Identifying a Key by Ear Using Intuition

So far we’ve worked on activating our internal models of key by making sounds ourselves. It’s also useful to activate these models when listening to music. Our internal “map” gives us a tool to figure out what’s going on in the music, allowing us to play the music back, transcribe it into notation, and make music along to it.

Of the steps below, determining tonic is the more difficult one for most people. Many melodies start or end on the tonic, but not all. Bass (lowest) lines very often emphasize the tonic at the beginning and/or end, but not always, and bass lines can be more difficult to track than the melody. The tonic might be the most common, longest, or most emphasized note in the melody, but it might not.

What factors, then, lead us to hear something as a tonic? Here are a few:

  • Use of the note in melodies at points of rest (scale degree 2/re is also common)
  • Prominent use of the note in bass lines, especially at the beginnings and ends of phrases and sections
  • Chord progressions that are associated with establishing the key, especially authentic cadences
  • Common melodic patterns—these differ by the repertoire you’re listening to
  • Mere emphasis/repetition—but where the other factors are prominent, they will usually outweigh this one

With something so complex, it’s nice if we can rely on and refine our intuition rather than ponder each of these factors one by one. That’s why we start by describing a method to tap into your intuition, drawn from suggestions by pedagogue Gary Karpinski; additional methods are presented in the next section.

Just like in the section on setting up a key, you’re encouraged to use your voice at first, but should eventually be able to figure out the key without using your voice.


Activity: Explore the Collection

Goal: Use your intuition to sing the notes of the key of a song you’ve heard.


  1. Choose a song from the playlist below and listen to it for a while. (We recommend at least one phrase of melody, and/or about 30 seconds.)
  2. Hum or sing a note you remember from the song.
  3. Move around by step, exploring the sounds you’ve been hearing both up and down. If this is hard, or you consistently find yourself making sounds that aren’t in the key, this is a good sign you should work with someone one-on-one.
  4. This isn’t absolutely necessary for determining the key, but optionally, see if you can find all seven different notes of the scale. (No need to worry, yet, about which one is the tonic.)

Suggest a song for this playlist!

Activity: Finding Tonic

Goal: Use intuitive methods to find the tonic of a piece of music, and, ultimately, strengthen our intuition of tonic.


  1. Choose a song from the playlist below and listen to it for a while. (We recommend at least one phrase of melody, and/or about 30 seconds.)
  2. Optionally (but recommended, at least at first), hum a pitch that you remember from the song, and move around by step up and down to explore the notes that you were hearing. If this is a challenge, revisit the previous activity on determining collection.
  3. Choose a high note from the collection and hum or sing it. It’s often helpful if it’s a prominent note in the song, but this is not necessary.
  4. “Walk” down the scale step by step until you feel like you’ve “arrived” on tonic. Keep in mind that scale degree 5/sol and scale degree 1/do are often confused, at least at first. If this is difficult, work with a tutor or instructor.

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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