Choosing a Key

Our first priority in a transcription should always be to determine the context: key and meter. Key signatures and meter signs are of course written at the beginning of notated music. But beyond the niceties of writing, key and meter are also the “measuring tools” we use when working out exactly what we’re hearing. Figuring them out at the beginning of the process will make everything else work more smoothly. Because key signatures are written before meter signs at the beginning of notated music, we’ll start with key.

Here’s a quick review.

This procedure helps us find tonic and collection in the music. If we have access to an instrument or absolute pitch, we can then figure out the note name of that tonic. Rather than just playing random notes until you find the right one, you can continue to build the skill of hearing within a key with the following procedure:

  1. Play a random pitch on the instrument.
  2. Assuming that pitch wasn’t the tonic, make your best guess as to what scale degree it is within the song’s key.
  3. Using that pitch and scale degree as a reference point, work out which note on the instrument should be the tonic, and play it to confirm.
  4. If you’re incorrect, repeat as necessary.

If we don’t have access to an instrument or absolute pitch and we need to use full notation rather than some kind of shorthand, we will either receive that information from an instructor or write in an arbitrary key.

One more step to figure out the key: we should also determine whether the key is major or minor (or, if this is a possibility given the music you’re working with, another mode). You may have an intuitive sense of this. If not, first remind yourself of the tonic, then walk up through the scale, focusing on scale degree 3/mi or me’s relationships to the notes immediately above and below.

Once you’ve determined the tonic and major/minor, you can choose a key signature. While this isn’t a particularly aural skill, a knowledge of key signatures is necessary for transcription by hand.

Activity: Choose a key

Goal: Develop listening habits that prioritize context (key and meter).

Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below. For each, find the tonic and determine whether the key is major or minor. Optionally, find the tonic on an instrument and write out the appropriate key signature. We will continue working with these songs over the next few sections.


Suggest a song for this playlist!




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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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