Setting Up an Internal Map of Key

Internalized maps are funny. You likely have paths or roads you follow every day, perhaps even without needing to think about them—and yet you may have trouble describing them to someone because they are so automatic for you.

We guarantee that, if you have listened to and/or made much music in a key, you have internalized certain musical paths through major and minor keys. Sometimes we want to follow our automatic routes along those paths. But as musicians, it will be helpful if we have some conscious control over our internalized maps—calling them to mind when necessary, imagining them from different perspectives, starting in different places, and sometimes even shifting the map around us to create a new geography through which to move.

This section will help you develop ways to set up your musical map internally before you start making music. This is particularly helpful when sight reading music that you’ve never heard before, but it also helps with other high-level skills. At first, as we’re building our internal models, our methods will be out-loud and conscious, but with time your internal models will strengthen and you will be able to assume a key context more quickly and silently.

You’re encouraged to use your voice to follow the procedures below. Using an instrument can also be effective, but we don’t always have instruments with us, and for a lot of people, the voice has (requires!) a more direct relationship with imagined sound in the brain. Since we want to internalize the patterns, getting at the brain is crucial. Of course, if your voice-brain connection is problematic, and especially if you are so familiar with an instrument that it feels like an extension of your body, imagining motions related to that instrument may be just as useful.

In our experience, two musical elements are helpful in establishing a key context: half steps and a sense of harmonic confirmation. The patterns below are useful in finding the half steps within a key from different starting points, and they all end with scale degrees 1-5-1/do-sol-do to give a strong sense of tonic.

Major key:

Minor key:

Activity: Internalize key-establishing patterns

Goal: Make the key-establishing patterns so automatic that they can be called to mind silently if necessary.


  1. Choose a mode (major or minor) and a starting scale degree (scale degree 1/do, 3/me or mi, or 5/sol ) and play yourself a starting pitch.
  2. Identify the appropriate pattern to establish the selected key around that pitch, treating it as the selected scale degree.
  3. Sing or imagine the appropriate pattern. At first, you may wish to sing aloud and have a partner or instructor give you feedback.
  4. When repeating these steps, you may choose a new starting pitch, but it is also useful to use the same starting pitch and see if you can treat it as a different scale degree—shifting the map around you to create a new geography.

Activity: Communicate a key through improvisation

Goal: Develop an understanding of how an internal sense of key relates to sound.

Before you start: Decide whether to do this activity vocally or on another instrument. Working vocally exercises your internal sense of key more; using another instrument gives you more pitch security, which may allow you to focus more on how to communicate through pitch choice.


  1. Choose a mode (major or minor) and a starting scale degree (scale degree 1/do, 3/me/mi, or 5/sol ). Your goal is to come up with some music that clearly conveys your chosen key to a listener.
  2. Plan out a melody that will convey the collection (by incorporating at least one half-step from the scale) and the tonic (by using gestures such as scale degrees 7–1/ti-do, arpeggios of the tonic triad, cadence patterns such as ending on scale degree 2/re or 1/do, etc.).
  3. Consider also how you will “shape” your melody to have a clear high point and a sense of coming to a rest at the end.
  4. Choose a starting pitch, either from your head or from an instrument, and set up the key silently.
  5. Perform your melody. (You may decide whether to use even rhythmic values or something more rhythmically interesting.)
  6. Optional: ask a listener to identify the tonic and mode (major/minor) that you intend to convey. If they do not hear what you intended, workshop with them on how you might more clearly convey the key.

Activity: Apply key-establishing patterns to music reading

Goal: Develop the habit of establishing a sense of key before reading music

Before you start: Find some notated music. Sight-reading anthologies are useful because they have lots of short melodies—just make sure you work from a chapter that mixes different keys, including major and minor if appropriate. You may alternatively apply this to music for your primary instrument. You are recommended to work with your voice even if the music is for a non-voice instrument.


  1. Identify the intended key by inspecting the key signature and the emphasized notes. (Recall that scale degrees 1/do and 5/sol are often emphasized.)
  2. Identify the scale degree of the starting note of the melody. Play yourself a starting pitch.
  3. Singing or imagining the appropriate pattern specified above, establish the key from that starting pitch. If the starting scale degree is not a member of the tonic triad, you may have to adapt the patterns.
  4. Optionally, sing the opening several notes.
  5. As we’re trying to develop the habit of establishing a key before making music, it’s helpful to repeat these steps over and over with additional melodies.


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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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