Musicians are always banging on about “keys”. When they play a piece of music, it’s not sufficient just to say let’s play “Johnny B Goode”. No, they have to say they’ll play it in the key of A, or if they really know their onions, the key of Bb, which is how Chuck Berry played the original.
So what’s the deal with keys, what are they for and how do we use them?
Well, the key of a song refers to its overall tonality and determines which scale will be used as the basis of the melody and which chords will fit naturally, and pleasingly, into the arrangement of the song.
If you understand which chords go together, you’ll be able to work out the chord structure of a song much more easily because you will have a ready frame of reference to work with. It will also help you to begin writing your own songs because you’ll have a starting point and a set of guidelines to follow.
In each major key, you’ve got three major chords that appear. Most songs or chord progressions will usually start with the tonic (or keynote) chord. This is just the chord that has the same letter as the key. So for C major, the tonic chord is C itself.
In addition to these major chords, you’ll get minor chords appearing in major keys. This may sound a little counter-intuitive but if you try it, you’ll find that the effect is pleasing.
If you’re playing in the key of C, you’ll find that C major, F major and G major fit nicely with D minor, E minor, and A minor. This is a consequence of the notes that make up the C major scale, which dovetails nicely with the notes that appear in the chords just mentioned.
There aren’t any rules about which chords can be combined, but if you use chords from the same key when you are composing you’ll find that they always sound good together.
In each of the minor keys, there are three minor chords that go well together. They go together because they are closely related to one another and you’ll hear examples of such chord progressions in a lot of music that will be familiar to you.
If we take the key of A minor as an example, the chords that are the most important are A minor, E minor and D minor. You should note that three major chords also appear in each minor key. In this case, they are C major, F major, and G major.
All of the chords in the same key will sound pleasant when played together in any order, although for a nice chord progression it is usually best to start with the tonic chord.
Have a go at coming up with your own chord progressions using the chords in a specific key as a guide to help you make selections that sound good together.
You’ll find it’s surprisingly easy if you stick to the same key.