Figuring the Key of a Song

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This article is written from the perspective of a guitar player asking: “Do I need a capo to play this song?”

As I suggest in another post, the capo should only be used in a limited way. Finding the key is the first step.

Most popular or traditional songs are written in a key that is fairly easy to discover if you use the following common sense technique.

Step by Step

1. Play the song and listen carefully.

2. Hum (yes, HUM) along with the song and just “feel” what seems like the anchor tone. This will usually be the root and will tell you the key. It is important that you hum it and listen to yourself so you can compare your humming to the actual tune.

3. If this doesn’t work, try humming to the end of a major phrase or section of the song. Think of the song “Three Blind Mice” for example. Each of the opening phrases are “Three blind mice, three blind mice.” Both of them end on the root/anchor note.

Or think of the song “Achy, Breaky Heart”. Hum it and you will notice the first (and every) verse ends on the root/anchor note.

If you still can’t get it…

Worst case scenario, hum right to the end of the song. The vast majority of popular songs end on the root/anchor note.

4. Now peck around on your guitar or keyboard until you find the tone that corresponds to your anchor tone.

5. Remember, if you’re playing a guitar and you intend to use a capo if necessary, limit your search for the anchor tone to the G or B strings. Then, if it is a key you are not familiar with, use the capo formula I outline in a previous post.

That’s it!! Now try it here to prove it to yourself.

Here are “Three Blind Mice” in D, “Row, Row Row Your Boat” in G and “Ode to Joy” in C:

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