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What Key Is This Song In?

Written by Nathan Gifford on Monday, 04 March 2019. Posted in Music Theory In Worship, Blogs

Music Theory In Worship - Part 1

What Key Is This Song In?

One of the most important details to know about any song that you are playing or singing is what key it is in. However, many worship leaders and musicians brush by this little detail. We are going to not only look at WHY, but answer the question of HOW to determine the key of any song. Knowing the key puts you in a position of knowing what notes to play (or not play)... and what chords you will most likely be using. It is also important in the putting together of your worship set lists! Knowing the key is a foundation. A starting point... and it's important.

NOTE: This article is a part of our "Music Theory In Worship" series, and if you haven't read the intro article to the series, we highly recommend that you do! READ IT HERE!

First, let me address why anyone would NOT take a moment to determine the key of a song:

  1. Because they simply are unable to do so... and have not been taught how.
  2. Because they wouldn't know what to do with it if they had it!

Hosea 4:6 (NKJV) says "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Okay, so I know this is not talking about music theory, but you get the point.

The reality is that anyone that has the understanding of how to determine a song's key always will... because they know it is important. Everything else is based on it. So before you get mad at me, know that my two points above are not to put anyone down, but simply stating a fact. I've seen it over and over through the years in the church... people that don't know... and are fine with it. We are addressing that right here and choosing to grow in our gifts! Amen.

MYTH: The First Chord of the Song Represents The Key

The belief that the first chord of a song tells you what key the song is in is simply incorrect. Sometimes that is the case, yes... but don't ever rely on just that. It's ONE of many items you can look at to help determine the key. Gaining more of a music theory understanding is the best way to learn how to do this. If you know your 12 major scales (not meaning you can play them on an instrument necessarily, but meaning you actually know which notes are included in the scale), then you can go through a song and see what notes are used and what notes are not used. What scale does the song line up with? Every song is put together with pieces of scales.

Also, look for chord progressions. If you can learn some of the standard chord progressions, you will learn that certain chords in a scale almost always resolve to the same chord every time. There are always exceptions, but... for a basic example... the 5 chord usually resolves to the 1, or the root. So if you keep seeing a G (5th note in a C scale) resolve to a C (root of a C scale)... especially if those places are the ends of phrases or ends of major sections (like a Chorus), then that is a "major" clue leading to labeling that song as being in the key of C. The song could easily start with an F, or maybe an Am... but the start doesn't matter as much as where it takes you. Where do the progressions tend to lead to in the song?

Even better than looking at the beginning... what about the END? Of course, songs do not always end on the root of the key. Most of the time, however, they do. If the song both starts and ends on the same chord, that's a good clue too!

Starting Point: What Is The Key Signature?

B-flat Key SignatureThe first thing to check, and the easist way to determine a song's key, is to check the key signature. Now, this mostly just applies when you are looking at actual notated music (you know... 5 lines, 4 spaces), not just a chord chart.

Wait... what is a key signature?? You can see an example of one to the left. It is the two flats shown right after the treble clef sign, in this case, on the line for B and the space for E. This establishes that anytime you see a B or E in the music, they are to be played as Bb and Eb. Of course, there can be exceptions. Always. These two flats tell you that the song is in one of two keys, a major key or it's relative minor key. Hold that thought...

But I only have a chord chart, so there is no key signature to check! Ok, don't panic! You can still play through the song (even just pecking out a melody line on a piano) and take "note" of what sharps or flats are used regularly throughout the song. Those regularly occuring sharps or flats (side note, never both together in the same key signature) are likely your key signature.

Ok, so how do I determine the key from the key signature?

Whe you have a notated key signature, this is pretty simple, especially if you know your scales. If you see 3 sharps in the key signature, you know that those three sharps have to be F#, C# and G#... and that this will put you in A major... if it's a major key. Now, if you are still learning your scales, here's a trick. Learn the order of sharps, and the order of flats, which is the reverse of the sharps. This is:

Order of Sharps  <-->  Order of Flats
F# C# G# D# A# E# B#  <-->  Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

It always helps me to remember that the first four letters in the order of flats spells B-E-A-D. This sharp/flat ordering simply lays out the order that sharps or flats are added to and displayed in the key signature. If you have two sharps, it will always be F# and C#. It could never be F# and D#. On to the trick...

Take the last sharp in the key signature, then go up one half-step (the very next available note). That is the key of the song, if it's a major key. So, two sharps in the key signature, the last one is C#. Go up one half-step and you have D. So two sharps is the key of D major! Now, the trick for flats is different. Take the last flat in the key signature, then move to the previous flat in the order of flats. That is your key! So, if you have 3 flats in the key signature, go to the 2nd flat in the order, which is Eb, and that is your key! This trick doesn't work for F major, which has only one flat, Bb.

Now, if you do NOT have a written key signature, but have determined that you're regularly playing/singing a F#, C# and a G#, we can establish that you are most likely in the key of A (based on knowing your major scales). If you are just going by notes played, then there could be other sharps, even if less used, so maybe you are in E or another key that contains those 3 sharps. But, if you have those 3 sharps, you are NOT in the key of D, G, C, Bb, etc. How do I know that? Because the major scales of those keys tell me that they have less sharps, or no sharps but flats instead. Study the "Circle of Fifths"... something we'll help you with next time! A lot of nailing down your key label involves weeding out options that you know it CAN'T be. You only have 12 options to begin with, and most are easily knocked out of the running... especially in the realm of worship music as most songs are in more common and more easily accessible keys.

Major Or Relative Minor? Like... An Under-Aged Cousin?

Alright, back to what was referenced earlier... that once you have nailed down a key signature, you know the song is in one of two keys. Usually, it will be in the major key that corresponds with those sharps and flats (or lack thereof). BUT... you still have option number 2, which is the relative minor. No, this has nothing to do with someone in your family.

