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Thread: Key identification and functions in progressions

  1. #1
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    Key identification and functions in progressions

    Hello, my friends

    Whenever I need to identify a song key I always feel some difficulties.
    Sometimes I can only understand my key is not what I thought at first because when I try to write something it doesn't sound good.

    Also, I feel a little difficult to identify the role (or function) of each chord in a progression.

    What can I do to overcome this?

    Thank you

  2. #2
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    Hello, my friends

    Whenever I need to identify a song key I always feel some difficulties.
    Sometimes I can only understand my key is not what I thought at first because when I try to write something it doesn't sound good.

    Also, I feel a little difficult to identify the role (or function) of each chord in a progression.

    What can I do to overcome this?

    Thank you
    Key is a matter of which note "sounds like home". So you identify it by listening, not by looking at what chords you have.
    (If you're already doing it by ear and finding it hard, maybe some ear training is in order?)

    The sound of a keynote can still sometimes be hard to determine, or ambiguous, especially if non-diatonic chords and notes are used, or if the music never settles on any particular chord. (IOW, the set of chords can still be a theoretical guide to key - narrowing down the possibilities - but the ear is the final judge.)

    In addition, some music is deliberately written with no overall key centre, such as modal jazz, or atonal classical. (Some modal jazz tunes still have a main key centre, but others can shift key centres all the time.)

    In general, all popular music (including jazz and rock) has a sense of key centre, despite lots of modal interchange and chord borrowing. There will commonly be modulations within a piece, but each key centre will usually be pretty clear.

    Typically (at least 90% of the time) a popular song will begin with the key chord, and even more often will end with it (unless there's a fade, which can be quite common if the chord progression has no natural final chord at the end). So that's one hint you can get just by looking at the chords. But a final chord still has to sound like a final chord. (Just occasionally a songwriter likes to use a non-tonic final chord, to create a sense of "hanging", of incompletion.)

    In one sense, of course, it doesn't really matter what key you're in. If you don't know to begin with (ie if you haven't decided on a key at the beginning), why would you need to find out? What difference would it make? What matters is the overall sound of the sequence and melody.
    (The scale used by the melody is, of course, another good theoretical clue to the key, but again it's the ear and the sense of aural finality which determines the actual key.)
    Last edited by JonR; 05-01-2012 at 11:43 AM.

  3. #3
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    I have no difficulties in determining (by ear) the key on those "conventional" songs, that's easy.
    I'm now writting a small piece on which the change of key is, at least to me, very subtle when I use only my ears.

    First, the piece was aimed to be an F Dorian piece and I used only the first two chords. But then I tried to add some variety by using an additional third chord (no more than 3, total) so I tried the two last ones. They change everything to EbMaj in a way that was not easy for me to ear it.

    Sem Título.jpg

  4. #4
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    I have no difficulties in determining (by ear) the key on those "conventional" songs, that's easy.
    I'm now writting a small piece on which the change of key is, at least to me, very subtle when I use only my ears.

    First, the piece was aimed to be an F Dorian piece and I used only the first two chords. But then I tried to add some variety by using an additional third chord (no more than 3, total) so I tried the two last ones. They change everything to EbMaj in a way that was not easy for me to ear it.

    Sem Título.jpg
    OK, what you have there is a classic ii-V-I progression in Eb major.
    The F pedal subverts that a little, which may be why you have trouble hearing it. It's either F dorian or Eb major; or both.

    IOW, without the bass, it would sound 100% like Eb major - the kind of chord progression we hear all the time (well, if we listen to jazz of a certain vintage anyway ). But the bass "keeps us guessing" - it certainly makes the Eb chords sound unresolved, because in effect they're an F13sus4 (or F9sus4) chords.
    As an extended dominant (implied), that would tend to pull towards a Bb major tonic, but that effect (in turn) is reduced because of the Ab notes in the previous two chords.

    I actually think this is a really nice sounding effect. I might not choose those particular chord voicings myself, but I like the effect of holding that F bass under it all.

    To make it sound more like F dorian (if that's what you want), you need to return to some kind of Fm voicing (Fm7, Fm9, Fm11) - not spend two bars on an Eb major chord anyway, especially following a Bb7. Whatever it takes to make us hear F as (incontrovertibly) the keynote.

    To make it sound more like Eb major, remove the F bass, or at least move to Eb bass on the last 2 chords. (A Bb bass could of course go on chord 2 (root), but also under chord 1, as Fm7/Bb, or Bb9sus.)

