Identifying what key the music is in : LUSENET : Everything About Teaching and Learning the Piano : One Thread

I've been thinking that I really need to get serious about learning to identify what key a piece of music is in. I've studied [i]very[/i] little on it, but I do know how to tell if the music is in C (major), just last night identified... oh, I think it was either E or A (major, also) but the others I just don't know. So can any help me on that? It'd really help I believe, because if I have to teach it to my students some day.... :) Thanks for any replies.

-- Julie (, March 05, 2001


Hi Julie,

There are several ways of determining the key a piece is written in. Depending on the piece, it could be as simple as looking at the key signature or a combination of factors. Begin by looking at the key signature. I will use the Key of D as an example. There are two sharps, F and C, that will appear in the key signature. Next, look at the base note of the opening measure. If it is a D, that is a pretty good indication that it is in fact written in D. Next, look at the other notes in the first beat, both base and treble. If they make up a D triad or part of a D triad then the piece at least begins in the key of D. If the base note is something other than the tonic or dominant in the key of D, it is a good bet that it is in a relative minor. Check to see if the base note starts on the 6th degree of the scale. In the case of our example that would be B. That would be an indication that the piece is written in the relative minor of B-minor. Next, check to see if the notes in the first beat make at least part of a B minor triad. If so this would pretty well clinch the fact that the piece at least starts in the relative minor of B. In advanced music this can be a tricky process and often times the key of orgin takes a bit of thought to determine. Hope this helps you Primo1

-- Phil King (, March 06, 2001.

Julie - In addition to primo's suggestions, I have also learned that another clue to the name of the key can be found in the last measure of the piece. The lowest note in that last measure is usually the key note of the piece.

-- Roz Gibbins (, March 06, 2001.

To take this a step further, does anyone know any tricks to determine the mode of a piece that is neither in the Major(Ionion)or Minor (Aeolian) mode?? Thanks!

-- robin (, March 06, 2001.

In response to Robin - a piece always has a mode (major or minor) which will is determined by the key the piece is in. Even if it modulates to the relative major, or dominant key or so (and therefore a minor mode piece will have major mode parts in it) it will still have a mode. Some atonal music also seems to have no mode at all, but in fact it does. Look at the key, this will determine the mode.

-- SE (, March 06, 2001.

Just a word of caution about identifying the key of a piece by examining the last measure. Sometimes a piece will end in the relative key, so this could be misleading as the sole way of determining the key.

-- Jim Woodside (, March 06, 2001.

Thanks everyone, who replied. Primo, for the example you gave, I looked at one of Chopin's Mazurka's as I read the replies, and found that basically everything you said was true. Thanks for your input!! :)

Roz, what you said about looking at the last measure to find the key it's in, (looking for the lowest note) my previous teacher had told me the same thing, but, like Jim said, it could sometimes be misleading. That was one of the ways I tried determining what key, but... well, apparently it didn't work for me. :) In the Mazurka I was looking at, the lowest note happened to be a B.... which was the relative minor, B minor. But it was the 6th degree of the D scale. Anyway, thanks again to you all!! :) Sorry if this post doesn't make much sense!

-- Julie (, March 06, 2001.

That is, the lowest note in the last measure, of course!! Just forgot to add that! ;)

-- Julie (, March 06, 2001.

In response to SE, do you know of any quick ways to determine if you are playing a piece, let's say, in the Phrygian mode or Mixolydian, for example. Thanks.

-- robin (, March 07, 2001.

In addition to Robin's question, can anyone give me some ideas of pieces that are written in different modes? Also, in college I learned the different modes with a corresponding white note (if you play all the white notes beginning on each specific one, it corresponds to each mode). To keep me from digging all my notes out of storage, does anyone know this off the top of your head? Thanks. Deedra

-- Deedra (, March 09, 2001.

"White key" modes:

(So, for instance, the white notes going from D to D make Dorian mode.)

These are great fun to have students improvise in and/or make little compositions in. Teachers really ought to do more of this, as research clearly shows that students who play/sing/listen to a WIDE variety of scales & modes understand major/minor tonality a lot better than those who play/sing/listen to the usual mix in our culture of 80% major/20% minor keys.

You can find more information/ideas related to this on the page that summarizes the conclusions/recommendations of my doctoral research:


Also, I've written little songs for children in just about every mode. You can listen for free (MP3 format) & download several free songs in sheet music format, at


-- Brent Hugh (, March 09, 2001.

There's a book I use with my students put out by Myklas Music Press called, "In the Mode." Yeah, I know...anyway it has pieces in all the modes.

The modes begin on each degree of a major scale. They are: 1-Ionian; 2-Dorian; 3-Phrygian;4-Lydian; 5-Mixolydian; 6-Aeolian; 7-Locrian.

-- robin (, March 09, 2001.

Does anyone know about the method:

if the key signature is with sharps, to find the key the music is in, look at the last sharp, and then one letter up from that is the key it's in.

With flats, look at the flat before the last flat, and that is the key it is in???

-- Zeldah hanson (, July 19, 2001.

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