What key am I playing?

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What key am I playing?

Postby Bob Lewis » Thu Sep 18, 2008 6:21 am

But people refer to playing in different keys.
Sorry, but can someone explain to me how you know or determine what key you are playing in or want to play in? It all sounds Dutch or Greek to me so please explain in basic layman's language.


The only reason to care about key is to match your voice, match the instrument's range, or to play in unison with other instruments/voices. The only reason to give a key a name is to communicate with others or to take note of how to play the tune on another occasion. One who plays by ear just searches around for a sound that seems to work okay. For an autoharp player, that key name might be the chord name printed on the button of the first chord. It is not that simple though, when really trying to give a meaningful name to a key.

Music has a need for its own terminology, so you would need to either do everything by ear and intuitively or learn some of the terms. There is no "layman's language", and that's why music has its terminology. Common language was inadequate.

There might be some rule of thumb for determining key but it will likely be for only the Ionian or "Major" mode. You still have Mixolydian mode and three or four flavors of minor modes that commonly occur. There is no simple answer. However, a couple of charts will get you there with very little you have to remember. You do have to understand the basic concepts and then just refer to the charts.

Basic music theory and terminology

Identifying Key Signatures

Key and chord chart

The intent here is to be helpful, but experience has provided some lessons and demanded a comment or two. Understand that when answered by providing reference material, one with a follow up question would be expected to have some familiarity with the material provided previously. Just please expect to put a little effort into it and definitely to save or bookmark the link addresses or remember to return here for the links. There are no smart pills, and music theory cannot be avoided entirely, nor should one try or take pride in having done so. Ignorance is not bliss. Although not essential, a basic understanding is a real asset for any player at any level.
Bob Lewis
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