    At least, if you do both of these (in turn), you should start to hear the difference between an "F dorian" sound and an "Eb major" sound. You can then choose whether to keep the ambiguous sound you have, or make it clearer in either direction.


    BTW: if you have trouble hearing the keys of your own tunes, but no trouble with existing pop, rock or jazz tunes - then your ear is probably fine, but it just shows you're not learning from those tunes. You're not stealing and copying, which is now most composers and songwriters learn their craft. You're experimenting by trial and error: using your ear, no doubt, but also some kind of half-understood theoretical perspective.
    There's nothing wrong with that, but you should expect to encounter some confusion and dead ends.
    The fact that you're asking questions so often here suggests you're not quite sure what you're doing - you're working blind, as it were. IOW, another person working in your way might well be totally satisified with their results, and not care about any theoretical ramifications. You obviously do care, but the way to learn how theory applies to music is to study actual songs: take them to pieces, copy them, see what happens if you alter one small element.

    Alternatively, with your own pieces, build them up line by line. Don't use chords until you have a melody or bass line you like. It doesn't need to be a strong singable melody, maybe just a string of single half notes. But the line has to sound good on its own. Then add a bass line (if it isn't one already), that sounds good with the top line.
    Each of the two lines has to sound OK on its own (not desperately interesting maybe, but not odd either; you should be able to sing it, even if it's not actually a great tune), as well as harmonise with the other.

    Then try adding a 3rd line between the top and the bass. You can do this purely by ear and trial and error, or you can use your chord knowledge.
    Eg, if you have an F bass and an Ab melody note, then you probably know that Fm would be the obvious chord - so that means adding a C as a middle note.
    But dont let that deter you from experimenting with other notes. Eg a D in the middle would give you a Ddim triad. A Db in the middle would make a Db major triad (1st inversion).

    You don't have to begin with an idea of a specific key or mode to work within - although your note choices so far, in the melody and bass, will probably suggest a key quite clearly. The only reason to identify a key is to give you a good-sounding set of notes to work with. But you can still use any other note if it makes the melodies of each line flow well, or produces good-sounding chords.

    The top line is really key - in more ways than one . That IS your song, in the end. The top line of a series of chords will emerge as the melody (that you would instinctively sing), if there was no actual melody on top. So you may as well focus on that top line and get it sounding really good, before you think about chords, or even a bass line.

    IOW, if you start a composition by using chords (especially 4-note 7th chords), you're already handling complex chunks of information. How do you choose the chords? How do you voice them? There are just too many options, any of which can "sound good".
    You can't sing chords, this is the problem. You can only sing one note at a time, so that's the best way to compose. (IMO )
    Last edited by JonR; 05-01-2012 at 04:21 PM.

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    To make it sound more like Eb major, remove the F bass, or at least move to Eb bass on the last 2 chords. (A Bb bass could of course go on chord 2 (root), but also under chord 1, as Fm7/Bb, or Bb9sus.)
    The song base sounds the same but the F in the bass gives it a different "flavour".

    The fact that you're asking questions so often here suggests you're not quite sure what you're doing - you're working blind, as it were.
    Sorry about that.
    You and Malcolm are the ones who always give me answers...long ones. I imagine the time spent on these replies.

    I always had the "tendency" to start my songs by the chords and write the melody afterwards. Maybe that's my mistake.
    And it seems I always (or most of the time) write songs without a definite key (as you know from the many examples I've posted here). This makes things even harder.

    Anyway... I need to change my chord "addiction" and replace it by a melody "addiction".

    About the supposedly F Dorian piece... Now I'm not sure if this is Dorian or Eb Major...I couldn't find a suitable F based chord to use without changing the song into something I don't want to.
    Also because the Dorian scale is very similar to the minor pentatonic, I used the latter. Maybe it will reinforce the EbMajor key but it sounds good.

    Here's the song (part of it).

    Dorian piece.pdf
    Last edited by rbarata; 05-02-2012 at 12:54 PM.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    You and Malcolm are the ones who always give me answers...long ones. I imagine the time spent on these replies.
    I had a long reply going but deleted it because it was all basic stuff, perhaps, you have jumped forward and left some of the basic stuff between the chars.
    I always had the "tendency" to start my songs by the chords and write the melody afterwards. Maybe that's my mistake.
    And it seems I always (or most of the time) write songs without a definite key (as you know from the many examples I've posted here). This makes things even harder.

