Wednesday, January 3, 2024


Confused about the Key of a song?

What key is your song written in? Why does it matter?

Some excellent reasons to know the “key” of the song:

Setting the key in AutoTune™-style software sounds more natural than chromatic scale

Knowing the key helps you choose notes for guitar solos

Setting guitar harmonizers correctly so they produce good sounding harmony

So how do you figure all this out without years of boring music theory?

If you happen to have sheet music available you could look at the key signature, you did memorize all those sheet music symbols didn't you? No? I didn't either, I was too busy working a job. 


One of the best music instructors I ever had introduced me to the concept of “Parent Key” which is really what this article is talking about. The parent key is the one to build musical solos from, generally speaking all the notes in the parent key are “inside” tonally and will produce good sounding notes (aka not clunkers or wrong sounding); YOU make a solo interesting by leaving out certain notes and occasionally sliding in a note that is outside the parent key (for dramatic effect).


Welcome to my music studio, here's a photo of the Chord Chart hanging on the wall. It's a great visual aid I refer to for lots of reasons and it also happens to hold the secret to instantly figuring out the parent key of a song. 

Chord Chart taped on the wall of my studio

Across the top of the chart you see the relationships of the chords to each other in Roman numerals: I,ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii, (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) many session musicians refer to these numbers when trying to give a quick overview of how to play a song. 

Roman numerals across top of chart

After you spend some time referring to this chord chart you'll quickly discover that a lot of pop music includes chords from the I, IV and V (1, 4, 5) columns with an occasional vi (6) chord joining in on a big chorus. 

The chord chart's superpower is that it can guide you to the parent key of the song you're working on. Let's get right into some example songs. 

Two Tickets To Paradise by Eddie Money 

Chords: G, A, D = parent key of D Major

This song revolves around a two-chord vamp moving between G and A. The chorus is D – G – A. It's a simple three chord song (with killer vocals and production). 

To find the parent-key you need to know the names of the chords of the song you're playing; starting in the I column on the left, slide down and find the row that has most of the chords to your song.

G, A, D are all in parent key of D Major

Slide down the I column to the key of D, then go right (horizontally) across that row and notice there is a G in the column IV and an A in column V. Notice that no other rows have D, G, and A chords in them, it's a pretty safe bet this song is in the key of D Major, that's the parent key you should set AutoTune™ style software to. If you're going to rip some lead guitar you'll want to choose notes from the D Major scale and that's where guitar players should set smart-Harmonizer™-style pedals.

With Or Without You by U2 

Chords: D, A, Bm, and G = parent key of D Major

G, A, D, Bm are all in the parent key of D Major

Look at the chord chart, slide down to the D in column I then go right, (horizontally) across that row and notice there is a G in column IV, an A in column V and a Bm in column vi. It's a pretty safe bet you'll want to set your vocal tuning software and harmonizer™ to the key of D Major. This is also where you'll find complementary notes for creating guitar solos. 

Twilight Zone by Golden Earring

Chords: Bm, Em, F#m, A, G, F# = parent key D Major

When songs have a lot of minor chords they are a little more challenging to determine the parent key. This song is fun because it breaks a couple of rules but we can still figure it out. 

Bm, Em, F#m, A, G are all here in the parent key of D Major

The first thing to notice is that no horizontal row has all these chords but one row comes very close, it's the key of D Major, it has all these chords except for the F# Major, this chord appears in the chorus section and it adds emphasis to the chord that follows it. The key of D Major does have the F#m chord so we have major and minor tones appearing in the same song. I told you there would be exceptions to rules but you'll want to set your vocal tuning software to D Major and choose your soloing notes with this key in mind.

Lyin Eyes by The Eagles

Song Chords: G, GMaj7, C, Am, D7, Em, Bm, A7 = parent key of G Major

G, C, Am, D, Em, Bm are all here in the parent key of G Major

The key of G Major has all these chords except for the various “7-chord” versions and that A Major tone which is part of the A7 chord. You'll want to set your vocal tuning software to G Major and look to this key for notes to play on solos. 

Change For The Better by Mark King (Me)

When I wrote this song back in 1980 I knew nothing about the chord chart or parent key. This song was created purely by the way the chords sounded with the Guitar Rockman amplifier I was playing through in the studio; floating between the Dm and Am was an ideal platform for slow bluesy lead solos.

Song Chords: Dm, Am, Gm = parent key of F Major

Dm, Am, Em are all here in the parent key of F Major

This song is a bluesy two-chord vamp which moves between Dm and Am in the verse section. On the chorus it drops to a Gm, Dm, Am progression before returning to Dm – Am vamp for verse and solo. 

The tone of the Dm-Am, vi to iii (6 chord to 4 chord) vamp plays a big part in this song which was meant to be a vehicle for lots of guitar soloing. It's an unusual chord structure but it works. Notice, that F (the parent key) does not appear in the song's chords. 

If we consult the chord chart we find that Dm, Am, and Gm are all contained in the key of F Major which is the key I chose to pull guitar solo notes from but back then I was doing it all by ear and could not afford a harmonizer so I played all the harmony guitar parts individually.


My technical music training mainly came from learning on the street and playing by ear, both of which were WAY before there was internet and YouTube. 

If you're a songwriter then the chord chart is your friend; it can quickly show you which chords mesh together in pleasing ways, and maybe even introduce you to some new chords.

Thanks for reading High on Technology, Good Music To You!

©January 2024 by Mark King

It's not ok to copy or quote without written permission from the author.