Finding the key of a song is an important way to better understand the music you play. A song’s key can tell you a lot about how the song was written as well as what chords and notes you’re likely to play in it.
In this guide, I’ll go through four easy ways to figure out the key of any song on guitar.
What is the Key of a Song?
The key of a song is a shortcut to help you understand what chords and notes the song is based on. If a song is in the key of C, the notes and chords used will be based on the C Major Scale. If the song is in the key of D, the notes and chords would be based on the D Major Scale.
Knowing the key of a song is useful because it instantly gives you a lot of information about the chords and notes the song will likely use. With practice, you can learn to find the key of any song on your own.
It’s important to understand that some songs stick perfectly to a key, while others don’t.
This can be confusing at first. If a song is in the key of C, it means there are no sharp or flat notes (take a look at the C Major Scale to learn more). But just because the song is in the key of C, it doesn’t mean it must stick to those notes. The song can easily make use of notes and chords outside of the key.
The methods explained in this guide will help you figure out the key of any song – even if that song doesn’t stick perfectly to one key.
It is also important to understand that while some songs will stick to one key, other songs can change keys once or multiple times.
You can usually tell when a song changes keys as there is often a dramatic change in the feel of the song and the song suddenly starts using different chords or notes.
If you suspect a song might change keys at some point, use the below methods to check if it does or not.
How to Find the Key of a Song: Method 1
The first and easiest way to find the key of a song is to look at the sheet music for the song and find any key signatures.
A key signature is a way of letting you know key the song (or part of the song). Not all sheet music will use key signatures, but when they do, they’re the easiest way of finding a song’s key.
The key signature is shown on sheet music after the clef and before the time signature:
You can see that the above example shows two sharp symbols as the key signature. Key signatures can use either sharps or flats depending on the key of the song.
Here is an example of a key signature you might see using flats:
Let’s look at how to read these key signatures so you can easily find out the key of any song that use them.
How to Read Key Signatures
All you need to do to read key signatures is to count the number of sharps or flats you see.
The below table shows all of the possible key signatures you might see and what they mean:
So for example, if you see a key signature with one sharp symbol, that means the key of the song is either G Major or E minor (both G Major and E minor scales use the same notes).
Note: whether a key is Major or minor is covered later in this guide. But both scales always use the same notes (eg: the C Major Scale and A minor Scale use the same notes).
Take a look at the below key signature and figure out what the key is using the above table:
The above key signature uses three sharp symbols and in the above table, you can see that three sharp symbols mean the key is either A Major or F# (F Sharp) minor.
So in the above example, you would say that the song is in the key of A (or A Major) or you would say the song is in the key of F# (F Sharp) minor if you know the song is based on minor.
Key signatures are an easy way to find the key of any song, but only if the sheet music uses them.
Not all sheet music uses key signatures. If you download any sheet music on some popular Guitar TAB websites, you may find that the sheet music doesn’t use key signatures at all.
This can trick some people as the key signature for C Major (or A minor) uses no sharps or flats. So the sheet music could be telling you the song is in the key of C, or it may not use key signatures at all.
If you see sheet music without any key signatures, don’t immediately assume the song is in the key of C. Double-check the key using one of the other methods covered in this guide.
The main point to keep in mind with this method is that if the sheet music for the song uses key signatures, you can quickly find out what the key of the song is using the table shown above. If the sheet music doesn’t include any key signatures, you’ll have to use one of the other methods.
How to Find the Key of a Song: Method 2
The next way you can find the key of a song is to look at the chords used in the song.
This method works well when you’re playing a song that is mostly chord-based. Simply taking a look at the chords used can often give you everything you need to know to figure out the key of a song.
