November 27, 2011  

Songwriting Chord Progressions – What is a Key?

Today we thought we’d give you a bit of a musical theory lesson, answering the question, what is a key?

In this video, songwriter and Point Blank tutor Jony Rockstar demonstrates six triad chords (in the key of C Major) . Pretty much any combination of these chords can be used together to build a chord sequence, the reasons for which are explored below the video. Two types of chord progression are demonstrated: descending and ascending.

so now onto the theory behind musical keys…

What is a key?

Every song has a key, and that key is defined by the notes and the chords used in the song.

You can often work out the key of track by just singing or playing one note. When you find the right note, you’ll find it pretty much fits throughout the whole track, and it feels as though the song is really solid when it returns. Its going to depend somewhat on whether the song changes key at any point, but try it out with some tracks, and find which note fits the best, and that note will commonly be the “key” of the song. Many commerical tracks actually stay in one key and should be fairly easy to work out.

The key in a piece of music identifies the tonic triad (which is always the chord that shares the same note name as the key), major or minor, which represents the final point of rest for either the complete song, or the focal point of a section of that song.

Why do keys matter?

It’s very handy to know which key you’re in when writing a song. For example, in the song ‘Blue Moon’ which is written in the key of C major, you will find that when you play the C Major chord again as you go round the chord sequence there is a nice feeling of resolution, a certain rightness to it. The main reason for this is that C Major is the tonic triad chord of the key. That is how we can say that we are playing a chord sequence in the key of C Major.

Also, there certain triads that are available within a key, giving you a simple harmonic flow when you use them in a chord sequence.

For example, in a major key there are six major & minor triads you can use. If we stay with C Major as our key for the moment, they are:

With each C Major chord, you only need to play white notes on the piano. As the key of C Major includes every white note and none of the black notes, we can say that all of these chords are available to us in the key of C Major.

Similarly, these same six chords are available to us in the key of A minor as the key of A minor includes every white note and none of the black ones.

As you may have imagined, seeing as they use exactly the same notes, the keys of C Major and A Minor have a special relationship with each other: A Minor is the Relative Minor key of C Major.

Similarly, C Major is the Relative Major key of A Minor.


Don’t worry if this is all a bit confusing! Music theory is a subject that takes years to learn and even longer to master… nailing down the basics though will undoubtedly take your music to the next level, especially if you are making of more melodic forms of electronic music such as trance and R&B.

The 4 week Songwriting Course delves far deeper into music theory with many more practical examples around the subject. It has been developed by experienced producer and songwriter Jony Rockstar who has worked with The Sugababes, Amy Winehouse, Alicia Keys, Lily Allen and many others. With the benefit of being able to draw from his years of experience in the industry, you’ll be writing hit songs in no time!

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Video Transcription:

Jony Rockstar: Now we’re going to demonstrate for you some chord progressions relating to the text that you’ve just read. For this example, we’re going to use the key of ‘C major’. Now in the transport bar, Logic will actually show you the chord that you’re playing in the MIDI input.

Great stuff. So here are all the chords that work in the key of ‘C major’. ‘C major’, ‘D minor’, ‘E minor’, ‘F major’, ‘G major’, and ‘A minor’. Now, pretty much any combination of these chords can be used together to build a chord sequence. We’re going to have an example now of a descending chord sequence.

OK. Now, we’re going to do an ascending chord sequence.

Now, if I put the two difference sequences together, you can hear how we’re nearly already got a verse and a bridge, or a verse and a chorus, or definitely the beginnings of a song. So let’s have a listen.

Great stuff, so there you can hear different ways of putting those ascending and descending chord sequences together. If you don’t play, if you’re not a player, don’t be scared your hands dirty. Just get stuck in, and as we’ve said in the text, it might be a great idea to use a chord book. I use one myself. Just experiment with different chords in the same key, and you’ll see how easy it is to put chord structures together for songs.

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