How Does A Harmonica Player Figure Out The Key of a Song?

Hey Joe,

Great question.

The way I figured out the key of a song is by first listening. This takes a bit of practice, but by just listening you can learn to hear the “tonal center” (“the key”) of a song.

Once I can hear the tonal center, I pick up a guitar and with one slide up the neck I’ll land on the note that matches the “tonal center”. That’s it. It takes me anywhere from 3 seconds to 10 seconds in most cases.

But if your a harmonica player that doesn’t play another instrument what can you do?

Well this is not easy at first for beginners… but here’s what I recommend.

Firstly, become comfortable as a harmonica player with first position and second position (If you don’t know what that is yet? That’s ok the advice I’m about to give may still work). Also become comfortable with playing your major and minor scales.

(I just decided I’ll just give the easy trick and pretty soon I do a full length video for intermediate and advanced level harmonica players to really explain this properlyl…Why. Anyone who could understand what I’m writing will probably already have this key thing mastered…so I’m going to attempt to be helpful to beginners).

[size=14pt]The only trick I know that works for an absolute beginner, who knows, very little about music theory is this (BTW this is what did when I was a beginning harmonica player)[/size]

[size=14pt]Get all 12 harmonicas. Pull each harmonica out of your case, one by one, and play along with the song you want to figure out the key to. When you found a harmonica that sounds in tune, jam along with the song…[/size]

If it’s a Blues Song you’ll probably want to play in second position. If it’s a melodic song you’ll probably want to play in first postion.

OUCH… There’s so much more to say… And I know this is might be a bit confusing if you don’t know anything about harmonica theory… I’m having a challenging time explaining this in writing and this is all covered in depth on my DVDs… (I’ve inadvertantly come to making a plug for my DVDs and I’m feeling a tad awkward about it)… but it’s true… My DVDs will leave you with an understanding of music theory that is practical and very clear.

So where do we go from here…A few things are come to mind:

Firstly, I will make a short free video about this whole key thing sometime before Christmas and I’ll put it on my blog (and announce it on the forum).

Secondly a request to our community: Does anyone feel confident about explaining how a beginning harmonica player can figure out how to figure out the key of a song so they can jam along.

[font=Verdana]Are there any resources that someone would like to turn us on to?[/font] (i.e. I know that in more than one of Jon Gindick’s books he has written out the keys of lots of popular songs… this was very helpful to me as a beginner… Does anyone know of any resources they want to share with us)

Last suggestion. Find a musician friend (who knows about this stuff) and ask them to figure out the key of a song that you want to jam along with.

I confess this is a bit of a clunky post but I hope it helps you.


I have an excellent system: Ask the band what key they are playing in! 8)

Seriously though, a terrific topic. Thanks for the help. As a beginner, this is something I struggled with from the first moment I tried to jam to a track or songs on the radio/CD/MP3 player.
But as you mentioned, just start pulling harps out and and play until something sounds right. But I am assuming that like myself, that most don’t have a full set of harps. So I would just test with what I have, and if one of the key I have sounds close, I go with it. If not, I wait for the next song.

But I would like to be able to begin to learn by ear what key the song is in. But one step at a time… right now, when I practice I start playing -without- looking at the numbers on the harp and see if I can guess it. I am starting to get it… at least on my C. ;D

Beautifully engaging topic, Herr Maestro, I must admit! 8)

But I do confess as well, you lost me at “tonal.” :’(

Interestingly enough though, I was out today and a young guy heard me playing my harmonica on my bike. Turns out he’s a college student and musician - mandolin and guitar. But he also wants to learn harmonica.

We agreed to get together for some brewskies and see where everything goes. Might even get a chance to gig on open mic nights if all works out. Will keep you posted. :wink:

Keep on Harpin’!

Carry on, fellow harpsters and harpsterettes!

There’s a free software called Van Boscoe here it is free download: http://www.Van, It’s good for MIDI files
for helping you tell the key. Its hard to explain but what I do, here goes, if I want to try and find out the key to a midi file I open it in Van
Boscoe and while it’s playing, there’s a Piano keyboard that plays the notes. Go to the control while it’s playing drop the key slider
from 0 to -1 and keep going till the only keys playing are the white keys.

That’s the key of “C”. So to figure out what the original key of the downloaded midi is, say you had to bring it down to -2 for all the white
keys to play that’s key of “C”. Bring it up to -1 that’s C# and keep going to the original 0 that’s “D” TADA.

