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Playing Piano By Ear – Finding the Right Key To Solo in When Jamming

By Jason Johann

One of the major payoffs is being able to play with other people and also being able to write and compose your own music. For the beginning improviser, the question of what key to solo in comes up a lot. This was something I had to figure that I didn’t find in any improvisation book I read when learning how to play by ear on my own. This article should demystify this commonly asked question.

One of the most important things to consider when learning to solo and play piano by ear is to know that each key has its own natural notes that fall within certain particular scales. When looking for the right notes for a certain melody, this information is important. Taking an example of the C major scale, some of the notes found include C, D, E, F, G, A and B. They are commonly known as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and vii. Ranging from the first to the sixth notes, one can build major and minor triads. It is therefore possible to build triads from the C, D, E, F, G and A notes.

The roman numerals represent the chords. Some of them are capitalized while others are not. The capitalized numbers are a representation of major chords while the others represent minor chords. One can get major chords from the triad of C, G and F notes. C will consist of C, G and E notes whereas G will comprise G, D and B. F on the other hand, will consist of A, C and F. D, E and A will form the minor chords. It is crucial that one master this because it answers the question of wondering if it is necessary to change keys when moving from one chord to the other.

Having a deep understanding of how each key has naturally occurring chords helps you to avoid changing keys all the time. This is because you can work with a solo of the dominant key which is the first chord to appear in a chord pattern. Looking at an example of G, F, A and C which is a chord pattern, a solo of the C scale can be used despite the fact that they are different chords. The catch is to ensure that you use natural chords only. These are C, D, F, E, G and A. You can also work with a solo in C.

However if you play a chord that is not found naturally in the key of C i.e., D major (F# is not a note found in the C scale naturally) then you would have to change keys when soloing for the duration of time you are using that foreign chord.

Having regular practice with these tips ensures that you get a better insight on the matter. This is because you will be able to hear and play it out loud. In case the sound does not sound right to you, you will figure that the soloing is definitely out of key. Keep up your practice on the piano!

The author is a well reputed piano instructor from Southern California. His music school in Tustin gives Orange County piano lessons and education for other instruments as well. You can also find his blogs on his Twitter page.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Johann, Jason "Playing Piano By Ear – Finding the Right Key To Solo in When Jamming." Playing Piano By Ear – Finding the Right Key To Solo in When Jamming. 16 Oct. 2012. 17 Sep 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Johann, J (2012, October 16). Playing Piano By Ear – Finding the Right Key To Solo in When Jamming. Retrieved September 17, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Johann, Jason "Playing Piano By Ear – Finding the Right Key To Solo in When Jamming"

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