How Many Musical Keys Are There?Posted by Mike Schuck
When music theory teachers talk about musical keys, they’re referring to how musicians organize notes into patterns or sequences of sounds. These organized sound patterns are called melodies, riffs, songs, or pieces.
The term “key” refers to the pattern or sequence of tones that make up the melody. A key can be natural (or harmonic) or unnatural (or melodic).
Natural keys have intervals like major, minor, or half-major chord shapes. Unnatural keys use tritone (also known as devil’s interval) drops or rises.
Music theory students learn which types of keys there are in order of difficulty. The most difficult is said to be modal — made up of modes, such as Dorian, Mixolydian, etc. These modes start with a note one octave higher than the tonic (the root) and contain chords built off this raised tone. For example, the Dorian mode has an F sharp as its tonic, so it contains an F# and G.
This article will go more in depth about what makes each type of key unique, why some are harder than others, and how to practice them.
There are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys
The number of notes in each key makes up what is called its “key signature” or “tone row.” A note that belongs to the natural (or main) scale is one pitch, while a second tone is a half-step higher, and a third tone is a whole step higher. This pattern of two, then three steps is how music theory defines being in a tonal area.
There are twelve such areas, with a natural tone and a half-, then full step between each pair of adjacent scales. These are known as the12 majorkeys and the other twelvetheminor keys.
By changing the order of which tones you use for each key, you can create different melodies and songs. For example, if your song has a Bb major chord, you could instead use an F# major chord by switching out the middle pitches.
There are also several other keys, such as natural minor and double natural minor
Another way to look at this is that there are two possible modes in any key. This means that there are either an even or odd number of steps you can take between one note and the next. In the case of the major scale, we have only one mode! That is why our major scale has only one step (or degree) per note.
The second most common type of music used today is called modal music. These types of songs use a specific tonic-mode chord structure or pattern every time they change chords. The notes of the chord always fit into the corresponding tone of the tuned instrument for the key being used.
For example, if the song uses A as its starting point then it would use the third interval (tone) of the guitar string (A). If the bass player drops down a whole step, then the B becomes the new third.
The musical notes are also divided into several different keys
Having covered some of the basics about music, let’s now talk about what makes a song or piece of music sound good!
A key is just one part of the puzzle that makes a song sound interesting. A note in a song can be repeated (like a tone) or not (like a semitone), and how many times each note is played contributes to whether the listener wants to keep listening or turns off.
There are twelve tones in every major scale, but only eight in any minor scale. This means that there are only so many possible melodies you can make using either type of scale!
If someone sang an octave higher than usual, it would go up by a whole step. An example of this is when people sing “da da DAH” instead of plain old “DA-DAAAH.” That extra bit adds flavor and interest to their voice, making it more engaging for the ear.
Music theory teaches us that depending on the key of the song, certain notes will feel familiar or foreign. For instance, if the song is in B flat major, then the B natural will be very similar to the B natural we looked at earlier. If the song was in C sharp major however, then the G natural would be replaced with F sharp, making it seem even less related to the original chord.
This effect, where something seems completely unfamiliar, is called modulation.
Each of these keys has its own unique flavor
The music theory term for all the notes in a song is called the scale. A major scale is made up of seven notes, or tones. These are the white note cards that you get when you make an octave (two steps) ladder out of any tone.
The first note of the major scale is usually referred to as the tonic, which comes from the Greek word meaning “foundation.” The second note is the mediant, because it belongs in the middle of the major scale.
Next come the submediants, which are one step lower than the mediant. And then the mediant, which is two steps lower than the tonic. This creates a circle of three notes in a row!
After this, the other five notes of the major scale can be found. They go by their number position starting with the perfect fifth, then the minor third, the half-step, the flat fourth, and finally the sharp sixth.
There are several reasons why there are different numbers of musical keys. The most common reason is simplicity. If we have just one key, it makes writing songs very easy!
Another reason is parallel structure. Writing lyrics and melodies in different keys gives your songs more depth. Some examples of this are Taylor Swift’s Breakup Song off her latest album, Speak Now, and Beyoncé’s Single Life off her self titled album.
Some of the most famous songs are in different keys
We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be able as quickly as possible to identify the key of a song. This is very fundamental to singing, playing music, or listening to music!
Many musicians find that once they get this concept down, their musical creativity flows faster than it has ever flowed before.
By knowing what major key a song is in, you can start experimenting with melodies and chords within those limits.
For example, if a song is written in A Major then you would know that your melody must go up at the first, second, and third notes, and have a total of three tones (no flat or sharp notes).
You could also try going up on the fifth note or even adding a fourth tone to create an octave jump (a whole step) for more intensity.
If you are struggling to figure out which chord is given a name such as I-IV-V, then look up the chords in each key and see which one fits best.
Some of the most famous composers wrote in different keys
As we know, music is made up of notes that are separated by intervals. These can be whole steps (think diatonic major or minor scales), half steps (A natural second degree is one example of this), or even thirds (the familiar triad).
But what makes a note “keyed”? That is, how do you identify which part of the spectrum a particular note belongs to?
Most people assume that if a note has a name written next to it, then it is in a specific key. But there is no hard and fast rule for this! This isn't always the case — some songs use unmarked notes as passing thoughts or distractions. Or maybe the writer forgot to write their own instrument's signature.
In fact, some of the world’s greatest composers never gave themselves a proper instrumentation! Mozart, for instance, only marked his violins with 'Violin'. He didn’t put anything else like G-sharp because he thought they looked alike!
And just because Beethoven left out an accidentals mark doesn’t mean he couldn’t tell which strings were which. His students probably picked up on this too since he mostly taught himself.
Some of the most famous instruments are in different keys
A key is an area where there are no white notes. The only thing that matters when playing a note is whether or not you have a black box next to it. If you do, then you have successfully played a black note, and thus your instrument has a new key!
Most music has several different keys. For example, every note within the song “Happy Birthday” is one of the five main keys (A-B-C-D-E). These songs were written in the key of E major!
Some people say that the lushest palette of colors comes from using all the notes in the same key. This theory goes up for discussion though when someone says that some pieces use very few chords but still look beautiful because they emphasize rhythm over harmony.
Another reason why many musical genres contain little variation is due to the difficulty of the piece. Most beginner musicians struggle with understanding basic chord structures and rhythms, which make it difficult to add other features.
Identify these keys on the piano.
The major scale is made up of seven unique notes, or keys. These are called octave scales because each note in the scale spans an octave, or a whole tone (one full step) higher than the one before it.
The five natural notes we already mentioned-A B C D E - make up the first key of the major scale, which is usually referred to as the tonic key. This is your starting place when you begin to play music. You can use this key for creating melodies, songs, and riffs.
By adding a third note, you get the second key of the major scale, which has been nicknamed the mediant key. This is two steps lower than the tonic, and looks like A – F#–E–D–G–C–B.
To create the final key of the major scale, add a fourth note that jumps by a half step, making it look like A – F#–E–D–G–F#–E-. This is the perfect fifth key, also known as the dominant key.
This completes the octave scale! All seven of the major keys have a special name depending on what position they belong in the musical scale. They are called ascending harmonic sequences, referring to how each successive note rises by a successsive interval —in this case, a whole tone.
The Jam Addict team is a revolving door of writers who care about music, its effects on culture, and giving aspiring artists tools and knowledge to be inspired and keep on creating.
If you have any questions or concerns or just want to drop us a line, don't hesitate to contact us! We always appreciate the feedback.