How To Find The Key By Just Listening

Everything balances on I
Everything balances on the I chord

It happened again.

We were in rehearsal for our Sunday services, and our final song needed an intro. The chords on the chart correctly read: C G Em D, and I heard someone exclaim, “this is the one in C, right?”

Uh-oh, I thought. We may have a problem.

The song is in G. But they didn’t know that.

Now our songs often do start on the I chord, that is, the chord with the same name as the key. It’s built from the 1st, or the root, of the major scale. But songs don’t have to start there. The key center might be anywhere in the pattern.

And knowing what key the song is in is pretty important for our music team members to know.

Determining the Key

So how can you tell what key a song is in? If you can’t read music and you don’t know what a key signature is (and the key signature is a signpost, not a reason or a definition, by the way), what should you do? How can you just listen to a song and figure it out?

Well, the short answer is, you just have to know what to listen for. And it will take some practice. But you can learn to do it!

Here’s how it works.

The Key Center

Every song in our culture revolves around a key center. Well, most songs. There are some pieces of music that are atonal, meaning they don’t follow quite the same harmonic rules as just about all the rest. Let me pull a number out of the air: I would guess these make up less than 1% of the music we hear.

Right now I’m not talking about atonal music, but rather the everyday kind of music you’ll encounter everywhere you go: songs you’ll hear on the radio, TV commercials and themes, symphonic pieces, blues, jazz, top 40, country. Each song has a very specific harmonic structure, and the structure is based around the key center.

The key center is the chord that brings everything into balance. The melody and all the other chords are to varying degrees removed from this chord. They will each sound like something else needs to happen next, like they are waiting for something.  But the key center is the fulcrum, the nucleus that everything else revolves around.  It is, as I mentioned, the chord built from the 1st of the major scale, so we’ll call it the I chord (roman numerals mean chords, not single tones).

The Only Chord That Makes The Song Sound Finished

You’ll hear the I chord as being the only chord you could potentially end the song on and have it sound finished and complete. Try it with some of the recordings you own. Start playing a song, then when you think you’ve found the I chord, hit pause. Does the song sound like it should end on that chord? Try it again and again until you’re pretty sure you’ve found it.

balancing scaled 1This works for songs in major keys and minor keys, fast songs and slow songs, rock songs, country songs, polkas and reggae. Even rap for the most part. There will be a chord that everything seems to revolve around, the other chords moving out from it then back toward it. But when you play that chord, the I chord, things come into stable repose.

The placement of the chords within the rhythmic framework of the song will also affect your perception of the key center, though not the actual function of it. For example, the downbeat of a song is naturally the strongest point in time as you play any progression. You very easily, almost automatically, want that spot to be filled by the I chord. So when the song for my team didn’t start on I, it was a confusing moment for one of the team members.

Okay, I guess we’ve got some theory to cover in our next rehearsal!

So the song might start on the I chord, or it might not. The composer may choose to end the song on the I chord, or she may not. But the fact that the I chord is the key center does not rely on its position in the song. It gains its strength from its position in the scale.

There are mechanical reasons for this, of course. We’ll cover the mechanics in another post soon. For now, let’s just say that the I chord is simply the only chord you can end the song on and have it sound finished. Try the exercise above, then let me know how you did!

Can you pick out the I chord when you’re listening to your favorite songs or artists, or even when you hear the Muzak at the mall?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship and practical music theory to me at [email protected].

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© 2014 Steve Case

Sometimes We’ve Just Got To Sing

at the farmOn the way home from our family reunion a few weeks ago, I was reminded once again how important music is to each of us, how integral it is to life, and how so much color is added to our lives by it.

We sang a few songs at the reunion, from Loggins & Messina and James Taylor to Chris Tomlin and Keith Green. Really fun. But when we left at the end of the day, the music wasn’t over just yet.

We had been driving back to our motel for just about two hours. The family farm is in northern Michigan, but we were staying near Sue’s brother’s house, so it was a hike. My grandson Emery rode in the back seat while she and I navigated up front.

