What key is this in?

From just noodling around with other musicians / bandmates, sometimes we stumble upon a neat riff. In composing songs, or ideas for songs with this group, we just put shit together that works in that moment. Stick lyrics on it. Tweak the drum part, or the guitar, or the bass part. Experiment. Just learning a ton lately about how songs are “born”.

There’s one song we play that I like, an original composition. The verse has the chord progression B-E-A-D, and my bassline is basically, BBB-EEE-AAA-DDDD, all root notes, pretty fast. Then, the chorus, is AA-GGG x 4, then back to the verse. The whole song is pretty much that.

Is this song in B minor, with the verse being, 1-4-flat 7-minor(flat) 3rd, and the chorus is flat7-flat6?
Or, is it in A minor, the chorus being 1-flat7, and the verse then being 2-5-1-4??

How do you figure stuff like this out?

If it helps, here’s a very raw version of the song, minus the bass, on my Soundcloud. It doesn’t start till about 30 seconds in, bear with it. Then, the A to G part on the chorus is just before the words “Written Interview” (it’s hard to piece it together without the bass, lol :wink:)


Oh yeah, here’s a sweet book I’m reading on the topic of how musician’s created their songs from interviews with them directly. It’s all famous songs and artists from the 50s through the 80s, pretty neat to see how they came up with what they did:


I don’t have an answer for you as I’m struggling with the same thing right now. I’ve written a song that sounds good to my ears. I went to a jam session and the guitarist wanted to play along so asked me what key it was in. I really wish I had an answer for him, but I just shrugged. I know a bit about keys, but the notes in this song don’t perfectly fit into any key, so I have the same struggle. I really want to understand this bit of theory better. I’ll probably post my song later with that and other questions, but it will just be a phone recording unfortunately.


Cool “problem”, @Vik!

Not sure I have a definite answer for you, but a couple of thoughts:

  • this kind of progression (B-E-A-D), just from the sound of it, is super common in rock/pop and I would think that the last chord is the root and thus gives an idea about the key. So, I would think it is a VI-II-V-I progression…
  • II-V-I’s are also very common turnarounds in rock and jazz, and you could look at the progression as a II-V-I nested in a II-V-I (i.e., B-E-A is a II-V-I, and E-A-D is a II-V-I). So, because of these very commonly used II-V-I’s, I would also think that D is the I chord
  • do you have more information on what chords the guitar is playing exactly? If it is a D major and an e minor and a b minor and an A major/dominant 7, that could tell you something about their relationship!
  • or perhaps the guitar is only playing power chords (root-fifth-octave)? Then, little extra information can be extracted from that…
  • if you stick to playing roots, does it really matter (for you) which key the song is in??
  • as for the chorus: it doesn’t have to be in the same key as the rest of the song - it is OK to change keys during a song, I think!

So, my best bet is, the main part of the song is in the key of D.

Actually, I just dug this out - I think this is what is going on with your song (“circle progression”): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vi–ii–V–I


Definitely post it here, and go ahead and ask questions! And no worries, mine are impromptu phone recordings as well, sometimes you have to just capture a moment, and study it later, to understand it. Theory is difficult, for sure, for me too! But it’s fun to learn too :sunny:


Bro, your answers rock! I can’t say I’m quite wrapping my head around this, but will file it away for now.

The guitar player was new that day, and just improvising based on what he heard! So he was just trying to play by ear too, though he was experienced - so much so that he never came back again! Some of his stuff sounds good, other parts are off, but it’s grunge, so it doesn’t matter as much in our music, lol!

Yes. In case I want to expand the bassline in some way, other than roots. And just to understand what’s going on! It’s a good question though, because in that song it just moves too fast probably, for anything but roots to sound okay.

Thanks for this answer. I was thinking that the first chord played somehow should be the I, but this is a great reminder that it is not always so, or maybe not even often the case. Of course, it makes it that much harder to figure out the key then :face_with_raised_eyebrow:


It is plenty tough… and I am not sure I got it right, but I am hoping the “grown-ups” will weigh in sooner or later :grin:

Yeah, but I didn’t mean the lead guitar… there is a rhythm guitar as well - that’s the one I was referring to. Surely, he plays chords, at least power chords… :smile:

Somehow, my feeling is: those four chords, you could start the sequence on any one of them and it would sound good - which is probably also why it is hard to define the “I” chord.


Ah, yes, you’re right, the singer plays rhythm guitar, and just does power chords! So no way to tell what relationship they’re in, then? It makes sense. Somehow I didn’t think rhythm guitar played complex chords, I thought that was the lead’s job. (I’m new to all this! Learning as I go along) There are a ton of naive assumptions I’m learning how to do away with, lol!

More stuff to ponder for sure! Another song we do is just B-D-A-E. So similar, yet slightly different. It “sounds good” too.


No, power chords don’t have any “flavor”, meaning there is no third or seventh to give us more information.

Hm, in my - perhaps old-fashioned - view of things, the rhythm guitar strums the chords (complex or not), while the solo guitar plays the melodies, fills and, of course, solos.

So, which key is that one in?? :wink: :crazy_face:


I think I’m confused.

To me, this looks like an A minor with an inversion on the G. What am I missing?

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Are we still talking about @vik’s chord sequence, @eric.kiser? Because, now, you got me also confused… what do you mean by “inversion on the G”?? I think the chorus is in a different key than the rest of the song, but, of course, I might be wrong!

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I had to dig a bit deeper, because this whole thing “bothered” me a bit… Also, the guitar player in our band came with a little four chord loop the other day he wanted us to improvise on:

E minor - C major - B minor - C major.

