The Most Important Concept In Music

Hello Students,

I really hope you’re enjoying Guitar Lessons for the Curious Guitarist.  I want to talk about the most important concept in all music – key.  This word comes up a lot in our discussions and I want to go deeper into our understanding of what it means, exactly.  Other words for key are: tonic, tonality, unison, root (root note), and octave.

First, let’s briefly discuss the difference between tonal and atonal music.  99.9% of all music is tonal, meaning it has a key.  All popular music throughout history has been tonal.  Atonal music does not have a key – which is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Humans like keys in music, even if a song has more than one key, we feel more connected when we can hear & identify the key.  At a few points in recent music history, certain genius composers tried to bring atonal music into the mainstream, notably Arnold Schoenberg in classical and Ornette Coleman in jazz.  It’s interesting & extremely complex, but it didn’t stick.

So, the key is the homebase of the song.  I like the solar system analogy.  There are moons and planets swirling around the sun.  The sun is the gravitational force that keeps the planets & moons in place  – without it they would fly off into space, frozen, and in pure chaos.  The sun is just like our musical key.  It provides order and continuity.  All 11 notes (there are only 12 notes) are swirling around the single note that is the key, each with its own function & purpose.

The key can be permanent or temporary.  A song in the key of C is a permanent key (for that song.)  It doesn’t matter if the scale is C major, C minor, or C something else – all the other 11 notes are relative to that C note.  Sometimes we talk about key in a temporary way, like discussing root notes for modes, arpeggios, & barre chords.  For each event in a song, we can consider the temporary tonality of the chord or note, to best decide how to proceed.

As we study music, we are really studying the relative intervals & chords within a certain key.  If we understand these things in a single key then we’ll understand them in all keys.  Playing in different keys is simple if you understand these concepts in any one key.  The relations are the same – we simply apply them to the new key.

Your takeaway from this should be that anything you learn in a certain key can be applied to every other key easily.  Don’t be intimidated by different keys – it’s just a different place on the guitar, but the relationships are all the same.  If you master the notes, intervals, chords, modes, & arpeggios of a single key – you’ll have mastered them in all 12 keys!  That’s pretty cool!

I hope this makes sense to you.  Go contemplate this and keep playing your guitar.

Talk with you more later,

-Dan (your guitar teacher)