Determining The Key Of A Melody - Part 2 - ZERMELO

Determining The Key Of A Melody – Part 2

This is Part 2 of the series on how to figure out what key a melody is in. Click here for Part 1.

It doesn't matter if it's a vocal, bass line, synth line, whatever — you just want to know if it will work in your track.

And that's exactly what you're learning how to do in this series.

Minor Scale Formula.

In Part 1, we looked at the Minor Scale Formula.

And I have to remind you why:

Remember, there are tons of scales out there: major, minor, different modes, etc.

But we're ONLY looking at the minor scale right now — because we need to keep things simple and 90% of house music uses the minor scale.

So by looking at the minor scale, that'll cover the most ground for you — at least in the initial stages of your learning.

Once you know how to check for minor scales, it'll be easy to check for any other scales. So no matter what melody you come across, you'll be able to determine the key.

If you recall, the Minor Scale Formula helps you figure out exactly what notes are in any given minor scale.

And if you know the notes in a melody AND you know the notes in the scales, then you can simply SEE which scale the melody “belongs” to.

Parts 2 & 3: Scale Degrees & Intervals.

So that was Part 1. Let's move on to Part 2…

Today, we're going to look at the relationships between the notes in the scale.

For two reasons:

#1 – If you're able to identify the relationships of the notes inside a melody, then you can see how those relationships might “map” onto a scale.

And this will help you identify what scale you're in.

#2 – Another way of thinking about this:

The notes in the scale all have a special relationship to the FIRST NOTE in the scale — or the “TONIC.”

So when you understand the relationships in a scale, you can see how the notes in a melody are “pointing” you toward the tonic note.

And if you're able to identify the tonic, then you are able to identify the key.

So…

Part 2 — Here, we'll breakdown the “scale degree” names and their relationships or intervals.

Part 3 — Here, we'll look at the “important” intervals and some “interesting” intervals too. These intervals are often dead giveaways about what key you're in.

Scale Degree Names.

There are seven notes in the scale. And each of these notes has a special name.

I'll let you know in advance that these names relate to the two most important notes in the scale:

The first note (tonic)

The fifth note (dominant)

This is helpful because it reinforces what I said earlier: The notes in the scale have a special relationship to the tonic.

And understanding these relationships will help you determine WHERE a melody is playing with in a scale — which will point you toward the tonic.

And if you can find the tonic, you can find the key.

So here are the scale degree names for the minor scale:

  1. tonic
  2. supertonic
  3. mediant
  4. subdominant
  5. dominant
  6. submediant
  7. subtonic
  8. tonic

Do you see how all these names are based around the tonic and dominant — again, the 2 most important notes in the scale?

Let's see how to easily memorize these:

The “supertonic” is above the tonic — easy.

The “subdominant” is below the dominant — easy.

The “subtonic” is below the tonic — easy.

But what about mediant and submediant?

Well, mediant is like the word “median” — it's between something. In the middle.

So what is the mediant in the middle of? The tonic and dominant.

And the “submediant” is in the middle of the tonic and subdominant (if you go from 8 to 4, the submediant is 6).

See? So this is all pretty easy to memorize. I just want to highlight the key points here:

  1. The scale degree names are all based around the tonic and dominant
  2. The tonic and dominant are the two most important (and stable) notes in the scale.

Example – Scale Degree Names.

Let's do a quick example.

Take A minor:

A B C D E F G

  • A is the tonic
  • B is the supertonic
  • C is the mediant
  • D is the subdominant
  • E is the dominant
  • F is the submediant
  • G is the subtonic

And A, again, is the tonic (just an octave higher).

There is still more we need to learn, but you can see where we're going:

If, for example, you're able to spot the “submediant” in a melody, that immediately implies what the tonic is. And therefore, what key you're in.

But of course you're wondering: How do you know if a note is the submediant — or any other scale degree?

That's where intervals come in…

Minor Scale Intervals.

An interval is a musical distance.

Remember in Part 1 we defined the Minor Scale Formula as:

W H W W H W W

These are intervals. They tell you the distance between each note.

So you can think of the Minor Scale Formula — and all scale formulas — as a sequence of intervals.

Now we need to look at the intervals between the tonic and the rest of the notes in the minor scale.

The Minor Scale Interval Table:

1 to 2 = tonic to supertonic = major second = +2 half steps

1 to 3 = tonic to mediant = minor third = +3 half steps

1 to 4 = tonic to subdominant = perfect fourth = +5 half steps

1 to 5 = tonic to dominant = perfect fifth = +7 half steps

1 to 6 = tonic to submediant = minor sixth = +8 half steps

1 to 7 = tonic to subtonic = minor seventh = +10 half steps

1 to 8 = tonic to tonic = octave = +12 half steps

Knowing this little table is so important. Because these are the key relationships.

If you can identify these in the melody, they will point you to the tonic — which will point you toward the key.

There's one final piece of information that is going to highlight the importance of of this table:

Basic Melodic Shapes.

There's 3 general melodic shapes: up, down, flat.

Melodies that go up typically move away from the tonic.

Melodies that go down are typically moving toward the tonic.

And flat melodies are typically dancing around the tonic.

See how it's ALL about the tonic note?

By knowing these shapes, you can look at a melody and see where it's moving. And that will be a key indicator in which note is the tonic.

Then, you can confirm whether a note is the tonic by looking at the interval relationships between said note and the other notes in the melody.

This is what it's all about right here. This is how it's done:

  • You look at a melody
  • You see where it's going
  • You look at the intervals in the melody
  • And that tells you what key the melody belongs to

Don't worry, I'm going to give you a ton of examples later.

For now, this email is about memorization. Memorize the scale degree names and the intervals in the minor scale. We'll get into the practical application in a little bit.

Homework.

#1 – Leave a comment below by writing out the Minor Scale Interval Table (above):

This helps you practice both the scale degree names and the intervals in the minor scale.

#2 – Take the quiz! I put together a quiz testing your knowledge of scale degree names and intervals. Click the link below to see how you score:

Take The Quiz →

Cheers,
Mike
ZERMELO

P.S.

In Part 3, we'll look at the “important” intervals and the “interesting” intervals.

These special intervals are usually dead giveaways for what key you're in.

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