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Thread: Key of the song based on the melody

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    Question Key of the song based on the melody

    I've had the problem of knowing how to play the melody a song but forgetting what key its in.

    So I've been trying to take myself on an exercise of identifying the scale pattern in a tune and go "ah, all those notes are in the D scale that must be in the key of D"

    So I took salt creek as an example of a tune that i learned a while ago from this amazing teacher https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2a3IxFjev8g.

    This song is throwing me for a loop because its in the key of A but every note that is played is in the D scale.

    What I mean is if you start playing D scale starting on the open D string and keep going you hit that G note on the E string that you play in the B part of the tune.

    However if you play an A scale starting from the open A string you can see you never hit that G note on the E string in the scale.

    I would have guessed that this song is in D but its in A and its confusing me quite a bit!

    What bit of theory am i missing? Is there an easier way to identify the key once you've forgotten it? :-D

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    Registered User TonyEarth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    It looks to me like this is actually in the key of D (two sharps) and Baron misspoke. You'd have a G sharp if it was in the key of A. Unless I'm just missing something too.

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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    If you already know the melody:
    Look for any two notes that are a semitone apart, for example F#, G on the third string.
    Then you immediately know that the key is either the higher of those two notes (G major) or the note adjacent to the G high and low (the C on fourth string or the D on the second string).

    After a while you’ll recognise it as a ‘T’ shape on the fretboard.

    To confirm, you can find the other semitone pair in the scale, or do it by averages.
    eg.
    - A dorian tune (common) with often begin on the note above the higher note of a semitone pair, the G. The A note making it a cross shape...
    - myxolydian has a two note gap with each note forming a major chord and positioned... where?
    - it’s a bit more likely to be in D than C major

    If it’s OldTime then have fun with it, the key can change from A part to B part and also any minor chords can go major and shift the key. And many other, quite complicated, inexplicable, non standard things are welcomed.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    I'm no expert for sure, but some tunes use, say the D scale, but the key is actually the fifth of the scale, or an A in this case. So you use the notes of the D scale, but you start and end on A, because the key is "A." I know. This actually comes up a lot, though.

    There are a lot of old fiddle tunes that do this, and the fiddlers call them "modal tunes*." I *think* people who actually know about music call this a Myxolidian Mode. When the fiddler tells you something is, say, an A modal tune, they are warning you that it uses a G instead of a G#, and it would also typically have a G major chord in it. Old Joe Clark, for example, is one of those tunes. If the tune were in D Mixolydian, there would be a C instead of a C#.

    *Warning: there are other modes, and sometimes fiddler says modal when they mean minor, or something else.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    I wouldn't say that Baron "misspoke" by calling Salt Creek in the key of A. If you were at a jam and called Salt Creek in D you'd get some funny looks.

    Key signature of salt creek is D. Key of the tune would be called out "A" or A modal or A mixolydian. Like A 4 said above fiddlers sometimes call these "modal" sometimes they just say "A".

    Sometimes trying to explain and/or define these things is more confusing to the mind than the ears.

    What key is Sweet Home Alabama in again?

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    I agree, it is A mixolydian, which has the same key signature as D major. I have great trouble identifying a mode by hearing it. Especially mixolydian, which I get wrong all the time. But certainly, if all the notes are in the key of D major, yet the tune resolves to A, it is A mixolydian.

    Modes are very confusing, and (I believe) modes are taught in a manner that makes them more confusing than they have to be. What you need to identify the modes and play in the modes is different than what you need to understand the modes, and I think teaching the "understanding" part first is a mistake.

    I think you are doing great to identify that it is related to D, and you can play D scale notes! That is not nothing. Really great.

    No matter how far we all get in this ocean that is music, the amount that there is still to get is gigantic. The fact that some folks can swim out farther than I can does not make them significantly closer to the far shore.
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Thank you guys all for your help! If i understand things this tune is in something called A mixolydian which is an A scale that is in the key of D and uses the D scale notes.

    I'm going to have to learn more about what mixolydian is for sure and how that relates.

    I do have a tendency to over analyze things and the simplest thing is probably just to remember its in A but i do tend to forget the keys of so many tunes!

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    we were just discussing this in Matt Flinner's scales and arpeggios class - highly recommended, I believe he is offering it again in the fall, Salt Creek was given as an example of a modal tune, as are many traditional fiddle tunes.
    model tunes use major and minor scales notes but the patterns do not follow the "supposed key" , also the harmonies and resolution don't necessarily follow western music rules ( I IV V V7 I) type of thing.
    The important thing is not to "overthink" modal.
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    Registered User TonyEarth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Ah... It was I who misspoke! Heh. I have pretty much no real background in music theory, and in violin lessons I was taught to identify the "key" of the song based on the key signature. ...guess I should read up on modes. Thanks all for the helpful clarifications.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    I think i have this making a bit of sense. Apparently what makes a mixolydian scale is to flat the 7th note of the scale, so if we start on our a string and play the A scale but flat the 7th note we get the weird G note instead of the G# from the a scale. And A mixolydian are the same notes as the D scale.

    If i am understanding things correctly the reason this is referred to as A mixolidian instead of D is because the tune keeps going back to that A sound as the tune resolves to A with the only difference being that flat 7.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    in the key of A but every note that is played is in the D scale
    That is pretty much how (Scottish) pipe tunes look when played on fiddle or mandolin.

    Although sometimes the fiddle/mandolin version will put a G# in to make it more fiddle-friendly sounding.

    I have a book of Gordon Duncan pipe tunes with no key signature but the assumption seems to be a D scale.
    Bren

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    There are quite a few fiddle tunes in A mixolydian. These include Red Haired Boy and The B part of Old Joe Clark as well as Salt Creek. The name of the key is the home note, the note the song wants to return to.

    The modes can be thought of as a different series of scale steps. The major scale is one mode. It is called Ionian mode. The natural minor scale is another. It is called Aeolian mode. Mixolydian is probably the third most commonly used mode.. If you are not playing blues and flatted seventh notes keep showing up or if your accompaniment chords include a flatted seven chord it is likely you are playing in mixolydian mode.

    There are a bunch of rock, pop and folk vocal songs especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s that follow that mode. Songs like Can't You See, Seven Bridges Road, Amie, Morning Dew,If I Were a Carpenter etc.

    Sometimes modes are taught as the same as a major scale but starting on a different note. Such as A mixolydian being the D major scale. i never found that very helpful.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Not too much to add, because I barely understand mixolydian mode, but quite a few Grateful Dead tunes use mixolydian mode, such as China Cat Sunflower (G mixolydian), I know You Rider (D Mixolydian), Dark Star (A mixolydian), Franklin's Tower (A mixo).

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Sometimes modes are taught as the same as a major scale but starting on a different note. Such as A mixolydian being the D major scale. i never found that very helpful.
    Exactly. Me either. It's true, but more of a curiosity than something that helps one play in different modes.
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Quote Originally Posted by m4strmind View Post

    I'm going to have to learn more about what mixolydian is for sure and how that relates.
    Not really! You can also think "This A tune has a flatted 7th, so I play G instead of G#." You may want to remember Mixolydian just because, at least in fiddle tunes, it comes up a lot. And it is fun to say. I have seen Mixolydian tunes notated in A, but they have a flat indicator for the G#, to indicate G natural. Someone who knows theory would have a preference of an A or D key signature.

    Don't be confused by other tunes that have notes outside the normal scale. Maybe these are other modes, or maybe they just sound good. I'm thinking of Ashokan Farewell, example, which I think is in straight D, but at a key point the song goes to a C natural on a C chord. Sounds great.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    The simplest way I think of modes, and I have to give Flinner credit here, is the whole and half step pattern.

    Ionian W W W H W W W H to octave is a major scale so no matter what note you start on - its that pattern.
    mixolydian is 4th so for A its D mixo, and for G its C mixo , for C its F mixo and so on

    mixolydian is D(W)E(W)F#(H)G(W)A(W)B(H)C(W)D WWWHWWHW to octave
    so to play mixolydian over any chord find the 4th from the root of the chord ( in this case D is the 4th of A) and play that pattern.

    this of course may be confusing, but thinking about the chords of Salt Creek and the correlating melody you may find mixolydian patterns in the melody

    Best to follow any of the online details from any number of resources
    To learn and think modes ( instead of keys or with keys) to me is complex.
    I believe if you don't over think it, learn the patterns and try to find the notes that sound right,
    you will be using modes effectively even though you are not thinking "modal", and hopefully making good music.
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Salt Creek is in the A mixolydian mode [mostly]. That means that its tonic or "key" note is A, and that the scale it draws from is like the A Major scale except the seventh note of the scale is flatted. "Tonic" is the term for the fundamental note [or "home base"] of the scale.

