been "written" yet. It's just something that's been floating around in my head for a few days. That was one of the main reasons for my wanting to find the key, so I could narrow down my options a bit as far as where to go next with it. Every time I try to break out of it into another direction, it just doesn't seem to feel quite right.

    Anyhow, thanks again for the help!

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    Well what you have done is not unconventional at all.

    If the tune were completely diatonic. It would have been Em7-Am7-C-G.
    However it is very common for a minor7 chord to resolve to its parent V7 chord. Which is what you did... Any minor 7 moving down a Perfect 5th will sound fine followed by a 7, it happens all the time. So If you ever feel like a tune is frozen and will not go anywhere. Keep that in mind... Hey, You could even repeat that melody but on the second time around.. Let the A7 resolve to Dmajor and start working from that Key There are many great devices like this, It just takes time to learn them.

    Sometimes you have to go with an idea that sounds wrong too. From there you can decide what is 'wrong' about it. "what If I make this chord a m7b5... and move this one up a semitone " ect.. It helps to know the 'rules' sure. But sometimes you just need to experiment and then ask someone who knows a bit more about it.

    Enjoy.

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    I agree with JazzMick - it's key of G major.
    The A7 chord is performing an interesting role. On the one hand the C# is a kind of melodic chromaticism, in passing between the diatonic D and C notes.
    On the other, the A7 suggests a secondary dominant (V of D) - in which the descent to C in the melody would more commonly be harmonised with a D7 chord. Which is what (IMO) makes the C chord a pleasant surprise.

    A couple of comments on the notation:

    1. Do you intend that last note in bar 2 to be a C#, held over (briefly) to the C chord? If so, I think this sounds wrong. It would sound a lot better if it was a C natural, anticipating the C chord.

    2. The note values are wrong. There are the right number of notes/beats in each bar, but the way they are written makes the rhythm hard to follow.

    The JPG below shows how it should be written -
    I've done 3 versions: the first exactly the same as yours; the 2nd with my idea of the C natural instead of the last C#; the 3rd with some chord syncopations to fit the melody better (supporting those C# and C notes) - I've also made the first Asus4 into A7sus4 in this one.
    You don't have to like versions 2 and 3! That's just the way I might tweak it if I was writing it, to show other possibilities, not necessarily better ones.
    There's a MIDI file so you can hear them too.
    You might think the notation looks fussier this way, but it's much easier to read the rhythms like this.
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    Last edited by JonR; 10-01-2009 at 09:22 AM.

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    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by studiorat81
    That was one of the main reasons for my wanting to find the key, so I could narrow down my options a bit as far as where to go next with it. Every time I try to break out of it into another direction, it just doesn't seem to feel quite right.
    You don't really need to know the key to be able to do this. In fact knowing the key can inhibit you into what you think is "correct".
    You've found this sequence by ear, and it works - which means you have the abiility to continue if you just trust your ear a bit more. (Even when you know a key, and follow what it suggests, you have to judge it by ear anyway.)

    I do understand that there can be several possibilities at any one moment, any of which could work, but none of which seem to be right.
    One common trick to get you out of a rut like this is to take your 4-chord sequence and flip it around: start with bars 3-4 amd go on to bars 1-2.
    In this case, that makes |C---|G-G/D#-|Em7---|Asus-A-|. Changes the whole emphasis of the sequence; sounds different without incorporating any new material.
    You could also introduce a D chord, make it something like |C---|D---|G-G/F#-|Em7---| - if that's not too much of a cliche!
    Also try holding individual chords for different lengths of time - two bars instead of one; or half a bar each.

    Other suitable chords (within the G major ballpark): Bm(7), Am(7). Maybe a B7 as V of Em, if you want to pull the tonality in that direction.
    You can also try slash chords. (Eg you already almost have one, in that Asus4 could become Em7/A. And G/F# could be D/F#, Bm/F#, or B7/F#.)

