General Theory Questions Thread

I thought that I would start a thread where the members could ask or answer their theory questions.

So, my question is this - how do I tell if a song I’m transcribing is in C# major or Db major? I don’t have sheet music, so I don’t know what the songwriters intention was. The problem with some pop songs is they shift key quite a lot.

There’s no way to truly know without asking the composer. The short answer is that doesn’t even matter because c# and db are equivalent. I’ve gotten into arguments with people in college about this though. A singer was trying to tell me that if they see a c# they’d sing it differently than a Db. I quickly call bs on this though lol The fact plenty of instruments don’t have the capability of going a few cents sharp/flat on command means that we need to agree on the true pitch of notes, or else it’s going to sound like someone’s out of tune.

If I score something for an orchestra and have a Bb4 pitch noted, I’ll be annoyed at the violinist who took the same esoteric stance that the above singer mention. I’ll want as close to 466hz as possible, because that’s what the harp player tuned to and they can’t just mess with their pitch lol


What you’ll probably want to do is keep some degree of consistency though. In some situations it’s “weird” to move to a key that’s got flats in it if you started with a key that has sharps in it. Let’s say it’s a classical piece in the key of Ab major. It’s very common for pieces to modulate to the dominant (Eb). So most scholars would think it’s “weird” if you label the key at the point of modulation as D#. Same would go if you chose to interpret the piece as G# major to begin with. When you modulate to the dominant, it makes more sense to say you’re in D# at that point. It would be “weird” to call this Eb. Those are enharmonically the same, but it’s creating a confusing scenario that goes against the diatonic considerations we all agree upon.

Some of this may go out the window a little with stuff like you mentioned, pop/jazz tunes as they’ll have these brief periods where we’re modulating to a key that is not closely related. The example I gave above was between 2 closely related keys. In that case it’s possible you’ll switch between sharps and flats. But, when you are firmly in the “new” key, keep things diatonic and don’t use enharmonic equivalents that don’t make sense for the given key. Always think harmonic function if in doubt.

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Thanks, Joe! I guess what you’re saying is when you’re the transcriber you can take the liberty of deciding if the tune is in a sharp or flat key?

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Yep, if it’s not well known/established then just see what you think makes the most sense. If during the process you find some abnormal keys, it could mean you picked the wrong enharmonic. I wish I could think of a great example but I can’t at the moment.

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In this case I’d go with Db. Aside from being more easily readable, Fm7 Bbm7 and Ebm9 are all in the key of Db (iii vi ii).

Generally with these enharmonic equivalent keys, I’d say just go the route of making things look less messy, accidental-wise.


Simplicity is a factor as well. The point of theory/harmony is really a means by which we can explain things that we play/create.

In the spirit of simplicity,

Db Major = Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C (5 flats)

C# Major = C# D# E# F# G# A# B# (7 sharps)

Soooo. In the spirit of simplicity if you give me the choice of having to think of an F as an E#, I will likely raise an eyebrow and wonder some things… If you present it to me twice, and force me (the player) to think of a C as a B# I will likely transpose this whole thing into an enharmonic key that doesn’t do that; Db. a key with 5 flats is easier to process than one with 7 #'s, and yes we SHOULD practice those keys that are more complicated as well as the resulting harmony that unfolds however I am to @$!%!! busy getting killed failing at picking to worry about it at the moment.

I present to you the keys, number of #/b’s in 4ths. Tell me if you can see a pattern. (Hint; 4ths/inverted 5ths and the names of your strings…) I prefer to think in cycle of 4ths because that’s how my guitar is tuned. And my bass. When I play Mandolin or violin i tend to think in 5ths, again because of the tuning. Anyways, memorize this - it’s handy. While there’s more than just this approach - this has served me well.

