Major and Minor Keys

• Oct 2, 2021 - 23:23

Hi Everyone,

What is the easiest way of determining if a piece is major or minor? When I use a key for a particular piece I need to determine if it is the major or minor for that key signature. MuseScore has a chord identifier but I'm not sure how to use it or if it would work for this. Is there a plug-in that would help? Or a software program?

I know this is a pretty basic question but the research I've done online hasn't yielded a very clear answer, or an answer that an amateur like me can understand, so any suggestions on websites or information sources would be greatly appreciated.

This is a very general question, so I'm afraid I don't have a particular example to upload.

Thanks very much for any advice!



You can't tell from the key signature because A minor and C Major are the same, as are C minor and Eb major etc. Download some old scores from IMSLP with "Major" or "Minor" in the title. Look at the key signatures and listen to the pieces. Eventually it will click.

To further complicate things, there are various modes described that are not strictly major or minor but have descriptions such as Dorian or Mixolydian - you need to look up a music theory website for discussions on this.

Generally the last chord (and/or melodic note) of a section will help determine the key.

Here are a few examples:

• If the key signature has two sharps and (excluding "pickups") the last chord is D major or the last note is D the key is probably D major (the Ionian mode.)

• If the key signature has two sharps and the last chord is Bm or the last note is B, then the key is probably B minor (the Aeolian mode.)

• If the key has has two sharps and the last chord is E minor or the last note is E the key is probably E dorian.

• has two sharps and the last chord is A major or the last note is A the key is probably A mixolydian.

But there are lots of compositions that start on a note that differs from the key. Consider Mary Had a Little Lamb. Pachebel's Kanon in D starts of F#. So it's better to rely on the final note or chord. And even better to rely on the concept of tonal center, because in certain styles of notation (like fake sheet) the melody and final ending might serve to lead back to the head, so the last chord is likely the V of the key; so it this type of form the last chord written is not really the final chord.

There are lots of variables that contribute to the sense of tonal center, so there's no definitive formula or answer for the key of certain pieces. For instance a piece may have changed key by the time it completes a section or its entirety, and in such a case the last note only represents the tonal end of the piece. And sometimes the melody doesn't end on the tonic. But the chord usually does. For simple songs, just compare the last chord/note to the key signature, as shown in the chart of the modes below.

If unfamiliar with the modes of the major scale, study up on them. A good explanation (of which there are few) will help clarify the notion of tonal center and key signatures.

Here's an example of a key signature and its modes. The signature with two sharps is generally thought of as the D Major key signature, or the B minor key signature. But it can be any of the following: iIf the tonal center is D it's major; if the tonal center is E it's Dorian, if the tonal center is F# it's Phrgian ... probably better illustrated in a chart:

     D Ionian (same as Major)
     E Dorian
     F# Phygian
     G Lydian
     A Mixolycian
     B Aeolian (same as Minor ... and the relative minor of D major)
     C# Locrian


In reply to by scorster

Scorster, everything you said is correct; however, I had always heard its not the last note/chord that gives you a hint as to major or minor but the first note/chord in the piece. If a piece is written with 2 sharps and the first note/chord is a B/Bm, then the piece is in Bm or B Aeolian.

In reply to by odelphi231

odelphi231 wrote > I had always heard its not the last note/chord that gives you a hint as to major or minor but the first note/chord in the piece.

Actually a piece can start on any relevant chord—often the IV chord or VIm or even the V chord.

Thus the point of resolution provides a better indication of the tonal center is (i.e. the end of the piece or section.)


In reply to by scorster

If you are speaking legally, then YES a piece can legally start on any relevant chord. I am talking MOSTLY. I play a LOT of music (mostly pop, rock and jazz) 80+% of the time the first chord/note of the piece tells you the key. Perhaps some avant-garde pieces will start on the IV or V. That is the other <20% of music. But, I bet, even that music quickly (within a measure or two) resolves to the major/minor key. I would say the ending chord is less likely (though still common) to resolve to the major/minor key. I see it all the time a piece written in minor that resolves to the major chord at the end. Composers do that so that the piece ends on an "up" emotion.

