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Thread: Kaskade's Dynasty and Determining the Key of a Song

  1. #1
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    May 2010

    Kaskade's Dynasty and Determining the Key of a Song


    As I started writing this post, it turned into several questions, so please bear with me, and any answers (even to just a question or two) would be much appreciated.

    Question 1) Say a musician hears a song...is there a “method” they use to determine the key of a song? (assuming they don’t have the sheet music in front of them)

    Some background…I’m doing a remix of Kaskade’s ‘Dynasty’


    and I’d like to know what key it’s in. My current method is to import the vocal into Melodyne and have the program guess what key the song is in. For this song, Melodyne said the key is D minor (see attachment below).

    Looking at the attached screen print, D minor looks to be correct (the vocal only hits pitches that are part of D minor). But I’m curious if Melodyne could be wrong. Based on the screen print, my guess would have been A minor (because the lowest repetitively used pitch is A). I know there’s that one pitch that hits Bb (so that makes it D minor instead of B minor), but to me, one pitch seems like a small amount to determine the whole key of the song.

    Question 2) Is the tonic of a song the LOWEST pitch repetitively found in a song? So for example, in the screen print, is the tonic A, since A is the lowest pitch used repetitively? Or could D be the tonic, even know A is also used and lower?

    Question 3) Is the tonic of a song used in determining what the key of the song is? For example, to determine if the song is in A minor or D minor, would you first determine what pitches are used, then possibly override your decision based on what that tonic is?

    Question 4) If in the screen print, there was no note Bb, would the key of the song be A minor or D minor? Or either, because there's not enough information to know?

    Question 5) Say I were to write a bassline in A minor to go along with the vocals. Would it really make that much of a difference if it were written in A minor (as opposed to a bassline in D minor)? Would people be jarred because at some points I used B instead of Bb?


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  2. #2
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    Apr 2008
    A few quick answers -

    1) Without the sheet music I'd try to work out what the key a song is in by listening for the tonic chord - often the chord the song starts on, and almost always the chord it ends on - and trying to match it with my guitar (without perfect pitch I need some external reference). From there if I can work out the other chords in the progression they will tend to confirm the key.

    2) NO, the tonic isn't necessarily the lowest note found in the melody.

    3) The key will, by definition, be based on the tonic...

    4) A Bb note is found in the key of Dm, not in Am, but I wouldn't really be thinking about figuring out the key in those terms.

    5) Try it and see how it sounds...
    Last edited by walternewton; 05-19-2010 at 11:51 PM.

  3. #3
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Feb 2004
    Deep East Texas Piney Woods
    Several ways to come up with the key.
    1. Look for the key signature on the sheet music. No # or b you will be C major or Am. Each key signature tells you the key and the relative minor. You have to look at the chords used to decide which one. Understand same notes and chords in both C and Am. Its how the chords are used that determine if it's C or Am - Progression revolving around C F & G chords it's the key of C. Progression revolving around the Am, Dm & Em chords you've got an Am key.

    2. Look at the ending chord in each verse, If the same that's your key.

    3. Look for the V-I cadence the I is your key.

    4. Listen for the tonal center. Listen and sound your E string one fret at a time, when what you are doing and what you are listening to come together - sound good - you found the tonal center. Look down at what note this happened on. That's your key.

    Good luck.

  4. #4
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Dec 2002
    Twickenham, UK
    As mentioned above, the key is what sounds like the key - the note that "sounds like home". That means the note on which the piece will sound like it's come to an end.
    If this is in D minor, that means a final Dm chord will sound more "complete" as an ending than any other chord. Finishing on any other chord will probably sound like you need to play another chord (namely Dm) to put a "period" on the "sentence". D will also need to be the final note - certainly in the bass, probably in the melody too.
    In rock and pop music, the key chord is almost always the starting chord too.

    The scale itself (the notes used) is not enough - the scale is not the key.

    It may be that the only information you need (for your purposes) is to know those 7 notes. But that's not the same as knowing the "key". A 7-note scale can have 7 modes - all but one of them could be a key.
    For the notes A Bb C D E F G, F major and D minor are by far the most common tonalities - the "relative major and minor keys".
    Other tonalities from those 7 (less common but still possible) are:
    C mixolydian
    G dorian
    A phrygian
    (Bb lydian would be rare, and E locrian theoretical only)

    In the case of this track, the key could hardly be more obvious: it's a lengthy vamp on a D bass.
    So the key is D (some kind of D-based mode).
    The melody then outlines a conventional minor scale based on that note - IOW including F, C and Bb notes, rather than the F#, C# and B that would give D major; or various other combinations of notes that might give other D-root modes.

    IOW, you're looking at it from the wrong angle.
    Start with the bass: that clearly states D as its keynote. (You hardly need fancy software to tell you that - I determined it in a second or two by listening.)
    The remaining notes used - which you may or may not need software to help find - then determine whether the D-key is major, minor, or some other mode.

    A suitable new bass line would be based around D, therefore, and it would make sense to use the same melodic material as the vocal. (Unless you can hear other notes used by the bass or chords in the original. As well as the main implied Dm chord, I hear Gm and Bb chords at least. Your bass line doesn't have to follow the original chords, but it would make sense for it to harmonise with the vocal in some logical way.)

    In fact, you don't need to invoke theory at all (asking what "key" it's in). If you can determine the notes used (with or without Melodyne's help), just use those for your new bass line. You don't need to know whether A or D is the keynote. Just play whatever seems to sound right with the vocal (or other instruments).
    (Although the key actually is D minor, it maybe that an A-based bass line will work. Theory won't tell you that, only your ear will.)

  5. #5
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    May 2010
    Thanks Walter, Malcolm, and Jon for your answers. That's a ton of insight there. Gives me a whole new perspective on what the key of a song is and ways to find it. Now it's obvious that the scale (as determined by the notes used) is not enough to determine the key. Listening for the what note the piece revolves around is a better place to start.

    It really helps to have answers to questions to a specific scenario (like this song). Reading about music theory in Wikipedia is much harder when it's just general concepts that are not being applied to anything specific. Thanks again.

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