So, no problem for me to play the roots for a while, roots-fifths no problem either. But, what if I were to play a solo (not happening yet, but I am thinking about it)? The guitar player doesn’t know what key this “song” is in - and he doesn’t care. He is not too hung up on theory and “just” plays over these chords by feel/ear.

I, however, wanted to know and so, after some thinking, I claimed this gotta be in the key of G major… even though no G chord shows up at all!!! I argued that C major is the IV chord (lydian), E minor is the VI chord (aeolian), and B minor is the III chord (phrygian), as seen from G major. In any case, you should get away with playing the notes of the G major scale over all these chords.

While this may indeed work, it is not really satisfying - how can the song be in G and don’t have a G chord?? This is all pretty baffling.

Well, it is getting both weirder, nerdier, but also more “acceptable” - see what Adam Neely has to say about a similar kind of situation (the main take home message is probably between 7:35 and 7:53 - basically, the key/key center is secondary in most rock songs):


Story of my band life the past 3 months. :rofl: Curse this nerd brain of mine that just wants to know this stuff! :nerd_face:

Haha, if you’re “thinking” about it, it may happen really soon :wink:

Dual tonicity… Friendships irrevocably ruined… Another day in the life of rock n roll :grin:


Yes. I know it’s been over a week now but I’ve been thinking about it ever since you guys started talking about it.

I had to leave town but I’ll come back to this tomorrow or the next day when I get home.

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(Edited to remove unnecessary complication.)


Thanks for elaborating on this, @eric.kiser!

How do they map exactly? I am not trying to be sarcastic here, just trying to understand… Is it because there are no sharps or flats?

In any case, I think the conclusion from the Neely video that “tonality is secondary” in most rock songs is probably what applies here as well. Vik’s chords are from that pool of “classic” rock chords, they are played as power chords (so major/minor doesn’t really matter), and if it sounds good, isn’t that all we really need to worry about?!?

(Haha, who am I kidding… this still bugs me to some extent :crazy_face:)


ABDEG appear in lots of keys. I think this is where it gets confusing, without even considering notes slightly off key.


My simplistic way of looking at this (and probably wrong) is that it is in the key of A, because A is present in both parts of the song and only the G not being sharp is out of place. However, when I research the key of this song, I see most saying D Major and some saying D Minor.

The other way to try and figure this out is to just play the one note you think the key is in through the whole song and see if it sounds right. Again though, that might give multiple answers. This stuff is hard! :slightly_smiling_face:

@joergkutter’s post (#4) above is probably a better way to look at this, but I’m pretty lost.


I like this post a lot, it got me thinking a lot about keys, and I like hearing all of your points. In a new twist, I was in a funk yesterday, picked up my bass again finally, and wound up back to playing this riff. I was pissed that I spent time creating it for the song, now it wouldn’t be played again, depressed that I’m starting from scratch. But then, I said F#@k it!, I like the chords and the progression so much, I’m gonna try to write my own song. Somehow, sitting there by myself, I came up with a new song lyrically (never done this before)! I just strummed the verse on my bass a bunch, and wrote down what I heard in my head, lol. One of those emotional moments where my creative brain fires up or something.

Anyway, in my excitement, of wanting to play again, and try the song out with new guitarists, I again wanted to know what key it was in, so they could play proper chords someday. Here is my take, and, hahaha, it’s different from everyone else’s: I think it’s in B minor, here’s my reasoning:

  1. All these notes fit into a B minor scale (B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A). It’s also a kind of strange/grunge song, so needs to be a minor scale, not major.
  2. The song starts on B. The ending I have for it resolves to B (there’s a DDD-B at the very end), and it feels “resolved”, whatever that means. So B must be the tonic?!
  3. Well, I borrowed heavily tone-wise from the ex-band’s song, but I changed it up a little, and new verse structure, lyrics, and things, so am I allowed to say it’s “my” song :laughing:? (Implying that I get to call the shots :slight_smile:) You gotta start somewhere! And what you were just doing is going to influence any future thing you do, right?!

I’ll post the song at some point, I will somehow probably sing the lyrics too! A few weeks ago, at a jam session, our singer was in the bathroom puking his brains out. Like for a long time. (Can’t make this stuff up :joy:) We were just waiting, so I went to the mike, never knew the lyrics, just started singing something, and the band started playing (helps that it’s grunge, and a little off-key is probably okay, or just some humming/grunting). I liked the feeling. You can sing with your bass!! What a discovery. It is VERY hard to sing and play at the same time though!!


@joergkutter I went back and read through what you posted. It all makes a lot more sense now. Particularly, as to why the bass line alone doesn’t fit one specific key. Thanks for all that.

If I’m understanding correctly, the problem is that the bass line alone doesn’t give us all the information we need to determine what key (or keys) the song is in and part of this is due to the additive value of different notes being played by different instruments (it helped me to think of this in terms of an orchestra).

@JT That chart was super helpful. It’s a very simple format for putting into perspective what I was missing.

@Vik That’s F@#king awesome! Yes, you can absolutely call that your own song. Everything is inspired from somewhere. It sounds like you’re just keeping the notes and the genre of music. No one gets to lay claim to those.

As to the key, since you’re starting from scratch and given the bass line you’re working with, Isn’t the key up to you, as long as it includes A, B, D, E, and G? And by deciding the key, aren’t you just telling the guitarist what you want them to play over your bass line?


You rule, Vik :slight_smile: