After reading this page you'll have a little hands-on
experience at determining the key signature of a song.
This is a skill you'll develop with time as you learn
more and more about how music works, but you'll get a
firm understanding of what to look for right here, right
24 Key Signatures
There are up to 24 possible key signatures. Since
there are 12 tones in music, there can be 12 major keys
and 12 minor keys.
In the exercise on this page we're going
to practice identifying the key signature of a song.
Before you try it, be sure you know the difference between
the sound of a major chord and the sound of a minor
chord. Go to Name
That Chord: Major Or Minor? for practice on distinguishing
between a major and minor chord.
Beginning And Ending
Usually the chord that starts a song will tell you what
key a song is being played in. Most songs begin and almost
always end with the chord that is the same as the key
signature. For example if a song begins with an A major
chord, then it's most likely in the key of A major--but
especially if it ends with an A major chord as in the
case in the audio example below:
Here is the chord progression that was played: A - D
- F#/Gbm - E - A
While most songs begin and end with the chord that is
the same as their key signature, there are exceptions
Sometimes a song will start on a chord that is not the
same as it's key signature, but the key signature chord
will soon follow it. The chord that is the same as the
key signature will usually played more than any other
chord. Take a listen to the example below:
This song is in the key of F (F major). Yet it begins
with an A#/Bb chord. Here's the first part of the chord
progression: A#/Bb - C - F - A#/Bb - C - F. Clearly it
ends with an F chord, and usually this is a dead giveaway.
But the bridge that comes next leaves no doubt: Am - Dm
- Am - Dm - A#/Bb - C - F. It also ends with and F chord.
The lesson learned here is that the beginning may be a
little vague, but the ending of a song or chord progression
in a song will usually leave no doubt as to what the key
If a song doesn't end with the chord that is the same
as it's key signature it usually leaves a feeling of "hanging".
It's like the song isn't complete without the key signature
chord at the end.
There are songs that end on a chord other than the key
signature chord. You can usually spot them a mile away.
Some artists use them to create that incomplete or hanging
feeling at the end of a song.
You'll learn more about how chords interact in a key
signature in Chord
You've Got To Train Your Ears
You best bet for learning how to determine a song's key
signature is to practice. In fact, it's the only way you'll
every truly know. Your ears have to be trained to know
what to listen for.
Try listening to the radio with your guitar in hand
and try to figure out the key signature for each song
that plays. First listen for a major or minor key and
then try to determine the name of it's key.
If you know your
major style barre chord and your
E minor style barre chord then you can just
go up and down the neck using your 6th string
as a reference, playing chords until you've found
the right one.
A lot of times (but not always) a song
will begin and end with the chord that is the song's
Another way to look at it is that the
chord used most in a song is the same as the song's
key signature. There are 12 major keys and 12 minor
The best way to develop skills in identifying
key signatures is by listening to songs and trying to
identify their key signature by ear. Pick up your guitar
and try to identify the roots of the chords being played
in the song. Use your low E string to find these root
Another thing you can do is visit the
Chord Progressions section of this site and look at
the common scale/chord systems used in songs.
With a little practice you'll easily be
able to identify a song's key signature.
To play solos over a song you first need
to identify it's key signature, then you will be able
to pick the appropriate scales to solo with.
The easiest way to look at this is that
with a major key song you use the 5 basic major scale
patterns to solo with and the basic minor scale patterns
for a minor key song. In most cases, though, you can
use the basic minor scale patterns to solo over a major
key song, too. This is very common in blues and rock
In the Scales section of this site you
can see the 5 basic major and minor scale patterns.
Each pattern has a root note. The root note is what
you match to the key signature.
For example: for a song in the key of
A, you could use the major scale patterns where the
roots fall on the A note.