Every major key has a corresponding relative minor. This simply means it is a minor key that shares the same key signature. In the previous 3-sharp example that we labeled as the key of A major, that could also be F# minor, which is the relative minor. Or in the key signature picture above with two flats... that would be Bb major OR G minor. Again, learning the makeup of the scales is a tremendous help here. The relative keys are also seen more clearly in a Circle of Fifths diagram. You can also see them in the chart below:

Key Signatures: Major & Relative Minors

How do I determine what the relative minor key is?

From any major key, you can take that root note and then drop a minor 3rd interval (3 half-steps)... or go up a major 6th interval. Either way. You can see this in the above example of A major to F# minor. Explained further... take the A major scale. Count up 6 notes in the scale. That would be F#. From A to F# is a major 6th interval. Or you can go backwards in the scale, from the root note, down two notes. Same end result.

Determining which of the two key options the song is in, major or minor, is usually pretty simple. Just like above when we mentioned taking note of what chord you keep resolving to (ends of phrases, end of the song, etc)... determine is that resolution (for example) an A major chord or a F# minor chord? Also looking at progressions, like the 5 chord that usually resolves to the 1 (root)... are you regularly seeing (same example) an E chord (5th) resolving to the A (root)... or a C# chord (5th) resolving to a F#m? Find the patterns, progressions, etc. that establish the major or minor scale. Also, when establishing major or minor, this is a case where looking at the ending chord of the song is a really helpful clue!

So I Know What Key The Song Is In. Now What?

Now, you are all powerful! Okay, not really, but you are much better equipped to learn, play, or lead this song! Now you can:

1) Know what chords you will most likely be using and focus in on common chord progressions in that key. For example, a couple of the most common progressions you'll come across are 1 - 4 - 5 - 1, or 1 - 6m - 4 - 5 - 1, or 1 - 2m - 5 - 1, or any variation of these. You can be prepared for the chords that correspond to those progressions in the given key.

How about some song examples of these progressions?

1 - 6m - 4 - 5 - 1  "How Great Is Our God" by Chris Tomlin. Verse, Chorus, Bridge... all the same. Simple, and potentially boring, yet effective in this case. This is one of the easist worship songs you could learn!

4 - 1 - 5 - 6  Chorus of "The Stand" by Hillsong United

1 - 5 - 6 - 4  Chorus and Bridge of "The Same Love" by Paul Baloche

6 - 4 - 1 - 5  Chorus of "Miracles" by Jesus Culture

1 - 4 - 6m - 5  Chorus of "This Is Amazing Grace" by Phil Wickham. The Verses and Bridge are extremely similar as well.

You should make some real efforts to become VERY familiar with common progressions like these, in all 12 major keys. When you are, you can learn and play the vast majority of worship music in no time at all! Plus, you'll be nicely equipped for playing songs on-the-fly, in particular when you have to play something in a different key than you're used to.

2) Knowing what key the song is in also allows you to quickly establish which notes are legal (or not legal) to be playing on your instrument. If you are playing in the key of G major (1 sharp, F#), for example, you better steer clear of a G#, D#, etc. Again, there are always exceptions, but going into a song with a solid bit of knowledge of the key and an understanding of the associated scale for that key puts you in a great position.

3) One of the biggest challenges as a worship leader is putting together a set list that is effective and has a workable and natural flow. You need to know what key your songs are in so you can best determine what key will work best for a particular song, considering your vocal ability, your team, and the key of the other songs in your set list. When your songs are in the same or closely related keys, it is very easy to flow from song to song, which is so important! When you have a song in B, and your next song in Eb, and the next song in A, etc... you make it very challenging for the music to have any natural flow. I've played for worship leaders with set lists like this. It's not fun.

What is a closely related key? How do you determine the best key to do a song in? These are questions that we'll tackle in another post!

Now, before you get all spiritual on me and say that you are picking songs as God leads you, not by what keys they are in, let me help you out. I'm well aware and realize that the most important aspect of my set list is that I've prayed and listened to God's direction. I need to have done my best to tune in to what He wants to be said and sung in that service. HOWEVER, I still have a job to do... as I'm responsible for using my God-given abilities and my training to put forth my very best. Psalm 33:3 says to "sing to Him a new song" AND "play skillfully". Many of us do just enough to get the job done. If that's you... STOP IT! So... if I feel lead to sing a song that is originally in the key of B, but the rest of my set list is in C, F and Bb, there's no way I'm keeping that song in B! I'll drop it to Bb or raise it to C, whichever makes the most sense. Then it will flow much better from song to song!

Of course, you can't worry about any of this or do anything with it until you've done your homework. Learn those scales! Learn those chord progressions! Seriously... you didn't try to read without first learning the alphabet, did you? Of course not! Once you have a solid foundation of scales and chord structure, it will become quite easy to determine the key that a song is in... and also (at the same time) make you much more capable, adaptable, and effective as a worship leader or worship musician!

Be sure to comment below and feel free to ask questions! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this exciting new article series!

About the Author

Nathan Gifford

Nathan Gifford

Nathan has been a worship leader for about 25 years, serving in multiple churches from a new church plant to a large urban congregation... serving mostly in the state of Indiana. He grew up as a PK in Indiana and was actively involved in worship music from the age of 12. Over the years Nathan was involved as a saxophonist in his church band and also played in many other groups and events. While in college at the Indiana University School of Music, Nathan began moving into worship leading. Then after graduating, he went right into full-time ministry as a music pastor. He began writing new worship songs that have continued to be a part of his ministry as well as many churches across the country. Nathan has recorded 9 projects, which are mostly live worship projects. He is currently a part of the worship ministry at Mill City Church in Fort Collins, CO.