Understanding backing track keys

I received two emails this week, both from different customers, both asking about two different backing tracks, but both bringing up the same subject – the subject of keys.

Understanding the key of a backing track is a subject that can be very confusing to non musicians and to musicians alike.

In fact there are many musicians out there who are very talented players but they don’t understand keys. This is because keys are based on music theory and most musicians haven’t studied music theory. Ask 100 musicians if they studied music theory and 90 or more of them will say no. Probably the most famous of them all is Paul McCartney. Great musician, excellent song writer, but he freely admits he can’t read music.

And there’s millions of musicians out there just like him. You’d be amazed how many guitar players out there think that if the first chord of a song is, say, G then the song must be in the key of G. It’s not (but just to confuse things, in some cases it could be – more of that later)!

Similary many musicians think that if the main chord in the verse of a song is an Am then that song is in the key of A – it’s not (although to confuse things again, in some cases it could be). In most cases, if the song has an Am verse it will probably be in the key of C.

So why all the confusion?

It’s all about how music is written – not how it’s played, and not how you listen to it.

To understand about keys fully, you really need an in-depth knowledge of all the little dots and lines that make up a songs arrangement on the music sheet, but without getting in to that too deeply, here’s a short explanation about keys and what deciding factors determine what key a song is in.

It’s by no means definitive guide because you must remember that music students study this type of thing for YEARS so there’s no way it can be completely covered and properly explained in a few lines!

But I’ll atempt to explain because it’s a good question, it’s an interesting subject which is rarely understood, and is well worth going in to in a little bit of detail.

Even if you end up more confused about keys than you were before reading this, at least it will give you some idea of the complexities involved and at least you’ll be aware of it from now on.

So, here goes.

One of the questions I was asked was about the song Heartbeat by Scouting For Girls. The customer asked us to create this backing track for him without guitar (he’s a guitar player and wants to play the guitar part “live” over the backing track). He asked us to produce it for him in “the original key of A”.

Right away I spotted a problem – the original key for Scouting For Girls Heartbeat is D, not A.

Fortunately I immediately realised the mistake he’d made and why he made it. If you’re a guitarist and you’re familiar with this song, then you’ll know that the first guitar CHORD you play in the first verse is the chord of A. So that’s why the customer wrongly thought the song was in the key of A.

It’s not, it’s in D.

Think of the chords you play in the chorus of this song (and the verse for that matter). They are all related to D. Mind you, the chord of D is also related to A too, so you can understand his confusion.

The next customer had a similar problem with the backing track of the Michael Jackson song Billie Jean. The original key for Billie Jean is A. What’s confusing about Billie Jean is that the chord of A is nowhere in the song at all, yet the backing track is written in the key of A. So to save confusion we listed it in our catalogue as “original key Gbm”.

That caused another customer to ask if Gbm (G flat minor) is the same as Gb (G flat) and if not, what’s the difference?

No, Gbm is not the same as Gb. And here’s the difference:

Gbm has the 3rd note in the scale flattened whereas Gb has the 3rd note in the scale as a natural note.

Remember I said earlier that keys are directly related to the way a piece of music is written, not how the notes are played?

Well, if we take the example Billie Jean, in the original Michael Jackson key this piece of music uses mostly minor chords and can be written in two ways.

It can be written in Gbm, or it can be written in A.

To the listener, both versions will sound exactly the same.

To the musician playing the song, he’s playing exactly the same notes no matter whether it has been written in Gbm or A.

But the notes on the music sheet which the musician is reading from will be named differently depending on which key the arranger has written the song in.

So the key of a song depends on how the person writing the musical arrangement of that song wants the musician to SEE those notes. This is often done because some keys are easier for some instruments than others.

The best way to describe this to a non musician would be to think of a piano keyboard.

The note to the right of middle C is C# (C sharp).

But that note is also Db (D flat).

They are exactly the same note but have two different names.

Why give the same note two different names I hear you ask?

Well, if this note was being written in a piece of music for a song which was being written in the key of A, the arranger would write this note on the music sheet as a C#.

If he was writing it in a piece of music in the key of Gb he would write that note on the music sheet as a Db.

It all depends on how the music is being written and often who it is being written for.

For example usually brass players find it easier to read a Db than a C#.

Guitar players usually find it easier to read a C# than a Db.

Getting back to the Billie Jean backing track, to match the original Michael Jackson key, we wrote the backing track in the key of A, and the sixth minor key of A is Gbm. That’s where the Gbm you see listed in our catalogue comes from.

The problem we would have as a backing track company labelling Billie Jean as “original key of A” is that the whole song mainly uses minor chords and the chord of A does not appear anywhere in the song. So the non musicians who don’t understand music theory and the musicians who don’t understand music theory (which is 99% of customers) may think that if it is listed as A, that must mean Am.

It’s not. 

Am means Am.

A means A.

Am is also the sixth minor to C, so as you can see there would immediately be all sorts of confusion.

– By labelling the song as Gbm, the musician who DOES understand music theory gets it. He knows that the minor key we have listed is the sixth minor to the key of A. He understands that non musicians struggle with keys so understand what we’ve done, so there’s no problem there.

– The musician who can play really well but doesn’t understand music theory gets it too. He knows that when he plays this song, the main chord he plays most of the time is a Gbm chord so it sounds right to him. He is blissfully unaware that the key of Gbm isn’t actually how we wrote out the arrangement, so there’s no problem there.

– The non musician/singer who knows nothing about keys or music theory just sees it listed in the catalogue as Gbm “original key” (he doesn’t even look at the key Gbm because it means nothing to him) so he knows that if he can sing along with the original recording then he can singalong with the backing track in the original key, so there’s no problem there.

By listing it in this way, everybody gets it and everybody understands it.

At the end of the day, you only need to know how to put fuel in a car – you don’t need to know how the engine works.

So if you are a musician who understands music theory and you see a few sixth minor keys in our catalogue beside the key for a song which you know should really be listed in its major key, we’ve done it simply because there are more non musicians and musicians out there who don’t understand music theory than there are who do. It’s to help them.

Anyway, if you DO know music theory well you won’t be confused in any way – you’ll recognize immediately what we’ve done and know why we’ve done it.

Billie Jean is a perfect example of this. The original key is A, but there is no A chord anywhere in the whole song. How confusing is that!

Now you can see why it makes sense to list the keys in a way that customers can understand and keep everybody happy. Welcome to the confusing world of music theory!

If this all sounds like gobbledegook to you, don’t worry too much. Just remember that students of music study this type of thing for many YEARS so although I’ve done my best to shine some light on the subject here, unfortunately it’s not a thing that’s easily explained in a few short paragraphs.

I just hope I’ve helped a little!

Kenny