In reply to by odelphi231

No, I'm talking about what's actually common. Starting a melody on a note other than scale degree 1 is incredibly common. Starting on a chord other than the tonic is also quite common when one considers the pickup is likely the V chord, but also, even the first chord of the first full measure is ii an awful lot of the time in jazz*. So sure, looking at the start note/chord can be useful, but is going to misleading a lot more than looking at the last note/chord, which is the tonic probably 95% of the time. And yes, even for Baroque pieces that end with a Picardy third, it's still the tonic.

A quick check of standard-type tunes (not obscure jazz originals) in the "Real Book" says the first note is scale degree 1 only 20% of the time. The first *chord is the tonic more like 90% of the time, but again, only if we know we can ignore the pickup.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

In addition to Marc's correct and cautionary statement regarding pickups, we should note that many jazz and swing compositions are based on a cycle of 4ths progression.

Consider Sweet Georgia Brown. The progression is VI7 - II7 - V7 - I. Performances invariably start on the VI chord andmelody starts on the sharp tonic (i.e. the 3rd of the V chord.) So there's nothing about the initial chord or note that directly communicate the key (unless you wonder, "Hmmm, maybe the starting chord is the VI chord!")

Plus as already mentioned, some charts and score have an "ending pickup" which is usually a V chord leading back to the key of the song. Or, as could potentially occur with Sweet Georgia Brown, a scorist could end with the III7 chord (which we usually hear in Sweet Georgia Brown) leading to the starting VI7 - II7 - V7 - I progression.

Despite these consideration, a trained ear can usually make an informed opinion rather quickly. Other times it's hard to decide. For instance, I just wrote a very short two-part fugue and it clearly starts in A minor, then quickly moves to G major and resolves to Bb major. If I ever add another section to the composition that may help me determine the key.


In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Since I am a piano player I have a lot of pianist greatest hits books. Sitting at my computer just now, I happen to have the greatest hits of Billy Joel and Bread in front of me. Every one of their greatest hit songs begins on the I chord- the first note/chord. I looked at a few Elton John, same thing. I looked at a few Carol King, same thing. I have a Jazz Real Book (Volume 1 in case you are following along), randomly flipping the pages, Giant Steps (Coltrane) no key signature (C major) which is odd because it was famously written in B Major and I have seen it elsewhere with 5 sharps. The first chord is Bmajor7. Admittedly, Giant Steps is a bad example, because it quickly goes modal then Ionian several times. I'm Beginning to see the light (Duke, et al) GMajor, other than the pickup measure, the first chord is a G6 chord, Memories of Tomorrow (Keith Jarrett) No key signature (C major), the first chord is Am, Meditation (Jobim) C major, the first chord is C6. Round Midnight (Monk) Eb key signature, first chord is Ebm. So far I am 90%+ the first note tells you the key.
I do see in some jazz pieces where the first note/chord is an inversion of the key signature (Ab major - first chord is F-, which is the same as Ab6 (2nd inversion).
Marc, I know I am on shaky ground with you being MUCH more knowledgeable about music theory than me, so please point out some pieces where the first note/chord is not tonic. I will look them up.

In reply to by odelphi231

Indeed, if you restrcit your search to only pop songs, that will lean more to the I chord, but again - you'll need to know what counts as intro or pickup so you can skip that.

But if you also look at more than just pop music - jazz, as I mentioned, or classical - you realize it does get quite a bit more complicated.

