UD#19 What Key is it in?

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UD #19 What Key is It in?
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek
I love this video of Bobby Mcferrin:
What he demonstrates in this video is that on hearing a few notes of a pentatonic scale (5 note scale) people intuitively know where the rest of the notes are. This is because scales are all about the relationships between the notes. Once we’ve intuitively clued in to what scale we are listening to, we can guess the rest of it without hearing all the notes.  It’s a kind of musical extrapolation.The same effect can be demonstrated with a major scale and can be used to determine the key of a song you are listening to.DO RE MI…

You may be familiar with the syllables that go along with a major scale:

DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, TI, DO (going up)

DO, TI, LA, SOL, FA, MI, RE, DO (coming down)

DO is always the starting note of the scale no matter what key you are in.

Here is a recording of me playing a C major scale on the ukulele. I play it ascending (going up) and descending (going down):

Here is a the major scale in G. Notice how it still sounds like DO, RE, MI etc. even though we have started on a different note.

And here is an E major scale. Also, note that it still sounds like DO, RE, MI…

Here is the scale in the key of A. Still sounds like DO RE MI right?

You can play each of these scales up one string. Here’s the tab:

C major scale:

G major scale:

E major scale:

A major scale:

Notice that they all these major scales use the same spacing of the notes. It’s the starting note or the DO of the scale that gives the scale its’ name. E major scale starts on E. The C major scale starts on C etc.

Okay now for the cool part.

If I play just a piece of a major scale it will likely elicit the remaining notes.

1.  Here is the first part of an ascending major scale. I play DO RE MI FA SOL. Do the remaining four notes  LA, TI, DO pop into your head?

2. Here’s is another scale in a different key. This time I play it descending. I start on the top DO and come down the scale TI, LA, SOL, FA,. Did the remaining notes MI, RE, DO pop into your head?

Figuring out the key:

If the missing notes pop into to your head hold the sound of the last note, DO, in your mind. Go find that note on your instrument. Once you know which note the DO of a scale is you know the name of the scale and you know the key!

See if you can figure out which major scales I use above. For simplicity I used two scales that we already covered in today’s lesson.

Answers: 1. C major  2. A major


The majority of songs use notes from the major scale. Listening to a song will elicit the notes of that major scale from you. If you start singing a scale going up or down while listening to the song you will most likely sing the major scale that contains the notes from that song. Once you’ve done this you only have to figure out which of the notes is DO. Once you’ve identified which note is DO find it on your instrument and then you know what key the song is in.

Here’s a big hint. Many (but not all) melodies end on DO.

1 What key is this song in?


2. How about this one?


3. Try this one!


1. Key of  C     2. Key of G    3. Key of  A

This may seem complicated but it is the best description I can give of how I figure out what key a song is in. If it doesn’t work for you don’t be discouraged. You might need to build up some of your skills and give it another try later. You might need to practice scales for a while to get their sound into your head. You may want to try some ear training. Or maybe some simple solfege or sight-singing would be helpful. Meanwhile carry on ukeing, and I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter.

See you next week,

p.s. I am regularly adding new lessons to Ukulele in the Dark. Please subscribe below to receive the lessons by e-mail. Be sure not to miss a thing…

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