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Thread: Simple Progressions But Can't Figure out Key Signature

  1. #1
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    Mar 2017

    Question Simple Progressions But Can't Figure out Key Signature

    Hello all. Newbie here, sort of stuck/confused.

    Here is a music theory question that I've tried to research online, but am finding it impossible to come up with helpful search terms. I have literally no formal music education (beyond junior high band), so please be gentle. :P

    I have a few things I've written that I cannot figure out the key signature for. It's not that they have a bunch of accidentals (none, actually)... but rather that they just don't seem to fit a specific key.

    Here's an example... one uses this chord progression Am7 -> C -> G6/B. Looping this progression and improvising the melody and/or lead ideas that "feel" right, I never use F, nor do I use F-sharp. They both just sound very wrong, regardless of how and where I try to work them in. (I experimented with a 1/4 step bend up from F, which was interesting, but still wrong.)

    What the heck is going on? How can a relatively ordinary sounding chord progression lead to this "void" where nothing sounds right? Obviously, this could be notated as the key of C (Am), or G... but why do both F and F-sharp sound out of place?

    Many thanks for any help understanding the theory behind this... or even just what the phenomenon is *called*, so that I can research it.
    Last edited by Digita1Man; 03-24-2017 at 02:57 PM. Reason: formatting was weird - no post preview on this forum?

  2. #2
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    Mar 2017
    Neither F nor F# are really out of place, and which one you use (most) is what determines your key signature here. F and/or F# here don't seem quite as "in" as the rest of the notes of C or G because they're not directly represented in any of the chords of the progression, whereas every other note in the C or G scale is. If you improvise melodies using F natural, turning your C into sus 4 when played over the C, or turning your Am7 into an Am13 or your G6 into a G13, your telling the listener your in Am or C. In that case you could pop a passing Dm7 ahead of the G in the comp and nobody would hear anything funny. Play a D7 there and it'll sound weird. If you use the F# in your melody line for a few go-rounds, on the other hand, you'll establish a key center of G, and a passing Dm7 will sound "wrong" ahead of the G and D7 will sound really good.

    So, in summary... Playing Am7->C->G6/B doesn't, by itself, establish whether you are playing in C or G. Only the presence of F or F# either in melody or a passing chord will tell the ear which one it is...

    With that said, you could also put the E of your G6/B in the Bass instead of the B, which would turn it into an Em7. That would create a cadence back into the Am7 which would establish Am. Play that in the comp a few times and an F# in the melody will sound "out" even without a series of F's ahead of it to establish the key center.

    That's my thought anyhoo!
    Last edited by jjjtttggg; 03-29-2017 at 09:26 PM.

  3. #3
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    Mar 2017
    Thanks for the suggestions. I'll absolutely try out your thoughts (I'm particularly interested in the Em7 in place of the G6/B).

    The biggest problem I've had is that I (literally) have not been able to get a single F or F# to sound right, and not for lack of trying, either vocally or on guitar. I was sort of expecting someone to chime in with something technical like "hexatonic ambiguity was a feature of early 14th century pop music, where the 4th was omitted by necessity due to dissonance stemming from..."

    (Or something.)

  4. #4
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    Apr 2009
    Dallas Texas
    Another possibility is to end the piece by breaking the loop. Instead of following the C chord with a G6/B, insert a Dm7 followed by a G7 followed by a C. This would clearly fix the piece as in C. (And inserts the note F for that matter.) Another possibility is to insert a D7 then G7 then G (getting both an F and an F#) which sounds a bit different. A key isn't really established without some sort of cadential gesture. The G7/B to Am7 sounds fine, but not very final. Classically, it's a deceptive cadence; the ear is lead to expect a C but gets an Am instead. One could just finish with a C instead of the Am but that might sound a bit abrupt. By adding a D7 or a Dm (or an F or Fm for that matter) sort of sets up the expectation that "something" is about to happen. You could just fade out but that's a copout. Jjjtttggg's suggestion is OK too; the point being to have a root movement by a descending fifth (G to C or E to A) to set up the ending. Again one could precede the E7 by Dm or B7 or Bm.

  5. #5
    you don't have a subdominant chord in your progression, so F has no place. except you can insert it in the far end of the G chord to make it into an unbearable tensioned G7 wanting to resolve back.
    if Am chord was without the G tone then it could have been more convincing if you played F over this chord, making it an Fmaj7.
    Last edited by James Shaormer; 04-01-2017 at 06:34 AM.

  6. #6
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    Feb 2017
    Am C6 G6/B didn't contain any tritones. Both F and F# would introduce that interval, F#--C and F --B.

    It's possible that you want a very clean open sound with no tritones. Purposely not including certain notes can be useful. I use it in celtic music the most.

    Of course I also believe in being able to get any note to work. Your 1/4 step bend idea was a positive step in that direction.

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