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Key areas

Writing music gets stale when you start repeating the same things from song to song. The way we use key areas is one of those things.

Wayne Naus’s excellent book Beyond Functional Harmony shows how to go beyond the conventional way that we use key areas. In the next few posts, I’ll use that book as a springboard.


Established key areas

When people write pop or folk songs, they generally stay in the same key. Over time, this creates a sense of predictability. Within a key, chords gravitate to other chords (IV goes to V; V goes to I, etc.)

You might remember this chart from an earlier post.

iii goes to vi goes to ii or IV goes to V or vii goes to I


Here’s the link if you want more detail.


Even though this gravitational pull between chords is real, it doesn’t totally control how we write chord progressions. I think you’ll find that you can go from any chord to any other chord if you’re using chords that are all in the same key.

Try it. Take all the chords in the key of C – C, Dmin, Emin, F, G, Amin, Bdim – and randomly go from chord to chord.


Leaving the key

After you’ve randomly gone from chord to chord in the key of C for a while, throw in a D major chord and pay attention to your reaction. Does it sound strange, out of place? It should. The Dmajor chord is made from three pitches: D, F#, and A. There’s no F# in the key of C, so we find ourselves suddenly removed from that key.

It’s a dramatic move and one that you want to use thoughtfully (i.e. don’t just throw it in anywhere).



Now take the chords in other keys and superimpose them on the key of C. For example the key of D has the following chords:

D – Emin – F#min – G – A – Bmin – C#dim

There are two common chords between the key of C and the key of D – G and Emin. But the rest of the D major chords – D, F#min, A, Bmin, and C#dim – aren’t in the key of C.

Throw an F#min chord into a progression in the key of C. Do the same with the other chords from the key of D major that aren’t in the key of C. To get the full effect, you need to play at least five chords in C before you switch to the key of D.

You’ll develop a stronger sense of key areas doing this, and you might discover/invent some progressions that you like.

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