Emery had finished watching whatever DVD from his collection, then he had a short conversation with Sue about the magazine she was reading. After that, he was quiet for a few moments. Then, he started to sing.

Now he’s just a little guy, and I really have no idea what the song was. Not a clue. Couldn’t tell what the lyrics were. And the melody, while purposeful, was not quite recognizable. Yet he sang with joy, control, and artistry.

I was really proud!

our stageWhether we’re singing in a group or by ourselves, whether we’re singing ancient pop tunes (like in the 80’s? are those ancient now?) or praise songs, we are musical beings. And as I understand it, the fact that humans must sing is a universal truth.

It might be a song I heard a long time ago. Might be harmonizing to a tune on the radio. Let me tell you, I can sound pretty darned impressive in my car.

When I sing, I express my heart, my experiences, my optimism and my hurts, in a way that goes beyond mere communication. My soul peeks out through the melodies and lyrics. My life feels more colorful when I can sing.

When I don’t sing for a long time, I think I go a little stir crazy. And at 5 years old, my grandson gets it.

Is it just us, or does singing help your soul breathe, too?

I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about singing, musicianship, or how to use music theory to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

7 Steps To Successfully Reinvent Cover Tunes

From my grandmother's Edisonphone to smartphones
From my grandmother’s Edisonphone to smartphones

So we’re in rehearsal for our weekend services, working on a song pretty new to me and the team. The original artist did a great job with it, but we just can’t seem to nail it down. The groove is elusive, the tempo’s not right, so far the song is not too healthy. Will we be able to get it on its feet, or will it never make it out of the lab?

I do some quick mental gymnastics and come up with a plan. “Okay, let’s have the keyboard do this, and the guitar can do that, then if we all get softer here and gradually louder into here, it should work. Ready? Let’s try it.”

Immediately one of my musicians, who knows the song well, speaks up. “But that’s now how it is on the recording…”

And he is right. It isn’t even close.

So what do we do now?

If you are in a band or on a worship team, I’m quite sure this question has popped up. The fact is, we have a mental recording of the song playing in our heads that sounds great. Inspiring. Motivating. Awesome. The right way to play the song.

Then we go to play it ourselves, and it’s not even in the same neighborhood as the original.

The Recording Is Ground Zero

Our first impression of a song stays with us for a long time. We like it or we hate it, or it is simply background noise and we don’t care. But however we first heard it – whoever the artist was, whatever their arrangement, and whether it was live or in the studio – that first impression becomes the gold standard for us, for that song.

But rather than throw in the towel, decide to give up on our dreams of becoming great musicians and stick with our pizza delivery job, there are some options. Good ones.

7 Steps To Re-Arrange The Song

1. Assess the character of the song

Know where you’re starting, whether the song is serious, humorous, in your face or reflective. Then decide if you want to give it the same mood or try something new.

2. Identify musical hooks

There will be a melody line, an unusual chord, a really catchy rhythm or a lyric that you won’t be able to get out of your head. That would be the hook, and it will give the song much of its memorable quality.

3. Let go of your compulsion to play the song “the right way”.

This has to be a conscious choice. The fact is, every time you play a song, you are playing some sort of arrangement of it, that is, you are using somewhat different instruments and voices to replay the song, now in your own setting. Even when you try to stay as true to the original as you can, it won’t be the exactly same as the recording.

4. Assess your own abilities and those of your band.

Where are your strengths? (No matter how different they may be.) Maybe your guitarist isn’t lightning fast but you’ve got a banjo player who can hold his own. If it’s just you and your guitar, what style are you really good at?

5. Rearrange the song to reflect your strengths.

Make sure the hook is still heard, unless you want to make the song sound completely new and different. If it’s still not working, try a more dramatic change. How do you think it would sound if (insert your favorite artist here) were to play and sing it?