    Anyway... I need to change my chord "addiction" and replace it by a melody "addiction".
    I think not picking a key is the problem. Remember you write a first draft first - after you get the first draft going then you can flavor it out. I write lyrics first, if I do not have a story there is no need for the song. Plus the lyrics will later help with note placement. One melody note for each lyric word. Happy takes two notes as does birthday, then to and you take one note. Simple stuff that in the long run fit together.

    Next pick a key - the one the supposed vocalist likes. Then I get a cookie cutter chord progression for my first draft. Why? I cheat. The melody and the chord should share like notes so I use the notes of the chord's pentatonic - which gives me plenty of notes for a first draft - for my melody.

    Chord progression for verse movement and chord notes for the melody. Three verses with the same progression, probably the same melody for each. Then one chorus and there is a first draft. You can start with the melody and work from there, really does not matter what comes first, however, all the steps have to be in place before you finish - melody, harmony & rhythm plus some lyrics if you like.

    Then you can start getting fancy. It all starts with the story, then pick a key, get a progression from that key and draw your melody notes from the chord's pentatonic. Or start with the melody, but, include all the steps of melody, harmony and rhythm.


    About the supposedly F Dorian piece... Now I'm not sure if this is Dorian or Eb Major...I couldn't find a suitable F based chord to use without changing the song into something I don't want to.
    Also because the Dorian scale is very similar to the minor pentatonic, I used the latter. Maybe it will reinforce the EbMajor key but it sounds good.
    When you've got a bare bone first draft where everything fits - then you can get into your modes and borrowed chords. Yes Dorian is similar to the minor pentatonic it has a 2 and a 6 that the pentatonic does not. Why not just use the pentatonic, with out the modal vamp needed under Dorian you're not going to get the Dorian mood anyway. If you do not have the modal harmony worked out there is no need for the mode. Simple to complex usually works best.

    Have fun.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 05-02-2012 at 04:05 PM.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    The song base sounds the same but the F in the bass gives it a different "flavour".
    Yes. In more technical terms - though maybe not totally bona fide ones - it undermines the tendency of the upper harmonies to indicate a firm Eb tonality.

    Of course, analogies like "flavour" are probably the best way of thinking about it. It's all a matter of "taste" after all - theoretical terms are just a way of trying to make some kind of sense of it (and often failing ).
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    Sorry about that.
    Apology not needed! Being unsure or confused is quite a natural state. And "working blind" is not a bad strategy in any case. (I mean, how else do blind musicians work?? )
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    You and Malcolm are the ones who always give me answers...long ones. I imagine the time spent on these replies.
    Luckily I have nothing better to do most of the time. (Well, I have more important things to do... but not better things... )
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    I always had the "tendency" to start my songs by the chords and write the melody afterwards. Maybe that's my mistake.
    Maybe not a "mistake" as such, if you find that a natural or intuitive way to work. Certainly not if it produces results.
    But it seems to me that for you - as with many others it seems (certainly myself) - it leads to a kind of stalemate. Not a dead end, but rather too many options of routes to take. It's like you get to a crossroads, and there's no indication of which direction you should go in.
    If you had a melody, then that would be a thread you could follow - like arrows on the road ahead, or maybe like the course a river takes. (A river is governed by gravity, of course, and melodies can also develop their own naturel forward tendencies, as well as hinting at the best accompanying chords.)
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    And it seems I always (or most of the time) write songs without a definite key (as you know from the many examples I've posted here). This makes things even harder.
    Perhaps yes - because key is a useful organising principle.
    Still, a key is not a thread you can follow. That is, there are lots of off-the-peg progressions you can write (that many have written before you), but that doesn't really give you a "song". The chords may well make sense that way, but there's still no reason for them to be there. It's like a bunch of fictional characters hanging around with no narrative. They may be a "family" (like chords in a key are), but what's their story? A melody gives the whole thing a direction and purpose.

    Sometimes you can pull a melody out of a chord progression, if you listen to the voice-leading and try and sing or hum along. (A lot of rock composers write that way.) So it doesn't have to be a stalemate. But (IMO) you have to get some kind of melody up and running, to bring the chords alive.
    You then need to give the melody "its head" so to speak, and allow the chords to change if the melody requires it. (So you may need to change some of the characters in your novel, as the story develops: maybe one or two of them have no role to play, or you need to change their character, or invent one or two more.)
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post
    Anyway... I need to change my chord "addiction" and replace it by a melody "addiction".
    IMO yes. I speak as someone who has also suffered from an addiction to the drug of harmony - all those lovely chords, all those juicy sounds... And yet the music I most enjoy (both for listening to and playing) often has very crude harmony. When I write a tune, even when I follow a melody religiously, I often find myself getting bogged down in all the possibilities of harmonizing it, that no one else is going to care about.
    That's why I have such huge admiration for composers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who know how to keep it simple, and know when to stop, when enough is enough. Let the song speak (lyrics and melody); don't weigh it down with unnecessary chords.
    Quote Originally Posted by rbarata View Post

