I don't play an instrument or read music and I have a very (VERY) rudimentary knowledge of music theory. I'm slowly working my way through http://www.musictheory.net/ but it is really kind of dense and I have a couple of questions which I hoped you lovely talented folk could help out with.

1 - How can I tell what key I'm in?

I usually write music by looking up a key, for example C blues which I use a lot, then I know what notes Im restricted to. But if I look at another persons music, usually a .mod or and .xm, I have no idea how to work out which key the song is in by looking at the notes.

2 - Which chords go with which scales?

I have found lots of great info about making chords but the relationships between chords and scales baffles me, if im in C blues, which chords can I use for example?

Thanks a lot and if anyone else has any music theory questions fire away lets try and share some knowledge!

I am entirely self taught and just pick up odds and ends of stuff here and there about music theory (I mainly just know music from listening to it for hours and hours every day, and playing music). but, here is what I've gathered:

1. a key is a general reference point for the song, the most common note a piece goes back to. usually it is the first and last note of the song also, but that's just a generalization.

2. chords, are basically a cluster of notes unifying to create one note. so a scale could use single notes or a chord in it. a chord progression fits into a scale for example. there are many different scales and modes. a mode is a general type of scale.

anyway, I am far from an expert but that is my general knowledge I've picked up over the years. in the end though, the academic definition of music is an arrangement of sound over a certain amount of time, so have at it!

1. A key is a collection of notes that are harmonically related to one another by reference to the harmonic series (a series of pitches relating to every pitch), for example: in the key of C, the second strongest note that sounds when you press C on a piano, is C an octave up, followed by G, D, A, E, B and F. Which gives you the seven tones of the "key" of C, in the real world, these are not the same pitches that occur when you play the white notes on a piano. Modern western music uses a system called "equal temperament", which uses maths to divide each octave evenly into 12 pitches, irrespective of what register or "key".

So, you can tell what key you are in in a number of ways, firstly by looking at how many and what notes you use. So for example, if you had the notes: B D F# G# A C and E, what key would you be in? If you put these pitches into scale order (descending/ascending by step) from any point, let's go with C: C D E F# G# A B, this generates your "scale", in this case, a 7-tone scale akin to the major/minor system of western development. if we analyse it a bit more, we end up with a pitch collection that doesn't strictly occur in the diatonic (major/minor) scale system: if we take the G# away, we end up with a scale called "C Lydian", which is a mode, and shares the same pitch collection as G Major. In this case we also have a G#, which means it can't be G major, which creates an altered scale that doesn't belong to any particular "key", using C as the "tonic" (return/home/reference tone), we end up with a C Lydian with a #5, or a "lydian augmented" scale. Anyway, this is probably getting a bit too detailed for the question posed: the answer, simply, is that you define your key by how each note relates to the "tonic", and this can be done in relation to question 2, too:

2. You can define your key by your chords (two or more notes sounding together), each note in a chord relates to each other note in a certain way. For example, a minor chord (three notes), consists of a minor third interval from the first to second note, and a major third interval from the second to third note. A major chord is the opposite (major-minor), a diminished chord is minor-minor, augmented chord is major-major. What we then have is a relationship of tension to non-tension, or release.

In a standard major key, you have a collection of 7 base triads which follow the following progression
I ii iii IV V vi vii: the upper case representing a major triad, lower case representing a minor. This applies to ALL major keys. So, in the key of C, you have: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.

So, if you were to come up with a chord progression that went: F /// | Bb /// | F /// | C / Bb / ||, you could, by deductive reasoning, figure out you were in the key of "F", as that would take the place of the "I" chord. That would mean your related scale would be F major: F G A Bb C D E (F).


Now there's a lot more to it than that, and it gets a bit more fiddly when you introduce larger chords, or use a minor mode, but that should help (if it made sense) to begin with.

For the sake of discussion/thought, I would define a "key" as any point of tone center. For example, if I used all 12 pitches, but always referred back to F, either by playing MORE Fs than any other note, or by emphasising it in some other way, the tone center (and audible "key") would be F, also. This is a common way of doing things in rock music, trance, "post-rock" and minimalism.