    Key signatures are not necessarily key signatures at all. While 3 sharps on the notes F#, C#, and G# might indicate the key of A Major, it also commonly indicates the key of F# minor. Additionally, it can be used for several different modes.

    While Salt Creek can be written with a key signature of 3 sharps, it is then necessary to cancel all of the G sharps with a natural sign. That's more trouble to write, and harder to read. That is why it is often written with only two sharps on the notes F# and C#. There is nothing improper about using a so-called "key signature" in this way.

    The key of a piece of music is not determined by a key signature. It is determined by the context of the music itself. To determine a key, it can be helpful to think in terms of "where does the music want to resolve?" or "what is the tonal center of the music?" Many, but not all melodies in Western music tend to end on the note that we call the tonic or "the key."

    For those who want to better understand keys, scales, modes, and chords, it is well worth it to take a class in music theory from a qualified teacher. It's hard to go wrong with a class given at an accredited conservatory, or by someone with a degree in music.


    Actually, you can play Salt Creek in any key that you please [which can be good exercise for both the fingers and the mind], but most of us play it in A most of the time. And prepare for fallout if you try to play it in Eb at a jam session.

    And not all tunes are always played in a "standard" key. In some places, "Red Haired Boy" [which is mostly in the mixolydian mode] is played in D instead of A. Sometimes, when it is played in D, it is re-titled "The Little Beggarman." And there is a large set of verses that can be sung to it. And if you play it in the minor instead of the mixolydian mode, you get the tune known as "Gilderoy," which can be found in Peter Kennedy's "The Fiddler's Tune Book" and has been recorded by Norman Blake and Tony Rice.

    A small note-- Salt Creek is not my preferred example of the mixolydian mode, because there are a couple of spots where it drifts into A Major for a moment. The tune I prefer to use as a textbook example of A mixolydian is June Apple, because it doesn't drift.
    Last edited by rcc56; Jul-20-2021 at 2:10am.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    Modes are very confusing, and (I believe) modes are taught in a manner that makes them more confusing than they have to be. What you need to identify the modes and play in the modes is different than what you need to understand the modes, and I think teaching the "understanding" part first is a mistake.
    Another problem is they use Greek (is it?) terms.
    Basically when you hear ‘Lydian’ you think, ‘centred around the fourth, the ‘key’ is... X ’. So C Lydian (beautiful) means 4 and uses the key of G major.
    NOTICE that, for example E aoelian would be... Centred on the E, use the key of G major.
    Confusingly, in the theory mainstream this is also called the natural minor scale! -and I hear there are good reasons for doing so!

    The important thing is to memorise: ‘Dorian’ means centred on 2 etc.


    Here C Ionian means centred on the 1. so it’s the major key.

    Modal scales Notes of the mode
    1. C Ionian mode C – D – E – F – G – A – B
    2. D Dorian mode D – E – F – G – A – B – C
    3. E Phrygian mode E – F – G – A – B – C – D
    4. F Lydian mode F – G – A – B – C – D – E
    5. G Mixolydian mode G – A – B – C – D – E – F
    6. A Aeolian mode A – B – C – D – E – F – G
    7. B Locrian mode B – C – D – E – F – G – A

    Modes can be really helpful if all the chords for the standard keys are memorised: GD A E C major keys. -as patterns on the fretboard.
    I think it’s more to do with harmony.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Can we just say "pipe scale"?

    (I don't mean the type that can block up your drains)
    Bren

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    In Bluegrass various modes are often superimposed over major chords. Take Old Joe Clarke, where at least the verse is clearly mixolydian, yet often the ending is major: A, E7, A. A purely modal treatment would use the chords A, G, A, and even a G in the middle of the refrain.

    Another example is Bill Monroe's version of Dusty Miller, over the chords A, G, and E(7), where the suggested mode depends on the register of the melody. The A, or "coarse", part, has several c (and g) notes in the melody, suggesting a minor pentatonic mode, but c#s (and again g's) in the B, or "fine", part, indicating more of a mixolydian flavor.

    And the Gold Rush, in spite of some high g's in the beginning, to my ears has a strongly major flavor, owing in part to the IV chord in the B part.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Technically, the key signature does determine the key, but practically all american musics that are based on dance music of the british isles or blues or a combination of the two are exceptions that at least bend the rule.

