Understanding Keys In Music – Learn to Create and Understand Any Key

Understanding Keys in music is often a source of great confusion and frustration for those who have just begun to learn the language of music.  Although this site is about learning guitar, the language of music is the same for all instruments.  All of us are given the same 12 notes to work with (known as the Chromatic Scale).

Understanding Keys In Music Starts With the Chromatic Scale

To Understand Keys in Music We Need the Chromatic Scale

When it comes to understanding keys in music we have to understand that a musical key is defined by its scale.  If the scale is Major, then the key will be Major, and if the scale is minor, then the key will be minor.  Simple right?!  If you’re unfamiliar with what a scale is, you might want to see this lesson: Learning to Play Guitar Scales, which is relevant regardless of your instrument.

As a brief explanation though, we have our 12 chromatic notes in music (graphic above)…We then pull out 7 of them to create the Major Scale and we then create chords from that scale by harmonizing each of the 7 tones, using a 1, 3, and 5 of the scale (this means with each separate scale degree as a root, we just pick every other note in the scale for 5 notes, thus leaving us a root, 3rd, and 5th).  If that has you confused at all, then see this lesson on Triads: Guitar Triads.

If we look at the example below for the key of ‘A Major’, that key is built off of the ‘A Major’ scale we formed above (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#).  What this means is that all of the chords, melodies and harmonies of this key will use these 7 notes, and only these 7 notes.  Sticking within the scale’s note range is known as Diatonic harmony.  As you advance, you’ll learn that it is possible to add in notes outside the Diatonic scale, but to begin your understanding of keys in music, it’s best to get very comfortable with just staying in the Diatonic Key.

The Major Scale is the basis for Understanding Keys in Music

A song in the ‘Key of C Major’ uses the notes of the C Major scale  (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) and a song in the ‘Key of C minor’ would use its 7 notes (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb) and so on for every 24 of our scales (12 Major and 12 minor, one for each chromatic note).

Any major scale or natural minor scale can serve as a key for a piece of music.

Understanding the Center of Keys – The Tonic

To delve deeper into your understanding of keys in music one must look at the Tonic or Root of the Key.  The Tonic note is the same as the root note of a key or scale and serves as the center of the key.  It’s the same with chords, as we briefly touched upon above.  An ‘A Major chord‘ has a tonic, or root of A, a third of C#, and a 5th of E.  The same applies to the ‘A Major Scale’ and ‘Key of A Major’.  The tonic is the starting and ending point, as the notes create a tension that wants to resolve back to the start.

A good way to think of the tonic and keys/scales, is that as you play through the notes or chords of that scale or key, a distance is being created that gets further and further from the root, until your ear just has to hear the circle come back around.  The reason this happens is due to the intervals or steps between each of the 7 tones.

When playing our keys and scales, the music constantly is being drawn back toward the tonic, or root of the key.  The tonic is the most resolved note in a key and thus the key’s center.  Hopefully you’re still with me and we’re making good progress on our journey of understanding keys in music.

So what’s the big deal about this tension and pulling?  This aspect of music is partly what makes it so enjoyable to listen to.  The music can stretch us and take us on a journey, creating excitement for our ears and body.  Rhythm is another key aspect of music being pleasing to listen to, but that is for another lesson and also a bit more subjective.

Understanding Tonality and the Role It Plays

To further our understanding of keys in music we come to the role of tonality.  We’ve talked about music being centered, having a root, or beginning, and cycling back to the end, which is also the beginning…the resolution.  This sort of music is called tonal music because it possesses tonality, consonance and tempered movement.  Basically all the music that we listen to today is tonal.  When music is missing a tonal center it is called atonal.  Although there is atonal music out there, the majority of people would find it actually painful to listen to.  Think of atonal as grabbing a guitar and just randomly slapping your fingers on frets and strumming (often what little kids do when they see a guitar…NOT too pleasing :-)

Training Yourself to Know the Tonic

One great way to become more aware of the tonality in the music you listen to is to just actually listen…really pay attention to the movement of the music and where you hear/feel it resolving.  This act alone can help to improve your understanding of keys in music.  Most songs will end on the tonic, it is very common practice and not doing so can leave you with an odd feeling, or lack of resolution (often to great affect).  Analyzing music will greatly help in your understanding of it and its movement.

When Can I Get Outside the Key?

In due time grasshopper…in due time.  As I stated earlier, it’s really a good idea to become very familiar with Diatonic harmony and be able to spell out any key signature (all 30 keys) and be sure to know your note names and interval relationships.  Doing this assures you will have a command of musical movement and you’ll be ready to start mixing it up by adding in notes outside the key, as well as changing keys.  One genre of music that a lot of beginners start with, and then fail to get out of is the Blues.

Now I don’t want to knock on the Blues, ’cause it’s a foundation to rock music and just has some great things going on, but it breaks the Diatonic world and a lot of musicians find the blues and never get out of it or bother to learn why it works from a tonal and theoretical point of view.  They haven’t taken their understanding of keys in music to a level of true understanding.

There definitely will come a point when you are ready to move outside of Diatonic harmony, but until you master it, I recommend waiting.  It WILL pay off in the long run to get your head wrapped around this world, I guarantee it.  I also don’t mean NOT to go play the Blues or out-of-key stuff, but work towards mastering and understanding keys.

Just How Many Keys Are In Music and Do I Have to Learn Them All?

Okay, well we touched on this earlier, but let’s revisit it.  There are 12 notes in the chromatic scale (that’s all we’ve got in the Western World) and hence, there is a key for each of the 12 notes, and each key has a minor and Major variety.  This gives us the sum of 24 keys, but really only accounts for 12 unique keys since every Major key has a relative minor key (the relative minor shares the exact same notes as its Major cousin, just starting on a different note).

As an example: ‘C Major’ (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) has a relative minor of A.  The A minor scale or key uses the notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G, which as you can see are the same notes.  All we did was begin the scale on the sixth degree of our parent Major scale.  This always holds true…the sixth scale degree of any Major scale is the relative minor.

In addition to our 24 keys (really 12 unique ones), there are three of the Major keys that can be named in different ways.  The reason this happens is due to the usage of sharps and flats.  Sometimes it becomes more convenient to write the keys in flats rather than sharps.  So this gives us a total of 15 different spellings.

If we look at the Keys of C# and Db as an example, we see that they contain the same notes (C#/Db are the same tone on your instrument…9th Fret on the Low E string of your guitar).  Db is spelled (Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C) and C# is spelled with the same tones but written with the altered sharp note names instead (C#-D#-E#-F#-G#-A#-B#).  It really just comes down to a matter of what other keys you’re transposing to and your personal preference.  If you were starting a song in a sharp key and wanted to modulate to another of our multiple spelled keys, you would want to pick its sharp variety so as to maintain congruence in your notation and brain.  It can get confusing jumping between the two!  As if we didn’t have enough to do in understanding keys in music.

In Closing

To really begin understanding keys in music and their movement it’s best to have some guided lesson and practice walking you thru Keys, Chord Progressions, and Songs to help this stuff get ironed into your brain.  If you’d like to start taking your knowledge on guitar to the next level, then I invite you to join my free lesson series using the form below

Wishing for your greatest success,



Become a Master of Your Fretboard and Get to the Next Level on Guitar

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