Another example, say you had to bring it down to -4 to get all the white keys playing, that would be C again bring the slider up again -3C#, -2D, -1D#, 0E original key of music.

It’s confusing but down load the free software, then download a MIDI file play it and follow what I said till you get the hang of it.

BUT its only good for midi’s I wonder if theres software like that for MP3’s

I use that program to learn some complicate fast songs because I can slow it down.

And then I also use it to find the key of a midi file, When I want to record a song with a backing track.

Its a good way to learn, Ed AKA Santa ;D turned me on to that program. Hope I explained it right.

Now that I’m thinking about it Ed I should have just copied and pasted the way you explained.

Harp on!!

Hoi All,

In replay to Joe’s remark:

There are programs witch will do the trick Joe is talking about,

The first is a program every self educating harmonica player can use its the “Amazing Slow Downer” it does it all slowing down changing Pitch en much more. You only have to purchase it.

Second is a Open Source program witch is FREE.
It does mainly the same thing but have some limitations. Download it for free at:

Hope this will help,
Have Fun, John

Ya this stuff is fun SS thanks for the links definitely gonna try them out.

Harp on!!

I like Tica Toodle’s suggestion. Ask the band.

If the bands says, “We don’t know what key the song is”, then ask them which chord the singer starts singing on. 19 times out 20 this will be the Key.

Also make sure the band is tuned to a tuner or a keyboard. If they only tune to “themselves” then they might be a bit sharp or flat… which mean that I the harmonica player will be a bit sharp or flat from them (even though I’m in perfect tune).

STD, Suzukisucker and Joe: Thanks for the responses. Those software tricks make total sense and I would love to find something a bit more user friendly for the musically and technically challenged.

I would love more help from anyone who would like to share.

BTW: I was searching around on YouTube and I got some great ideas how to make it easier to figure out the Key…but I have to say… NO ONE MAKE THIS EASY… Because it’s just not an easy skill for people who are just starting out with music…

I thought the below video was pretty good… You may be a bit confused at times but he made it fun… and he made me laugh a few times.

He’s playing a keyboard… so this will only be helpful for you to begin to understand this game. It will not fully solve our challenge as harmonica players.

If you have a Chromatic Tuner (i.e. Korg CA-30), you can hum the “Common Tone” (the Key) into the tuner.

Two Questions: 1) Can you hum in tune? 2) Do have the tuner (BTW: I always carry a tuner with me in my harmonica case. Why? Because when guitar player are “in tune with themselves” but not in tune with the tuner, I ask them to tune up to my tuner so that we can sound in tune with one another).

If you can hum in tune you can hum the common tone (as explained in the below video) into the tuner. If you can’t hum in tune this trick will not work.

I hope this video helps and also gives you some understanding that this subject of “HOW DO I FIGURE OUT THE KEY OF A SONG?” is a changeling skill to master… BUT ABSOLUTELY DOABLE WITH PRACTICE.

Regarding “How to figure out the key to a song”… What I recommend (because this is how it worked for me) is that give it a try and be willing to fail. You may fail in the short run but this will start the juices flowing… drop it for a while (i.e. three months) so you don’t get frustrated and just keep playing music.

Learn your major and minor scales and become very confident with the sound of them in your imagination. After a few months pass try again. You will find it easier and easier each time you try and soon you will have this developmental skill fully mastered.

Please be honest. Was this helpful to you? I want to make a video about this soon so I would love your honest feed back and any more ideas that you think will help other beginners that are struggling with this challenging topic.

Thanks for inspiring me everyone. Your Harmonica Buddy, jp

P.S. Once again. This video will not be the solution for us harmonica player (unless you buy a keyboard)… but it will help you start to understand what’s involved… Plus I think this guy is cool and he did make me laugh a bit.
VIDEO LESSON: Finding the key to any song

Below is another video that I found much more advanced. Please don’t let it confuse or frustrate you… Just get the juices flow and be willing to fail in the short run… You will figure this in the long run… for now just use this video to get you to start thinking about and listening to music at a deeper level
how to find the key of any song on harmonica (in synch)

Another video below: I really liked this guys explanation too… and I got the sense he really cares about helping people. He’s a very experienced musician so once again… don’t let it discourage you… Please take your time with this subject and know that you can learn this but it will take patience…
How to select a harmonica to play blues style