The below table shows the main chords used in any key:
Here’s how to read the above table:
- The far left column shows the key as Major scales. Eg: ‘C’ means the ‘key of C’ or ‘the C Major Scale’
- Each row shows the notes used in a scale. Eg: the top row shows all of the notes in the C Major Scale
- The bottom row shows the chord type for each note in a scale. Eg: the chords based on the first column notes are Major
Here’s an example of what all of this means using the key of G:
By comparing the notes in the chart with the bottom chord types, we can figure out all of the chords in the key of G.
The chords in the key of G are:
- G Major
- A minor
- B minor
- C Major
- D Major
- E minor
- F# diminished
Now let’s say the song you’re using uses all of these chords. You would know by looking at the table that the song is in the key of G.
Learn how to find any chords in a key in this guide. This is a handy skill to learn if you want to write your own songs.
Finding the Key of a Song Using Chords Example
If the above explanation sounds confusing, let’s go through a simple example to show how quick and easy this can be.
Let’s say the song you’re learning to play uses these chords:
- A minor
- C Major
- F Major
- D minor
- G minor
You would look at the above table and find out which row uses all of these chords.
Here are the first few rows of the table showing which chords match each key:
You can see that many of the chords fit into a few different keys. This is why finding the key of a song can often be tricky.
For example, the chord G minor fits into the key of F (second column), the key of Bb (sixth column), and the key of Eb (third column).
When we go through all of the chords in this example song, you can see that there is only one key that uses all of the chords: the key of F.
The key of C is close, but notice that instead of using G minor, it uses G Major.
Note: I know this seems like a lot of work, but it becomes quick and easy after you practice it a few times. Eventually, you’ll know instantly what the key of a song is just by somebody telling you what chords it uses.
The main point to remember with this method is that each chord will fit into three different keys. So you need to look at all of the chords to figure out which key fits all of them.
Sometimes the chords used in a song won’t perfectly match any key.
Music theory is a set of tools musicians can use, but they’re not rules you must follow. So it is common for songs to include chords that don’t perfectly fit into the key of the song.
If you analyze the chords of a song and you find that they all fit into one of the keys except for one chord, that’s okay. It still means the song is in that key, only one of the chords has been substituted for something outside of the key.
A common example of this is a parallel chord substitution. This is where one of the chords switches between Major and minor. So if the chord ‘C Major’ is part of the key, the song will play ‘C minor’ instead. Substituting chords can add something fresh and interesting to a song when done right.
How to Find the Key of a Song: Method 3
The third method is to look at the notes played in a song and figure out what scale matches those notes.
This method works well for songs that aren’t completely based on chords. Taking a quick look at the notes used in a song is often all you need to figure out what the key is.
Once you find out what most of the notes played in the song are, you can compare them to the below table to find the key of the song:
All you need to do is figure out which row matches the notes played in the song.
Finding the Key of a Song Using Notes Example
Let’s look at an example to show how to figure out the key of a song using the notes used.
Here is an example of a scale run in part of a song we can use to figure out the key of a song:
When you use notes to figure out the key of a song, try to list as many notes as you can for the best results. This scale run will tell us everything we need to find the key of the song.
Here are all of the notes used in the above example: D, C, Bb, A, G, F, E
If you don’t know how to figure out what the notes are, read this guide on Memorizing the Notes on the Fretboard.
Write the notes down for any song you’re trying to find the key for then put them in order to make it easier to match the notes with the key.
Here are the first few rows of the key signature table. Try to match the above notes with the correct scale:
You can see that the only row that matches all of the notes is the second row. This means that part of the song uses the F Major scale.
So the key for this song will likely also match the scale and be in the key of F.
There will be a lot of songs where the notes don’t perfectly fit into any key.
Music theory is a set of tools musicians can use, but they’re not rules you must follow. There is no rule saying that once you choose a key for your song, you must follow it perfectly.
Adding in notes from outside of a key is extremely common and can help add interesting sounds to a song.
If you analyze the notes of a song and you find that they all fit into one of the keys except for a few random notes, that’s okay. Find the key that best matches the most commonly used notes in the song.
