How do I figure out the correct key for a jazz tune?

Question by Michael
(Fargo, North Dakota US)

David Berkman's Book

David Berkman’s Excellent Book


I really enjoy your Jazz standards section and have been using your website to teach myself all that I can.

One thing I’m having trouble with is trying to figure out which key I’m playing in. I’ve tried using the Major scale and shifting it to try to find if it aligns with the music, in order to get a starting point for beginning the Modes.

If you could give me a few pointers, that would be great!

M-A’s Answer:

Hello Michael,

Thanks for your question and sorry it took such a long while to answer it.

For a specific tune, the best pointer I can give you (the one that will help you the most with the least amount of effort) is to ask someone who knows, directly! Laughs For instance, you can ask me by email, or any friend, teacher, mentor, etc.

I know it sounds too easy (too good to be true?) but … once you know the key centers for that tune, you can track back all the “why’s” and understand how you can get there on your own, perhaps for the next tune.

A few things to keep in mind while attempting to uncover keys on your own:

-Most standards are NOT in ONE key throughout.

-Usually, transition to a new key is well outline by the harmony (if it’s classic tune, probably with a ii-V cadence)

-If the tune has a bridge section, for instance, the B in AABA structure … then most likely the bridge is in a different key.

-Certitude: If you now know for sure that, say, “those 6 bars are in the key of Ab major”, it does not mean that all the notes in the scale of Ab major will sound good! For instance, the first 6 bars of the tune “All the Things you Are” are in Ab major: Fm7, Bbm7, Eb7, Abmaj7, Dbmaj7 … but don’t expect every note in the scale to “fit” everywhere in there! (-:

-Last tip: I read this book called “The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing” by David Berkman. The author discusses Blues, Body and Soul, Giant Steps and Rhythm Changes. I believe it contains everything you need to learn how key centers move around in typical, standard (or even Jazz compositions) tunes.

I hope this helps,

Marc-Andre Seguin

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