    I trained in western theory, and when first starting to play bluegrass couldn't understand why the chord built on the 7th degree, when there was one, was always built on the flatted 7th degree. Then I realized that almost all the rock and country I had been playing by ear for decades was the same, and blues broke all the rules too. The exception is jazz based on tin pan alley standards which follow the rules of western harmony, but of course jazz musicians laid the blues on top of that when they weren't playing straight up blues. The fiddle tunes we play come out of a tradition that predates western harmony.

    I think.
    Last edited by lowtone2; Jul-20-2021 at 5:04pm.

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    Registered User TonyEarth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    I'm not sure I fully understand actually. Wouldn't you need to specify "A mixolydian" for a fellow musician to understand what key you want the song played in? If you say "in the key of A", why wouldn't one assume they meant A major? Is it just that the key convention for bluegrass is mixolydian and to specify when you mean major?

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Quote Originally Posted by TonyEarth View Post
    I'm not sure I fully understand actually. Wouldn't you need to specify "A mixolydian" for a fellow musician to understand what key you want the song played in? If you say "in the key of A", why wouldn't one assume they meant A major? Is it just that the key convention for bluegrass is mixolydian and to specify when you mean major?
    Usually in bluegrass jams they will just say key of A unless it is minor. People will expect you to be familiar enough with the tunes or have a good enough ear to make the adjustment for mixolydian tunes. And as RCC56 and a couple of others mentioned some songs, including Salt Creek and Old Joe Clark are not strictly one or the other. They will alternate between modes for the A and B parts of the tune or different phrases. The main issue is with backup and being familiar with the chords for backup. They will not just be I, IV and V which will include the flat VII chord at some points, (the G chord in the key of A)

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    Quote Originally Posted by m4strmind View Post
    Thank you guys all for your help! If i understand things this tune is in something called A mixolydian which is an A scale that is in the key of D and uses the D scale notes.
    A mixolydian is NOT in the "key of D", it just happens to use the same set of notes. The key signature does NOT tell you what key something is in, it just tells you the default notes to use.

    A key signature of two sharps (F# and C#) can be the key of D major or B minor. It can also be used for E dorian, F# phrygian, G lydian, and A mixolydian.

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    Default Re: Key of the song based on the melody

    a whole 'nother way to look at it is to look at the chord progression...

    We have a I-IV-V progression (A-D-E7 even though the E7 is often voiced as plain E in the vernacular). The form begins and ends on the A tonality. But there's also a G chord in the form right? It's the bVII chord. When the G melody note comes in the first section it is supported by a G major chord. Same thing in the second section where the melody notes alternate between A major arpeggio material and G major arpeggio.

    While the most common progression in music is V-I (E7-A here), we see the I chord approached by other tonalities as well, bVII being one of them. There's more than one route home, so to speak. In Salt Creek the G chord does not resolve to the A, but it's inclusion constitutes another commonly used progression or set of progressions including I, IV, V and bVI. Few examples: Love Come Home, Angel From Montgomery, These Old Blues, and the aforementioned Salt Creek and Little Beggarman/Red Haired Boy. What happens on the G chord is we actually momentarily leave the key of A. It's close proximity to the root(one whole tone or two frets away) makes the change sound natural and good even though we move into the key of G major. Notice that when improvising on the G chord players use notes of the G major scale, for instance no C# from the A scale. Another connection is the blues feeling established by a brief visit to the bVII chord and tonality. Well of course, the bVII is one of the blue tones, along with b3 and b5. You'll hear players introduce a bVII chord on the way to a IV chord even when it's not considered as "written" in the song. Examples here would be The Reno and Smiley tune Maybe You Will Change Your Mind a/k/a The Tie That Binds, or Head Over Heels Flatt and Scruggs. listen also to the rhythm guitar playing of Tony Rice. For fun experiment with dropping an entire bVII chord in place of a I7 chord, so rather than A-A7-D-E-A Try A-G-D-E-A. your ear will tell you if it works.

    One last consideration: what about the final melodic gesture in Salt Creek at the tail end of that second section? Does it have a G# in it? Certainly an A major fiddlish ending lick say A-G#-A-E-F#-G#-A-F#-E-C#-B-C#-A finishes things off ok but maybe it's incorrect, depending upon whether one returns to the A chord from an E chord or a G chord..?

    Still and all I feel that looking at chord progressions, cadences, tonalities, functions is a valid way of getting more comfortable with hearing changes and determining what key a tune is in plus what key you might in at any point in a tune.

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