The key to being a good musician

Key of a TuneI’m always impressed with melody musicians who can just call out the key of the next tune they are going to play. I have a hard time just lifting my foot to say I’m switching tunes. Not to mention, most of the time I have no idea what keys I play in. Aren’t all fiddle tunes in D or G?

I was talking to one of my friends the other day who is a great fiddle teacher. She said that when she teaches a tune to someone, she first teaches them the key and to get familiar with what notes might be in the tune. Then she teaches them the tune.

Because most tunes in this tradition are taught by ear, you may not know what key a tune is in. Here are a few ways to quickly figure it out on your own:

  • Most tunes end on the note that the key is in, or the root note, if you will. For example, if it ends on a G then the tune is most likely in the key of G. This isn’t always the case but it’s a good starting point and it happens more often than not.
  • Sometimes it’s possible to listen to the tune a few times, hum what you think the main notes are and try to find them on your instrument. Most of the time we know more than we think we do.
  • Play the tune and count how many flats or sharps are in the tune and use the Circle of 5ths to determine what key you are in.

As with anything, it takes some practice. Tonight I am staring another Irish session repertoire class at the Vermont School of Traditional Irish Music. From here on out I’m not only going to learn the tunes that are taught but I’m going to figure out and memorize what key they are played in, so one day I too will be one of those musicians who can call out the key of the next tune.

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