    But don't be afraid of those chromatic moves (like your D-C#-C bit), even if they seem to confuse the "rules". They are what lift a plain major key tune out of the ordinary, make it distinctive.
    And let the melody lead you. So if you come to a stop where you run out of chord ideas - sing something you feel ought to come next. At least one note - find that note on guitar and see what chords it fits. But preferably a phrase of 3 or 4 notes - that will tie you more to one or two specific chords. Just make sure you retain a singable tune, and let the chords follow it, not vice versa.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR

    A couple of comments on the notation:

    1. Do you intend that last note in bar 2 to be a C#, held over (briefly) to the C chord? If so, I think this sounds wrong. It would sound a lot better if it was a C natural, anticipating the C chord.

    2. The note values are wrong. There are the right number of notes/beats in each bar, but the way they are written makes the rhythm hard to follow.

    The JPG below shows how it should be written -
    I've done 3 versions: the first exactly the same as yours; the 2nd with my idea of the C natural instead of the last C#; the 3rd with some chord syncopations to fit the melody better (supporting those C# and C notes) - I've also made the first Asus4 into A7sus4 in this one.
    You don't have to like versions 2 and 3! That's just the way I might tweak it if I was writing it, to show other possibilities, not necessarily better ones.
    There's a MIDI file so you can hear them too.
    You might think the notation looks fussier this way, but it's much easier to read the rhythms like this.
    First of all, thanks for your input! I really appreciate your efforts. As far as the shortcomings in the notation, sorry about that. Notation is definitely not a strong suit for me. I haven't used it regularly since high school band, which was quite a few years back.

    And regarding the blandness of the chord progression's rhythm, I'm actually using a pretty syncopated feel on the guitar, but I simplified it in the notation for the sake of speed.

    Now, as for the C natural vs. C sharp, I listened to both, and for some reason, the C natural just sounds like it's slipping out of key when used right there. It doesn't have the kind of leading effect I would be looking for in a situation like this. My ear just continues to be drawn to the C sharp for some reason, though that is, I'm sure, just a matter of personal preference. But thanks for the suggestion! It's nice to know that there are folks out there who will take such an active interest in helping a body out.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    You don't really need to know the key to be able to do this. In fact knowing the key can inhibit you into what you think is "correct".
    You've found this sequence by ear, and it works - which means you have the abiility to continue if you just trust your ear a bit more. (Even when you know a key, and follow what it suggests, you have to judge it by ear anyway.)
    Well, I don't always work this way. I usually try to find something by ear that sounds good to me, but if what I come up with seems boring or just doesn't sound good, I like to identify the "available" chords in the key I'm working in, and just try some different combinations. I find that it can help me break out of the rut of repeating the same types of progressions that seem to get ingrained into my subconscious.

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    I do understand that there can be several possibilities at any one moment, any of which could work, but none of which seem to be right.
    One common trick to get you out of a rut like this is to take your 4-chord sequence and flip it around: start with bars 3-4 amd go on to bars 1-2.
    In this case, that makes |C---|G-G/D#-|Em7---|Asus-A-|. Changes the whole emphasis of the sequence; sounds different without incorporating any new material.
    You could also introduce a D chord, make it something like |C---|D---|G-G/F#-|Em7---| - if that's not too much of a cliche!
    Also try holding individual chords for different lengths of time - two bars instead of one; or half a bar each.

    Other suitable chords (within the G major ballpark): Bm(7), Am(7). Maybe a B7 as V of Em, if you want to pull the tonality in that direction.
    You can also try slash chords. (Eg you already almost have one, in that Asus4 could become Em7/A. And G/F# could be D/F#, Bm/F#, or B7/F#.)

    But don't be afraid of those chromatic moves (like your D-C#-C bit), even if they seem to confuse the "rules". They are what lift a plain major key tune out of the ordinary, make it distinctive.
    And let the melody lead you. So if you come to a stop where you run out of chord ideas - sing something you feel ought to come next. At least one note - find that note on guitar and see what chords it fits. But preferably a phrase of 3 or 4 notes - that will tie you more to one or two specific chords. Just make sure you retain a singable tune, and let the chords follow it, not vice versa.
    All excellent suggestions that I will try. Thanks!

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by studiorat81
    Now, as for the C natural vs. C sharp, I listened to both, and for some reason, the C natural just sounds like it's slipping out of key when used right there. It doesn't have the kind of leading effect I would be looking for in a situation like this. My ear just continues to be drawn to the C sharp for some reason, though that is, I'm sure, just a matter of personal preference. But thanks for the suggestion! It's nice to know that there are folks out there who will take such an active interest in helping a body out.
    In fact it's the C# that's (technically) out of key, in the broader context.
    Either that, or the key is changing from D major (or E dorian) to G major.

