How to pick the perfect key for your track

Do you want to know how to pick the perfect key for your track? Then you have come to the right place. In this article I will give a short introduction to music theory. No full introduction, but everything you need to know for picking a key for your next track! We’ll look at choosing a root note first, secondly we will pick a scale and as third and last we’ll have a quick look at building a chord progression.

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First Step (#1) : To Pick A Perfect Key, Pick A Perfect Root Note

To understand what a root note is, you first need to understand what a scale is.

A scale is a set of notes arranged/picked to play together well. In this blog I will shortly introduce three main scales (although there are many more, these are the most commonly used).

The three main scales are: Chromatic, Major and Minor.

You probably recognize these three. 

Each scale has a root note. 

A root note is the lowest note in your scale, and the note by which you indicate the key. For instance, in a track that is in C, the C is the root note.  

The chromatic scale is a scale which uses all notes in a certain key. For instance, if you take C, it will use all twelve notes that come after it. In the piano roll that looks like this:

Chromatic Scale - Why not to pick it

This scale is practically useless to build your track on, but great to use when picking a key. If you play these notes in order (starting by C5, followed by C#5 and so on) you can check how a certain instrument or sample (for instance an piano) sounds. You can do the same to find a good root note.

Second step #2 : Pick a scale

So now that you have chosen your rootnote is time to choose which scale you want to use.

As mentioned before, the chromatic scale is probably not a good choice to start building chords and probably will sound bad.

The two most known, and probably therefore most used scales are the major scale and the minor scale.

Unlike the major scale, the minor scale has three variations: the natural minor scale (sometimes referred to as the Aeolian mode), the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale. I could write a whole blog post about those scales (and I probably are going to in the future) but right now we are only going to look at the natural minor scale.

It is a great generalization, but to most listeners the major sounds happy, and the minor scales sounds sad.

Major Scale - When to pick it

Major Scale

Sound example (notes played in order):

Minor Scale - When To Pick It

Minor Scale

Sound example (notes played in order):

Step #3 – Build Your Chords Off the scale

So now that you have chosen your root note and scale, it is time to build a chord progression!

So when building a chord, the easiest way is to follow this simple rule.

If you want to make a major chord, you pick the root note, the note that’s three steps above that, and then the note that’s two notes above that note.

For instance while using C as root note the chord would  look like this: C E G.

With a minor chord you reverse this.

 You take the root note, go two notes up, and then three notes from that note.

Let’s take C as a root note again, it will look like this: C D# G

With chords you can make a chord progression.

Chord progressions are basically derived from the root note and are often referred to in numbers.

The most used chord progression is I–V–vi–IV.

Landr wrote a great article on frequently used chord progressions with examples, be sure to give it a look.

I is the chord with the rootnote.

V is the chord five tones away from the root note.

For instance, if we take C as our root note.

Then V starts at G.

That’s how easy this is.

(quick tip: Build your bass line from the root note of the chords. In particularly 808’s)

So, How To Pick A Perfect Key For Your Track

So now you know what a root note, a scale and a chord progression is. The beautiful thing about this is that right know you’ve only learned the basis of the basis. I encourage you to play around with these basic things first, and then later learn more about music theory. Right now it is really important that you get the basis right.

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