Finding the Key of a Song Using Software (Method 4)
You can use any of the above methods to accurately figure out the key of a song.
If you’re a beginner, some of the above methods may seem intimidating. While it’s worth spending the time to learn these skills, there is another option you can use.
If you use Guitar TAB software such as Guitar Pro 8, you can use it to find the key of a song using any of the three methods above.
Here is how to use Guitar Pro 8 (or the earlier version 7) to find the key of a song using the three methods covered above.
Method 1: Key Signatures
If the Guitar Pro file you download makes use of key signatures, you can easily use them to find the key of the song.
Check your song to see if it includes a key signature as shown below:
In the above example, you can see that the key signature uses three sharp symbols. You can either use the table shown earlier to find out what the key signature means, or you can just click on the symbols in Guitar Pro to find out.
If you click on the key signature in Guitar Pro, it will bring up a window telling you what the signature means:
You can see that this song is in the key of A or A Major. If you click the ‘Minor’ button, it will also tell you what the minor key is for those symbols.
Keep in mind that a lot of music is based on a minor key, so even if Guitar Pro says the key is Major, it may actually be a minor song.
Method 2: Chords
If the song you are learning uses a lot of chords, view the file in one of the Page Views. You should see the list of chords used at the very top page:
Now you can compare the chords listed to the table shown earlier and figure out which key matches those chords.
Start by looking for basic Major or minor chords to make it easier. You can see in the above screenshot that the song uses quite a few chords.
But if we look at the basic Major and minor chords, we have: E, C#m, A, B
It might not seem like enough information, but if you look at the table from earlier, you can see that that’s more than enough to figure out what the key is.
The only key that fits all four of those chords is the key of E Major (C# minor).
Method 3: Notes
Guitar Pro includes a handy tool that makes it fairly easy to figure out what the key is from the notes used in a song.
Highlight a section of the song, then go to the Tools > Scales menu.
Click the ‘Find Scales from Selection’ button and it will analyze the notes you have highlighted and tell you what the most likely scales are.
In this example, you can see that the scale used for the highlighted section is F# minor or A Major which is also the key for the song.
Keep in mind that the results you get depends on what you highlight. So if the part you highlighted includes a lot of notes from outside the key, the results might be confusing. Try highlighting different sections of the song separately to double-check the results.
Read about more tips for using Guitar Pro in this guide.
Finding a Song’s Key FAQs
Here are some common questions you might have about finding the key of a song.
What is the Easiest Way to Find the Key of a Song?
The easiest way to find the key of a song is to look at the key signature included on the song’s sheet music. If the sheet music doesn’t include a key signature, you will either have to analyze the chords or notes used in the song to figure out the key.
Is the Key of a Song the First Chord?
Sometimes the key of a song is the first chord, but a lot of songs don’t. Looking at the first chord is an unreliable way to find the key of a song. The very last chord in a song is often the key of a song, but not always.
The best way to find the key of a song is to look at all of the chords used and match them with all possible keys.
How Do You Know if a Song is Major or Minor?
You can find out if a song is in a Major or minor key by looking at what chord it focuses on more. If the song sounds like it leans heavily on a minor chord, it will likely be in a minor key. If the song focuses heavily on a Major chord, it will likely be in a Major key.
There is no hard rule that works every time, so you need to listen to the overall quality of the song and what chords are used more often.
How Do You Know What Notes are in a Key?
The notes in a key match the Major scale for that key. So if the key is C, the notes in the key are based on the C Major Scale. If you memorize the notes in all Major Scales, you will know what the notes are in any key.
How Do you Find the Key of a Song With Sharps and Flats?
To find the key of a song with sharps or flats, look at what key signature matches those notes. For example, if the only sharp used in a song is F#, the key signature with only one sharp is for the key of G Major.
Use the key signature table covered earlier to easily figure out what the key of a song is with sharps or flats.
Take your understanding of keys further by learning how to find the Chords in a Key in this guide.