    What caught my ear was the fact the C# was held (if briefly) over the C chord, which I found jarring (it's a b9 above the root).

    IOW, at that point, you get this chord:

    ----
    -2--
    -0--
    -2--
    -3--
    ----
    (ouch)

    If that's just how you like it, that's fine! I'm only suggesting being absolutely sure, by isolating moments like that.

    If the melody is exactly what you want, it would sound smoother if the A7 chord hung on - becoming Am7 as the melody drops to C - with the C chord coming in on (say) beat 3 of the bar.
    I mean, that's what sounds better to me. YMMV!

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    So after doing some more research, I came across something on a music theory site that I think may address this situation...something called a secondary dominant chord. Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

    "Secondary dominant (also applied dominant) is a type of chord used in musical harmony. It refers to a dominant of a degree other than the tonic, with V7/V, the dominant of the dominant, "being the most frequently encountered". The chord to which a secondary dominant progresses is a tonicized chord in that it is briefly treated as the tonic. Tonicizations longer than a phrase are modulations. The secondary dominant terminology is still used even if the chord resolution is nonfunctional (for example if V/ii is not followed by ii)."

    I'm still trying to wrap my head around the concept, but as I understand it, the A7 chord in the progression I presented earlier would be a V/V or V7/V chord, with the secondary tonic being D. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.
    Last edited by studiorat81; 10-04-2009 at 06:58 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by studiorat81 View Post
    Any thoughts on this? Thanks.
    A secondary dominant is exactly how I view your A7.
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  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by studiorat81 View Post
    I'm still trying to wrap my head around the concept, but as I understand it, the A7 chord in the progression I presented earlier would be a V/V or V7/V chord, with the secondary tonic being D. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.
    Yes. The unusual thing in your sequence is that there is no D!
    As I said in my earlier post, your melodic line would not be unusual if the C natural (following the A7) was harmonised with a D7, or Am7, rather than C. Here's a simplified sequence:

    ----------------------
    -3------2---1---0-----
    -0------0---2---0-----
    -2------2---0---0-----
    -2------0-------2-----
    -0--------------3-----

    Em7-A7-D7-G. Standard jazz stuff, and pretty common in pop too. (You get something like it in the Beatles' "Blackbird", among many others.)

    Here it is wih Am7 interposed
    ----------------------
    -3------2---1---1---0--
    -0------0---0---2---0-----
    -2------2---2---0---0-----
    -2------0---0-------2-----
    -0------------------3-----

    That 2nd string is demonstrating the idea of "voice-leading", as the 7th of one chord becomes the 3rd of the next, and so on.

    Secondary dominants are standard fare in jazz (and classical), and (as I say) you get them in pop and in country music too. "V/V" (A major in key of G) is the most common. There's one in "Honky Tonk Women" (A going to D in key of G).

    None of this means you need to change your sequence! It gives you perhaps other options to think about, but there's nothing with using C after A.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Yes. The unusual thing in your sequence is that there is no D!
    As I said in my earlier post, your melodic line would not be unusual if the C natural (following the A7) was harmonised with a D7, or Am7, rather than C. Here's a simplified sequence:

    ----------------------
    -3------2---1---0-----
    -0------0---2---0-----
    -2------2---0---0-----
    -2------0-------2-----
    -0--------------3-----

    Em7-A7-D7-G. Standard jazz stuff, and pretty common in pop too. (You get something like it in the Beatles' "Blackbird", among many others.)
    The thing I noticed about this sequence is that the movement from the D7 to the G feels like a rise and causes the G chord to feel transitional instead of like home, as in the C to G move, which feels more like a fall to me. The A7 also really doesn't seem to work as well there, with my ear being drawn more towards the Am7.

    I also tried playing through your progression and adding the C in after the D7, but what I noticed there was that suddenly, moving back around to the Em didn't feel quite right anymore. So my question is, what, if anything, should this tell me about my progression?
    Last edited by studiorat81; 10-04-2009 at 05:17 PM.
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