Keys and Chords

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If you know what key a song is in, you will know the first chord of the song and what the other chords will likely be. If a song is in the key of G, the song will start with a G chord and the other chords will probably be C and D. There might also be an Am, Bm, Em and a D7.

The following table has the chords likely to be played in a key. Capital Roman numerals are used for major chords and small Roman numerals for minor chords. The most common chords in a song are the I (the name of the key) the IV and the V. They are in red.

KEY I ii iii IV V vi VII
A Bm   C#m  D   F#m  E7
C C Dm Em F G Am G7
D D Em F#m G A Bm A7
E E F#m G#m A B C#m B7
F F Gm Am Bb C Dm C7
G G Am Bm C D Em D7

Every major key has a relative minor. The relative minor has the same sharps or flats as its major. Count up six from the major key to find the minor. The relative minor of C major is A minor. The relative minor of F major is D minor. The relative minor of G major is E minor. Look at the vi column in the table.

Someone might mistakenly say a song is in the key of G when it is actually in the key of Em. The key signatures are the same and the banjo might be in G tuning. If a song is in E minor the first chord will be Em, not G. The next chord will probably be D or one of the others in that key (the relative major). 

A Little Key Theory

Keys are notes in a pattern of steps (intervals). A major key has the pattern: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Going up or down one fret is a half step; two frets is a whole step. Starting the pattern on a different note will give a different key. In the following, W = whole step and H = half step.

       Key of C Major
  W   W   H   W   W   W   H
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

       Key of G Major
  W   W   H   W   W   W    H
G - A - B - C - D - E - F# - G

       Key of D Major
  W   W    H   W   W   W    H
D - E - F# - G - A - B - C# - D

       Key of A Major
  W   W    H   W   W    W    H
A - B - C# - D - E - F# - G# - A

       Key of E Major
  W    W    H   W   W    W    H
E - F# - G# - A - B - C# - D# - E

       Key of F Major
  W   W   H    W   W   W   H
F - G - A - Bb - C - D - E - F

As the beginning note changes, there needs to be sharps or flats to keep the pattern.

A natural minor key has the pattern: whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.

       Key of A Minor
  W   H   W   W   H   W   W
A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A

       Key of E Minor
  W    H   W   W   H   W   W
E - F# - G - A - B - C - D - E

       Key of D Minor
  W   H   W   W   H    W   W
D - E - F - G - A - Bb - C - D

There are a couple of other minor keys; the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. And there are other keys besides major and minor, such as the Myxolydian, Phrygian, Dorian and Syntolydian. Most old time fiddle music, though, is in a major key.

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