Determining The Key Of A Melody - Part 1 - ZERMELO

Determining The Key Of A Melody – Part 1

So … you're producing and you come across a melody. It could be any kind of melody:

Vocal, synth, bass, whatever.

But you want to know (1) what key it's in so you can know (2) whether it will work in your track.

How do you do that?

I'll show you.

There are two pieces of information you NEED to know:

  1. You need to know what notes belong to which keys and scales (basically the same thing), and…
  2. You need to know how those relate to each other within the scale (this is Part 2 and 3)

WAIT! Does this mean you need to memorize every note in every scale?!?! No. Not even close.

But first…

Why do you need to know which notes belong to which keys?

Because if you want to know whether or not a melody belongs to a key, then you have to know whether or not that key contains the notes in the melody!

For example, let's say you have a melody with the notes A, B, F, and G. What key does it belong to? A minor? C# major?

Well, in order to know THAT you have to know the notes in those keys, right? Then you'll be able to see whether or not the notes in the melody belong to a particular key.

Like I said, you don't need to memorize every key to do this. Instead you just need the “formula” to help you figure it out.

Natural Minor Scale

Now before we get there, we need to narrow our focus.

There's TONS of keys, scales, and modes that we could look at:

Major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, Dorian Mode, Phrygian Mode, etc.

But that would be overwhelming and impractical.

You see … 90% of house music is going to be in the natural minor key (or “minor key” for short).

— So if you're analyzing a house track, it's very likely that said track will be in a minor key.

— If you're looking at a bass line or synth melody from a house music sample pack, again, it's highly likely said line/melody is in a minor key.

— Or if you have a particular vocal that you want to use, then once again, it's likely said vocal is in a minor key.

Is this always true? Of course not.

But the minor key is so ubiquitous in house music, it's worth using the minor scale here to teach you how to figure out what key you're working in.

And once you see how everything works with the minor scale, it'll be very easy for you to apply this to the other scales. That way, no matter what melody comes your way, you'll be able to figure out the key.

So onward with the minor scale…

Minor Scale Formula

Third time's a charm: You don't need to memorize every key. You just need to memorize a little “formula” that will help you figure out — in our case — a formula that helps you find all the notes in ANY minor scale.

This is called the Minor Scale Formula. And again, it helps you derive all the notes in any given minor scale.

So for example, if you're starting on A, you can use the minor scale formula to derive all the notes of the A Minor Scale:

A B C D E F G

Or if you're starting on C, you can use the minor scale formula to derive all the notes of the C Minor Scale:

C D Eb F G Ab Bb

The Minor Scale Formula works by telling you how to get from one note to the next in the scale. And it does that by defining the distances or intervals between each subsequent note.

So without further ado, here is the Minor Scale Formula:

W H W W H W W

Where W = whole steps and H = half steps.

A half step is the smallest interval and it's simply two notes next to each other. So going up or down by one note on a piano or in the piano roll. That's a half step.

And a whole step is just two half steps.

So, again, the Minor Scale Formula tells you how to get from one note to the next in a scale.

So to get from notes…

  • 1 to 2 = whole step
  • 2 to 3 = half step
  • 3 to 4 = whole step
  • 4 to 5 = whole step
  • 5 to 6 = half step
  • 6 to 7 = whole step
  • 7 to 8 = whole step

But that's it! That's all you need to memorize — for Part One. And here it is again:

W H W W H W W

It's pretty easy to memorize because you have two similar groupings of “W H W” in the beginning and then you have final whole step at the end (a little straggler or 7th wheel, if you will).

[ W H W ] [ W H W ] …………………… W

Example

Let's look at an example:

Let's use G Minor because G minor is a VERY popular key in house music.

(Side note: G is popular because the pitch associated with G in the sub frequency RANGE is 49 Hz — which is very close to 50 Hz. And 50 Hz sounds BOMB in the club. AnY higher and the low end starts to sound weak. Any lower and the club system starts to crap out.)

So we'll use the Minor Scale Formula to derive all the notes in the G Minor Scale.

Here we go. Staring on G…

  • From G, go up a whole step to A.
  • From A, go up a half step to Bb.
  • From Bb, go up a whole step to C.
  • From C, go up a whole step to D.
  • From D, go up a half step to Eb.
  • From Eb, go up a whole step to F.
  • From F, go up a final whole step back to G.

So we get:

G A Bb C D Eb F

And there you have it!

Now you can use the Minor Scale Formula to derive all the notes in ANY minor key!

Letter Names

But there's one technical detail to go over here…

You might be wondering:

Why did we go to Bb and not A#? After all isn't A# a half step up from A?

That's a great question! And here's the answer:

Letter names (like A, B, C…) are important. And the rule is that you can only use a letter name once.

So, since we already have an A, that means the next note has to be a B, right?

But the minor scale formula tells us that the next note above A is only a half step up. So that tells us it's a Bb.

The same if true for the Eb in the G minor scale. We can't go from D to D# because that would mean the scale has two D's. Nope. Not allowed.

So from D we go up a half step to Eb.

Pretty simple! Just remember that you can only use a letter name once.

Homework

#1 – Leave a comment below with the Minor Scale Formula. Just write:

W H W W H W W

#2 – Take the quiz! Test your knowledge and use the Minor Scale Formula to figure out the notes in 5 different minor keys:

Take The Quiz →


P.S.

Part 2 is in the works.

It will reveal the important relationships between the notes in the minor scale.

The idea here is that if you're able to understand the relationships between the notes in a melody, then you can see how that “maps” onto a scale.

And from there, it's easy to determine what key a melody is in.

Here's another way of understanding this:

Most of the relationships in a scale are related to the FIRST NOTE in the scale — or “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.

More on this soon!

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