What Key Is This? How to Identify the Root Note | Hub Guitar

What Key Is This? How to Identify the Root Note

Before you can understand anything about a song, a scale, or a chord, you’ve got to know what the root noteFor a chord or scale, this is often both the lowest note in the chord, and also the note to which all other notes in the structure are compared. For a scale, this term is essentially synonymous with the tonal center. is.

Tonal Center

What is the root note? It’s the tonal center of the music. It’s a single pitch by which everything is organized. Think of it as the center of gravity. It’s a magnetic force to which all other pitches in the song are attracted. You can throw them in any direction you like, but they will always return to the tonal center.

How to Determine the Tonal Center

Decoding the tonal center is a skill that usually comes quickly. If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’ve probably (if reluctantly) joined in for an “ohm” at the end. This is where everyone chants a single vowel. At first, everyone starts on a different pitch, but before long they’re all in tune to the same one. And these aren’t trained musicians, (well at least not more than half of them anyway), so recognizing and tuning into a pitch must be something that most people can do.


  1. Practice your “ohm”. While listening to the song in question, take a deep breath and sing a long, stretched vowel. Don’t worry if it’s right or not. Once you run out of breath, stop the song. Take another breath, and sing the pitch again, the one that you ended up on. Find it on your guitar by singing the pitch and playing different notes until you find the one that matches. This pitch is most likely the tonal center of the song you were listening to.

  2. Look at written music. The written music will have evidence pointing to the tonal center.
    1. First and last chord. If you look at both the first and last chord, there is a high probability that one or both of them is the main chord, and that the root (alphabet letter name) of that chord is the tonal center of the song.
    2. First and last note. These sometimes can also provide a clue.
    3. The key signatureA marking used at the beginning of a piece of written music to indicate the key; normally, which notes will be sharp or which notes will be flat. (But not both) of a piece of music usually indicates either a major or minor key, and that will also typically be the tonal center. For instance, the key signature with one sharp would correspond to either G major or E minor, so the tonal center would be G or E.

  3. Ask Google. Chances are good someone else had the same question, and has answered it for you already. You can’t always rely on this method, but there’s no reason not to use it once you’ve tried everything else.

Key Task

  • Listen to any song for a few moments. Try to find out what the root note or tonal center is. If you’re not sure, use Google to check your answer: “What key is [song name] in?”
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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