Identifying a Key by Ear: Other Methods

If the “intuitive method” of identifying a key doesn’t work for you, a nice complementary method is to use playback on a non-voice instrument to work out the pitch relationships. After hearing the music, use your best intuition and trial and error to work out how to play it back. Once you’ve done so, pay attention to the notes used, particularly where there are half steps and whole steps. These factors can help you intuit where the tonic is.

If finding tonic is still difficult with this method, note that many people find that extensive practice with some system of pitch solfège can help build your intuition.

One final note: it is possible, even in music mostly based on a key, to have passages of music where there is no clear tonic or where there is legitimate ambiguity among several possibilities. This is common in transitional passages, as well as in loop-based music without clear key-establishing progressions.

Activity: Find the Collection and Tonic

Goal: Use instrument playback as a tool to work out collection and tonic from a piece of heard music.

Before you start: You will need a non-voice instrument for this activity. The more intuitive you find this instrument, the better.


  1. Choose a song from the playlist below and listen to the first phrase of the melody as often as you need to lodge it in your memory.
  2. Using trial and error as necessary, work out how to play that phrase back on your chosen instrument. If you need to, you can replay the melody, but do as much as you can from memory.
  3. Once you can play the melody back, think about the pitches you used and how they relate to each other. You may wish to rearrange them into a scale. Thinking of them in stepwise relationships, where are the half steps? Make your best guess as to the key.

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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