Accompanists obviously see the point in determining keys and modes, but melody players often don't care to learn. There are advantages though. For instance, if you have trouble starting tunes, knowing the key can give you a place from which to start. Also, it is polite when sessioning to let your accompanists know beforehand what keys you'll be playing in. If you are interested in concocting variations, is can be easier knowing what key you are in and which notes are "safe". Finally, when putting together sets of tunes, you can create a lot of interest via key changes.


However, I'll go ahead and throw this out too: You don't need to know this. As helpful and useful as it is, you don't need it. You may be great with tune starts anyway, someone else can let folks know the upcoming keys, and you can feel your way through the last two without difficulty. I know this because I cannot determine keys or modes. No one ever ventured to teach me how to do it because, being a fiddle player, they didn't see the need. I've attempted to learn on my own, but I tend to be wrong with my judgments. At the same time, I've been doing very well musically because I still developed an ear for the music and a feel of the pulse. So, if you don't have it, and you don't want to learn it, you don't have to. You are by no means a lesser musician.


For those of us that want to add this tool to our toolbox (or for anyone looking to sharpen their tools), a few questions for our fellow TradConnect users. How does one determine keys? Modes? Any tips for doing it more efficiently for those that can?

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Thats a great discussion point and is an issue that I also struggle with. Whilst I know the keys of some tunes and can differentiate major and minors I can't always tell the key.How does one go about developing this skill ?

A simple question. I wish the answer could be so simple. I have a routine for a response to this and the "How do you know what chord to play?" question. 

I point to (perhaps) my shirt and ask "What color is this?"


Point to another object, "What color is this?"


Then I ask, "How do you know?"


You know because your mother trained you to know by holding up an apple and saying "Red." Then holding up a red ball and saying, "Red," and then pointing to the fire truck and saying, "Red." Then she points to the grass and says, "Green," and to the sky and says, "Blue." You get the idea.


You gain the skill by studying and practicing it. A book could be written on this subject. Perhaps one already has, but I am not aware of it. For a start - and only a start - try to identify the tonal center of a tune. Not the key, but the tonal center. While that may be a new term to you, I'll bet you can do it innately. Singers do this very well even when they insist they have no idea what you are talking about. Play through a tune, 2 A's and 2 B's. When you are done, hum or vocalize on "ahh" the note that sticks in your mind. Vocalize it for a couple seconds at least. That is the tonal center. Now find that note while you are vocalizing it on your fiddle, box, or whistle. 


OK, maybe not a whistle. Don't hurt yourself. I hope you understand. This is much easier to demonstrate in person. That's the first step. There is no "easy" method of which I am aware. It takes study and practice. Sound familiar? Still with me? I can go on. In case the answer is, "No," let me stick this in your mind. If you can read music I am sure you aware of key signatures. If the beginning of each staff has a key signature of two sharps, F# and C#, the tune is in the key of D, right? 


Maybe. Maybe not. It might be D major. It might be B minor. It could be B natural minor (Aeolian mode) or B harmonic minor. It might be E Dorian, which is often misidentified as E minor. And of course, it could be A Mixolydian. That doesn't happen very often, but it is possible. 


Let me know.



I'm probably about to get my head bitten off by some ticked off guitarists for oversimplifying what they do, but just to get the ball rolling. 

It seems to me about 90% of the tunes I hear at sessions are in D, G, or C or if they're minor key Tunes Em or Am... with A and Bm thrown in for fun now and again.  (We don't talk about the other 10%... they're scary.)

So, as a melody player, it all hinges on 1 note:  C sharp or C natural. 

If you're playing a C sharp in the tune, you're most likely in the key of D.... but if that doesn't work, Try A or Bm.

If you're playing a C natural, you can be pretty sure your accompanist is chording in G... but if that's not working, they could try C, Em or Am.

If you end up playing both notes in the tune, it's probably a situation of going from a D to Em or Am.

As a general rule of thumb, it at least gives your accompanist a place to start.

Ah... Bruce, you beat me to a reply by 1 minute!  Curses!


I like your analogy Bruce, an excellent point (plus I'm a sucker for analogies). So much of music stems from that position of repeated reinforcement, of course the study of keys and modes should and does as well.


Good advice about the tonal center. I've heard that tip before and it really went a long way towards helping me identify patterns and feelings I was hearing as belonging to certain keys.


"It might be D major. It might be B minor. It could be B natural minor (Aeolian mode) or B harmonic minor. It might be E Dorian, which is often misidentified as E minor. And of course, it could be A Mixolydian."

This is the business that baffles me. I'm generally good up until this point. Now, I reckon that each mode has its own particular feeling, and that once I put a name to it I could tell the difference pretty quickly.

Based on your advice here's is my proposed solution: I'll grab some tunes in D major, B minor, E Dorian, and even A Mix off of a site such as and listen for that tonal difference. We'll see where that takes me . . .


In the meantime, thanks for your insightful post.

Cool, this is definitely a useful place to start for those of us looking to help our accompanists out. Down the road, we can hone our knowledge and offer a more accurate assessment, but it is probably more useful than, "I don't know."

Not to worry, Jenni. I see merit to both our explanations. 

You have some good stuff to start here, Justin. Jenni is a good friend who lives about an hour's drive from me. She and her husband Rich sometimes attend our sessions and I sometimes visit theirs. You have a good resource here because I am an engineer and I take a highly analytic approach to things, and Jenni is a grade school teacher who obviously has a way of clarifying the issue. 


Before I comment further, can you read standard notation and have you had some formal training? That will hopefully help me determine the best way to explain things.

Hey!  High-School Math Teacher!  But that doesn't change your basic point, and thank you for the compliment.

Wikipedia actually has a good article on "modes" at

My apologies. I meant "grade" as opposed to "college," but I see my error now. I should have written "public school."

I presumed an innate ability to identify the tonal center, but perhaps that was a bit too much. Allow me to suggest this for those who are not comfortable with that skill. Select a piece for which you do know the key. For instance, Mason’s Apron is usually played in A major. Then:


1. Play the tonic note* –  A for Mason’s Apron – on your instrument. Play it again.

2. Hum or vocalize the note. I don’t care if you are “not a singer” or don’t like the sound of your own voice. It’s one syllable on one pitch fer cryin’ out loud. Play it again. Vocalize it again.

3. Keep that pitch in your head as you play through the piece one time.

4. When you are finished, hum the tonic note out loud again. Play the tonic note on your instrument. You should be really close if not right on.

5. Repeat for tunes in other keys.

6. When you are pretty accurate at this, play a tune without going through the first three steps. Just play the tune and vocalize what you think is the tonic note when you are finished. Find it on your instrument and then check it against the stated key for the tune.


Remember you have to know what key the tune is in to begin with. If you are reading this and following my advice you probably don’t have the ability to discern between major and minor keys by simply looking at the notation. Use a source such as which is very good at identifying keys and modes.


Oh, and one caveat: It is not uncommon for a fiddle tune to have the A part in one key and the B part in a different key or mode. Your developing skill should help you determine this. If you are unsure, ask me.


*The tonal center


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