6. Take a chance and change the genre.

The next even more dramatic change would be to cross genres, or stylistic families of songs. For example, if the song started out as a rock power ballad, try it as an unplugged acoustic ballad. If it started out as an uptempo country rock song, how would it sound as a big-band swing tune, or maybe a Bob Marley brand of reggae?

7. Sell it.

Whether you go with an approximation of the original or something entirely out of the blue, you’ve got to let the listener know you believe in your song. Play it like your way is the only right way for the song to sound. Commit yourself to it. Groove with it. It is now your song.

Reality and My Guitar

When I started playing pop songs, I quickly realized that no matter what I did, my one acoustic guitar would never sound like the the Doobie Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire (back in the day, these were the quintessential experts on the radio, among others). But I did have 6 strings, 10 fingers, 1 voice, and some creativity.

Realizing I didn’t have to strum all the strings at once, or that I could beat on my guitar for a little percussion, adding a hard strum on 2 and 4 to replace the snare drum, moving the bass note of the chord around in lieu of a bass player… and on and on. It didn’t sound like the recording, but that didn’t matter anymore. I could do a decent, entertaining version of the song using the tools I had.

And once I let go of “should I play it like the record?”, I had way more fun.

Do you ever feel like you’re tied to how the recording sounds? Try some of the steps above and let me know how they work for you!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about musicianship, music theory or worship teams to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

How To Play Fills – When You’re Not The Drummer (The Art Of The Fill, pt 2)

Mike on the kit

Drums are the most in-your-face instrument for playing fills, and everyone expects the drummer to telegraph what’s coming up next in the song. But the best arrangements build on their foundation, using every other instrument to drive the song forward in their own ways. Each instrument can add its own brand of fills.

Ramping Up

If verses are well-traveled roads and choruses are interstates, then musical fills are the on and off ramps.

Let’s say I’m speeding along (figuratively, of course) toward my destination and suddenly realize my turn is the one I’m about to go by. I slam on the brakes while glancing at the rear-view mirror, crank the wheel and squeal around onto the new road. As the honking from the surprised drivers around me fades from my ears, I start to breathe again and loosen my death grip on the steering wheel.

I have made it through the transition from one road to the next.

But without warning other drivers around me, it could have been my last turn. At least in that car.

If only there had been an off-ramp.

Use The Rhythm Section

Fills prepare us for what musical thing comes next. We might ramp the energy up or down, or maybe even sideways as we move into a new style of playing.

Fills can (and should) be played on every instrument in the rhythm section, at least. So I’m talking about guitars, keys, bass, drums and percussion.

In the following example, you’ll hear a different instrument do a fill as we near the end of each 4-measure phrase. I did this kind of fast and it needs some tweaking, but see if you can tell where each fill begins.


What About Everybody Else?

Monophonic instruments (fancy way of saying they play one note at a time) can lead the ear using fills as well, embellishing melodies with extra notes or improvising around the tune with more energy as the new section gets closer. And yes, vocalists can fill, too.

Melodic fills are helpful when layered on top of the rhythm section, to add more tension as we head up the on-ramp toward say, the chorus. They really can’t carry the groove of the song without the other instruments. But they certainly can add color and energy when in tandem with the rhythm section.

Here is the same progression with a lead line that contributes to the forward motion of the song.


You don’t have to play something really complicated in order to do a fill. Remember, it’s a ramping up or down of the energy level. Simpler is probably better most of the time. Use rhythms that feel a little off balance, the tension will grow the longer you keep it up, and when you hit the new section of the song, go right into the new groove. Ramp up toward a chorus by gradually getting louder, then at the end of the chorus, soften it down or thin it out again. Increase or decrease the brightness of the sound, raise and lower the octave you’re playing in. Choose the direction of the fill and alter the energy level thinking about where you’re about to be.

Ready to add some really great fills in your own songs? Add more intention to your fills every 4 or 8 measures, then let me know how it sounds!

You can leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about rhythm sections, music theory or general musicianship at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case