Following on from the previous post on keys, you can now find out the key of the great majority of folk tunes of the British Isles, North America and large parts of Europe.  The chart below will help you to determine the key-note and the mode of a tune.  Remember that:

The key-note is the note the tune will return to when you finish playing it.

The mode refers to the other notes that accompany the key-note.  The way they relate to the key note will determine the mode, whether it’s major, minor, mixolydian or dorian.  Have a look at the chart below and explanations underneath.


Column 1 – headed “F”

This gives a rough guide to how frequently these keys come up.  This has not been worked out scientifically.  My apologies to any communities with a rich tradition of playing chiefly in B flat Mixolydian!

1 – Common keys

2 – Not particularly common keys

3 – Uncommon keys

Column 2 – Key

This shows the name of the key/mode.

Column 3 – Key Signature

The term key signature refers to sharp or flat symbols that appear just after the clef (in this case treble clef)  in the written music – this tells you how many sharps or flats (if any) there are in the music.  As you can see, each key signature has four possible keys.  For example, look above at the key signature with one sharp on the F line.  This corresponds to four different keys –

  • G major
  • E natural minor
  • D Mixolydian, and
  • A Dorian.

These are all very common keys for tunes, so you’ll see a lot of music with just one sharp in the key signature.  Each of these scales comprises the same notes, but the key note (the main note or the note the tune will finish on) will be different.

Columns numbered 1 to 8

These show the notes that can be involved in the music – or the scale that corresponds to the key.  This doesn’t mean that all the notes of the scale have to be used in a particular tune, just because they can.  Also, extra notes can be added, if necessary, that are not part of whatever scale is used.  These are shown in the music as accidentals – notes that deviate from the key signature.  Columns 1 and 8 are always the key-notes.

The following example shows four excerpts of tunes, each with the same key signature, but the keys are:

1 – G major

2 – E natural minor

3 – D mixolydian, and

4 – A dorian

Example 1 ends on G.  So it’ll be in G something.  Look at the table above, locate the keys with one sharp and find the G one there.  It’s G major.

Number 2 is similar but ends on E.  In the one sharp section of the table, it tells you that the E one is E minor.

3 ends on D and is D mixolydian

4 ends on A and is A dorian.

More on keys here

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