Happy to help in any way I can with understanding music.

Last edited by fc (January 24, 2012 6:09 am)

One thing I feel it very important to note, also, is that MELODY came BEFORE harmony. ALL scales except SYNTHETIC scales (and even those probably) have their roots in MELODY. The scales were the analysis of melodies of the past, rather than the melodies being referential to the scales, though that happened too a bit later.

The basic chronology within western music was this:

1. Monophonic music (single melodic line)

This developed from single melodic lines (often played en masse by choruses), into 2, 3 and 4-part counterpoint.

2. Polyphony (multiple melodic lines simultaneously)

Multiple melodic lines (see Bach), and 2/3/4 part counterpoint created a system of thinking vertically about music, and the development of modern harmony (chords). Through the established "rules" of counterpoint, a composer had little-to-no choice about creating harmony almost by default.

3. Everything since. big_smile

The point is, that melody came first.

music theory usually just ends up confusing me... sure some knowledge is nice but music is a lot about intuition and methodology, practice, etc.

Very true. Theory is just an explanation for what is, and should always be thought of as that. However, having as many tools at your disposal as possible can't be a bad thing!

Apologies if anything I wrote was confusing, if I can clarify anything to anyone, do let me know!

am appreciating all the musical knowledge here though! I think maybe take it slower... also that website that is posted looks interesting. gonna bookmark that one. thanks!

I'm expected to pass 3 years of music theory before they hand me my degree. I'll be keeping my eye on this thread!

Every time I start reading about music theory, my brain glazes over and I just want to stop writing music at all. I guess I am just too stupid for it. I think this experiment is going to get me to realize that I should just stop fooling myself, sell all my gear and use the money to buy a kitten shelter or something.

I probably don't have the in depth knowledge of some of the people around here (vinpous wink ) but if I can catch you on IRC I can do some simple explanations that shouldn't be too hard to understand. smile

Musictheory.net is awesome, but is a better practice tool than a learning tool I'd say.  If you can find a local class or something go for it!

actually. the question about determining what key something is in is more complicated that it sounds. Check out this dissertation... http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~echew/papers/Di … tation.pdf
basically what a key is, is the percieved Tonal center of a given section of music.  The tonal center is the function that all of the other harmonic functions have tension towards.

also.. as far as relationships between chords goes... I try to look at less and less about being in a key and more and more about voice leading. Generally. If a chord has a common tone with the next chord then it is 9 times out of 10 going to sound right. Also, if one or more of the notes is a leading note (a semitone below or a full tone above) to the next chord. it wll sound ok. If you want to follow a classical approach.. then jumping by 5ths or 4ths is the way to go. It is important to understand that 4ths are always the 5th of another key, so it is possible to modulate to a different key using the 4th of one key as though it is the 5th of another. Also.. the major 3rd is always the dominant of the relative major/minor of whatever key you are in. That is an easy way to modulate between the two.

oh.. one more thing...  to underscore what others have said.. do NOT let music theory dominate your music..  Having learned lots of music theory, I often wish that I had never learned it. It makes being creative difficult. Only use it as a loose guideline.. Let your ears,thoughts and emotions dominate.. not knowledge.

For anyone who wants to SERIOUSLY learn music theory, I would suggest starting at the beginning (or the present) and working your way forwards (or backwards).

Start with cantus firmus, then do species counterpoint. By the end of species counterpoint, you can implement 3 and 4 voice counterpoint, and then you've accidentally learnt harmony too. At least, on a basic level. http://www.listeningarts.com/music/gene … s/menu.htm

The reason for doing this is that you'll learn quite quickly how harmony came to exist in the first place, and the reason for its existence. As Phil Harmonic mentioned voice leading, I thought this would be a suitable way to approach it for a beginner.

This may sound really strange, but I just write in all sharps most of the time. Noob strategy, I know... but it has taught my ear to hear when I go out of key even when I write in other keys. I would advise new composers to do this, only because it is very simple to understand and execute.