In the Real Book, look at, for example, first song I opened to: Ruby My Dear. Key signature says Ab, first note G, first chord F-9. Next random song I turned to, Nuages, key is G, first note F, first chord Bb-7. If you count the pickup, first note is C#. Facing page has Notstaliga in Times square, this is in F and first notated chord is F7 but pickup is C, so again, you need to know to skip that. Next random song is Dreamwville - first chord C, first note E. Having the first chord be the tonic but the first note be something other than scale degree is super common. As for other well-known songs from the Real Book where the first chord is not the tonic, consider Scrapple From the Apple, Satin Doll, Scotch and Soda, Alice in Wonderland, One Note Samba, Only Trust Your Heart, Jordu, Jelly Roll, I Love You, I Mean You, Peri's Scope, Wives and Lovers, Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby, and the list goes on and on and on and on.

Yes, it's not the norm - more of the songs in the Real Book that have a clear key center (Giant Steps, for instance, does not, that's why it is normally written without a key signature) start on I than any other chord. But, there are lots of songs that don't start on the tonic, and very very few that don't end on the tonic. Which is why I say looking at the end is more reliable. But that's tricky too, because the lead sheets might show optional turnarounds, and you need to know to ignore those for analysis just like you need to know to ignore pickups.

First chord, last chord ... might work in many cases, but is very unreliable in general.

I would propose combining intuition with knowledge of key signatures:

Look up the key signature. For example, one sharp sign: G major or e minor. Listen to (a part of) the piece, for example the first bars or the last bars. Try to hum or play the note on which the piece would end to feel resolved. If it's either G or E, you might have found it. If it's something else, the situation may be more ambivalent - as others already wrote, there are many more modes besides major and minor key.

Second method, requires less intuition: Minor keys usually have some different accidentals. e minor has one sharp in the key signature, same as G major, but in order to resolve on e, in classical music you can also expect there to be D sharps leading up to it, and possible C sharps to get to the D sharp without a jump.

It all strongly depends on which time period and style we are talking about. In baroque time, you can pretty much just look at the final note to find your answer. In romantic era, a piece could deliberately end vague in order to express some emotion (although still uncommon); also, other modes besides major and minor become increasingly important throughout the 19th century. And in 20th century popular music, chord progressions are very often based on modes other than major and minor.

By far the best way to learn this in through actually playing and listening music in different keys. One can't tell you blue looks like; we can only tell you to look at blue things and ask you to see for yourself what they have in common, and hope that the connection is made. Same for telling the difference between major and minor, or identifying the tonic of a melody, etc.

But FWIW, the trick of listening to the last note / chord is definitely useful a lot of the time (but not always - I'd practice first using really simple songs to get a feel for this). The first note/chord not so much - it's only going to be the tonic "some" of the time and is really just as likely to be something else.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Thanks Everyone.

I have been working through the music and trying to sort out major and minor for the keys of my compositions but, as illustrated above, there are different opinions on how to do that. I've been looking for a music editor (human) to help out with this, so suggestions on qualified individuals or firms would be appreciated. Of course, the cost for their services is another issue. I'll make this a separate request.

All best wishes.


In reply to by scorster

Hi scorster,

Thanks but it's too much material and would be an imposition. Anyway, I have to work my way through this. I want to learn to identify major and minor as well as have a better grasp of chord structure. But from the comments above and online research it's clear that there are different opinions on what approach to use.

Thanks everyone!


In reply to by notescribe

After reading through all this, it's still not clear to me what you are trying to do.

Are you trying to figure out if your compositions are major or minor?

Can you construct a major or minor triad?

What instruments are you writing for?

What style of music do you write?

Are you trying to put key signatures to your music?

You wrote:
When I use a key for a particular piece I need to determine if it is the major or minor for that key signature.

In addition to all the fine advice given here...
An interesting way to "get a feel" for major and minor through actual listening is to compare a simple melody written in parallel keys.
Here's an example:
Simply listen to the example as two separate tunes and compare the sound and mood of major compared to minor. Let your ear judge the difference.

Regarding relative keys, (e.g., C major - A minor, which share the same key signature) see:

Regarding parallel keys (e.g., A major - A minor, which share the same tonic) see:

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