15. The “98%” Rule


1.  “98% “ (approximately) of all simple popular songs are in a major key.

2   98% of these songs are made entirely of chords diatonic to its key.

3.  98% of these songs contain at least 2 of the PRIMARY diatonic chords (I, IV, V)

4.  98% of them begin with the tonic chord (I)

  1. 98% that do NOT begin with the tonic chord begin with either

*A: The relative minor (vi) chord

*B. A cadence, especially any variety of V-I, which is called an AUTHENTIC cadence.  Opening progressions of ii-V-I,  IV-V-I,  and  vi-V-I are all very common.


*The RELATIVE MINOR (vi) often begins a song which soon moves to its relative major (example E minor to G), and sometimes will move back and forth between the two several times in one song. If it stays in minor, then it is in a minor key. The major key and its relative minor have the same scale tones and the same diatonic chords–only the “starting and ending” place, or tonal center, is different. Same chords, very different feel!

*A CADENCE is a 2 or 3 chord progression which opens or closes a phrase of music in a highly definitive way. These are very common, and with practice are easily recognized.

When learning a song, your first job is to determine the key. This is a skill that develops quickly if practiced. In a diatonic progression, the movement to and from the key (tonic) chord, I, is usually not difficult to sense once the most used diatonic progressions become familiar. THE FOLLOWING EXAMPLES BEGIN ON THE TONIC CHORD (I)


Examples:  And it Stoned Me (Van Morrison)   G   D   C   G ( repeat 4 times)


The song is in the key of G major.                      Am D Am D    Am D Em D

G  C G            G  D  Em G


Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)   C Dm  Em   F   G

C   Dm   Em  F   G

F    G     F    G

F  Em Dm  C

F   Em  Dm  C     Dm F  G  etc.

The song is in the key of C major


Occasionally, the introduction will be entirely out of key, but then establishes itself in the “real” key.


Under the Bridge (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

Intro:   D  F#  (repeat 4 times)

Song:    E  B C#m  A etc.


Even though the opening chords are D and F#, the key of E major is then firmly established.

If the first chord is NOT the tonic chord, it is often the relative minor (vi), which then moves to the relative major, such as:


Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)         Verse:  Bm A  G  Em Bm

Chorus:  D A D A C G C ize:16.i?>o?? E@


 The minor key of Bm is established, then it moves to D major for the chorus.

Otherwise, there is likely a cadence leading to I, or the entire song is in a minor key.

The following is an example of a cadence opening a song:


Give a Little Bit (Supertramp)           A D  A D G A etc

The first chord in the song is A, but the song is in the key of D. It is a V-I, or authentic cadence.


Here is another:


My Sweet Lord*  (George Harrison) Em A  Em A       D   Bm D  Bm etc

The song is in the key of D major, but begins with a ii-V cadence. This is called a half cadence, which is any chord movement to V.

*capo, 2nd fret. Actual key is E major


With practice, these forms become familiar, and the all important goal of establishing key will be easy. Developing the ear is very important. When you can pick out chord root (the lowest tonic note in the chord), it simplifies everything. Always listen for the root when trying to pick out a chord.


©2012  Jim Greenfield