C (No#/b)
F (Bb)
Bb (Bb Eb)
Eb (Bb Eb Ab)

Ab (Bb Eb Ab Db)
Db (Bb Eb Ab Db Gb)
Gb (Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Db)
B (F# C# D# A# E#)

E (F# C# D# A#)
A (F# C# D#)
D (F# C#)
G (F#)

So your chart, first 4 bars would actually be this (In the spirit of simplicity)

|: Dbmaj7 Db9 | Gbmaj7 Gbm6 | Fm7 Bbm7 | Ebm9 Gbmaj7 Gbm6 :expressionless:

Bbm7 could be written as Db/Bb and then Bbmin7 as Db/Ab; it’s the same thing as you have written but it prepares the firast time reader for the “slash-chord surprise”. Also, we haven’t discussed what’s going on in the melody just yet either, so that makes implications along with the harmony.

Finally, the “key” that your chart is in is a guideline; you can deviate. Put in the key signature on your chart, and whoever is playing it will love you.

I hope that helps, good luck!


Excellent - thank you!

So, when transcribing, one should try to think of a key that has the least number of sharps / flats?

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You want to use the key that makes the most sense, and is thereby easier to read. A key like C# really would only appear on special occasions, and uglier keys with double sharps (like G# major) would be even rarer still.

When you try to transcribe something like this, get the chords and then look at them as a whole - if you call this Db, the first line has only two that are out (which function to pull better to the next chord and create a descending chromatic line). If you call it C#, then you’d have wacky stuff like E#m7… no one wants to see that. :slight_smile:

Stick with the normal keys, between 6 flats and 6 sharps, unless there’s a REALLY good reason not to (and there most likely isn’t).


Not quite. It’s one of many factors; keep in mind this is just me - and I am nobody, and this is just on of many ways to approach documenting a piece of music.

If the key signature is our reference point, then WHICH key is your piece closest to, and which enharmanic spelling enables one to convey it in the simplest, most direct, most easily learned/digested/communicated method?

I mean there ARE those out there that LOVE to use double and triple #/b just because they love to make something more complex; Notation is an artform as well. Myself, I need to be able to assimilate the stufff in simplest terms so that I can play it. So I guess it depends what one’s priorities are in regards to presenting one’s transcriptions and maybe having other people play them…
PS Great post @Riffdiculous


Thanks guys, I never knew any of this stuff before.


^ This. This is typically why you would go with one or the other. The two are enharmonic equivalents but one is likely going to have less accidentals, which will make it easier to sight read and notate.


Just a quick question - what chord is this circled in red? I am transcribing a song and I believe it to be in Gb major. This chord eludes me though! I am guessing Bbm7#5? Not sure if you can have a flat chord with a sharp as an extension.

Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 17.34.07

I’d call it Bbm7 add(b13). The designation #5 would have that note within the first octave.

EDIT: actually the reason for choosing b13 over #5 is even more complicated than I claimed, but I still feel strongly Bbm7 add(b13) is correct.


Thanks @Riffdiculous

I was transcribing some more and came across another chord, also circled in red. I was thinking Dd/B?

So we have - Abm7 - Dbsus4 - Db - Bbm7 add(b13) - Bb - B6/9 - something else…

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That’s a cool one - Al Di Meola uses a slightly similar chord in Orient Blue. Yeah, I’d just name it as the slash chord, but Db/Cb. All your B notes are really Cb if this is Gb major.

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Excellent point - thank you!!

Would you agree that the key is Gb major? Would F# major be more appropriate (although it looks a bit strange for some reason…)

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They’re enharmonic, so whichever you prefer. They both contain silliness, Cb or E#. I’d just stick with Gb.

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I for some reason have an aversion to calling those chords addb13. Any reason you wouldn’t call it Gbmaj in first inversion or something similar?

Well, the following chord is Bbm7, so this b13 acts as a little descending voice leading to that - it sounds functionally minor overall. And if you were to call it Gb it’d get weird, something like Gbadd9/Bb. Maybe that would make sense in a different context, but not here, to me.


Wouldn’t it just be a Bbm13? Just saying “13” implies we’ve got the 7th. Since it’s minor already, there’s no need say that the Gb note is “flat 13” because that note (13th or 6th) already exists in Bb minor inherently.

I guess another way of thinking about this (in a key we’re all familiar with), if I saw a chord chart that said to play an Am13, I’d know to play the notes A C E G and F (not F#, because that’s not part of the key). That’s the way I learned these “rules” anyway.

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