Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Establish the Key in Music

Learn what "establishing the key" means and how to do it.

In this video, Robert talks about the concept of "establishing a key" in music. He provides easy-to-understand and practical examples that may be useful in several different performance and practicing scenarios, and can be easily applied to any instrument besides the piano.

Released on January 21, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello. I'm Robert Estrin here at and with a question. How do you establish the key?

This is a very important thing to be able to do if you're accompanying a choir, a singer, if you're doing any kind of ear training, you want to know what note to start on. Suppose you had a room full of people and you're singing Happy Birthday. I bet you have experienced this where you have a room full of people and they start in about half a dozen different keys. And it drives you nuts. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to establish the key? Well how do you do it?

Well, the most fundamental chord that establishes the key is the dominant seventh chord. So if we're in C major, the 5-7 G-B-D-F. But there's a much more structured way of establishing the key definitively, which is a classic authentic cadence. Now 1; 4; 1-6-4; 5-7; 1. What do all these numbers mean?

Well you start with a 1 chord. In C major, that's a C major chord. And the 4 chord starts on F, for the F major chord. Now 1-6-4 is a fancy way of saying C major chord with a G on the bottom. And then you're 5-7 G-B-D-F. And back to C. So when you hear it, there is no doubt what key you're in.

Do. There is a tonic. And that is simply how to establish any key. You can establish a minor key exactly the same way. Now I am voicing these chords for smooth voice leading and doubling and all of that in classic Bach chorale-type voicing. And it is quite lovely that way. But there are other ways you can voice it more simply. But I highly recommend this progression of chords, 1; 4; 1-6-4, which is the 1 chord with the G on the bottom if you're in C major; 5-7; 1. And that should work for any occasion for you, even "Happy Birthday."

Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Lauraine on January 17, 2018 @11:32 am PST
I LOVE your videos. They are informative and so well done. I look forward to each one! Thank you!!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on January 17, 2018 @7:24 am PST
I think I remember mother telling me that the last note or chord of every piece of music ends in the key it was written. Is this true?
Robert - host, on January 19, 2018 @1:00 pm PST
Your mother's advice works a great deal of the time - but not always! The only way to be 100% sure of the key of a piece is to first check the key signature, then determine if it is in the major of minor key associated with that key signature. I may produce a video on this subject.
Penelope Vernet on May 28, 2015 @2:34 pm PST
I too would like an explanation for determining the key that is much simpler and clearer. I lost you almost from the start! Hope those videos will come along, and be useful for those of us who don't know much at all about the subject! Thank you!
Robert - host, on May 30, 2015 @12:07 pm PST
You are right - having the chord progression accompany the video is a great idea. We will be providing more videos keeping this in mind.
Nat * VSM MEMBER * on January 28, 2015 @1:43 pm PST
Hello Robert,

I have enjoyed your videos, including this one, but today I was having some trouble following you. Do you suppose you could do this topic again and have the video show the notes on a staff, and/or aim down from above and show your fingers hitting the keys? I would love to understand this sort of thing and I don't quite. While you're at it, would you consider discussing the modes? (Keeping discussion simple for the benefit of the musically semi-literate. And while I'm at it, my thanks to you and your wife for these videos; they are all interesting.
Nat Woodruff
Robert - host, on January 28, 2015 @5:29 pm PST
I will see about providing the sheet music to establishing the key. There is a future series of music theory videos coming which will deal with modes for you as well. Thanks for watching!
Nat * VSM MEMBER * on January 28, 2015 @6:23 pm PST
Thank you for your reply. I will look forward to the videos.
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