    About the supposedly F Dorian piece... Now I'm not sure if this is Dorian or Eb Major...I couldn't find a suitable F based chord to use without changing the song into something I don't want to.
    Also because the Dorian scale is very similar to the minor pentatonic, I used the latter. Maybe it will reinforce the EbMajor key but it sounds good.

    Here's the song (part of it).

    Dorian piece.pdf
    From just a quick look (and playing through some of it) I'd say that's really working now.
    I'm not sure about the intro, which transposes the same phrase through several different dorian modes - is that an intentional part of the composition, or just an initial sketch idea?
    But I do like the main dorian section, which I think works well - melody sounds nice too.
    There's no need to worry too much about the chords. Various kinds of Fm7 voicings (or Fm9, Fm11), combined with a Bb7 for contrast, is often enough.
    As long as you keep returning to an Fm chord or F melody note, you might not even need so much emphasis on the F bass.

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    I think not picking a key is the problem. Remember you write a first draft first - after you get the first draft going then you can flavor it out. I write lyrics first, if I do not have a story there is no need for the song. Plus the lyrics will later help with note placement. One melody note for each lyric word. Happy takes two notes as does birthday, then to and you take one note. Simple stuff that in the long run fit together.

    Next pick a key - the one the supposed vocalist likes. Then I get a cookie cutter chord progression for my first draft. Why? I cheat. The melody and the chord should share like notes so I use the notes of the chord's pentatonic - which gives me plenty of notes for a first draft - for my melody.

    Chord progression for verse movement and chord notes for the melody. Three verses with the same progression, probably the same melody for each. Then one chorus and there is a first draft. You can start with the melody and work from there, really does not matter what comes first, however, all the steps have to be in place before you finish - melody, harmony & rhythm plus some lyrics if you like.

    Then you can start getting fancy. It all starts with the story, then pick a key, get a progression from that key and draw your melody notes from the chord's pentatonic. Or start with the melody, but, include all the steps of melody, harmony and rhythm.
    I don't write lyrics for so long. The last one I wrote was, maybe, when I was 20.
    I laughed a lot when I've found them a few years latter.
    I have to find myself a singer. They are a rare species around here.

    Sometimes you can pull a melody out of a chord progression, if you listen to the voice-leading and try and sing or hum along. (A lot of rock composers write that way.)
    Right! That's how I create my music. I tend to put my attention in a few bars, following a general idea but, like you said, because there are too many options, frequently when I get to the next group of bars the general idea has already changed.
    I reckon it's difficult to work like this... and probably that's where the key is lost...I start with one and then change to another...probably that's why I write so many "keyless" pieces.

    But I see what you mean...a melody will create boundaries that will shorten the qty. of possibilities.

    About keeping it simple...a few years ago I forced myself to write only simple songs because I had a tendency to create really complicated songs. But then I found the reason why...because the song was not going to be singed (simply because I am not a singer). The voice is another instrument and I always try to fill the blanks.

    From just a quick look (and playing through some of it) I'd say that's really working now.
    Great!

    I'm not sure about the intro, which transposes the same phrase through several different dorian modes - is that an intentional part of the composition, or just an initial sketch idea?
    At start it was just a sketch but I decided to keep it because it sounded good.

    I'm still working on it....the ideas keep comming...when I finish it I will post it.

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    Hello, my friends

    I've been working on the dorian song...I haven't yet put it all in notation (except the first bars which are posted already. The rest will take a while) but I have a general idea for you to listen here.
    As far as I'm aware, the only "variation" to the Dorian mode are some minor pentatonic bars. In the end, although it is a basic rock it is possible to put a dorian solo or melody on top of it without any "clashes".


    So, tell me what you think of it.

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    So, no oppinions?
    Is it that bad?

    From the theoretical point of view, I think the song is balancing between a dorian and a pentatonic minor and it can be. It's very easy to go from one to another because one just need to skip a note (6th degree, a D in this case).
    It's an easy way to change the "flavour" of a song (although it may become a little predictable because of the pentatonic).

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