How to quickly find the tonic in a song

Hi! New to the forum, have taken two classes with Mireia, read portions of the book, and plan to re-read all of it. HUGE fan of this method. I am now able to find the tonic much more quickly than I could originally, by the “pause and sing down to 1” method. I’ve heard that eventually one can do this instantaneously by hitting a single key on your instrument and determine where that is in relation to 1. I would love to develop this skill.

Can I work on it now, or do I need to be more patient and just wait? (I’ve done sing the numbers on the major scale, hearing chords 1-4-5-6, and now moving on to hearing the other 3 chords in pure harmony.) I play keyboards in a band and it would be so wonderful to find the key without having to be told when we start a new song!

Hi Angela,

Welcome to the forum! You can certainly practice that ability now, but it’s going to become much easier and more reliable as you gain experience practicing the other aspects of the method. One of the many advantages of doing all your thinking in tonal numbers is that it gives you a constant name for each musical sensation. For example, in Ear Training for Musical Creativity, you could talk about a sound like “note 3” and study its unique and beautiful sound, which is the same in any key.

But then as you saw in Recognizing Chords by Ear, the chords happening in the background also combine with melody notes to create a unique effect. So for example, “note 3 in the 1 chord” is a different overall sensation from “note 3 in the 4 chord”. It’s still note 3, and there is a part of the sound that doesn’t change. But the chords in the background definitely affect how these notes will feel to us.

And even in that situation that I’m describing from Recognizing Chords by Ear, we’re still feeling note 1 as the tonal center. Where things really start to sound different is when we’re feeling some other note as the tonal center. Toward the end of that workshop, you got to experience this yourself in comparing songs where we feel the 1 chord vs. the 6- chord as the tonal center.

The point of this long preamble is that each one of the musical situations I’m describing is something you need to experience for yourself before you’ll be able to recognize it by ear. So if you want to use what I call the “streamlined” version of Exercise 2: Mastery Level, you just need to be familiar with all of those sounds. This just means the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, in at least the two most important harmonic situations (major and minor) where you will be feeling either note 1 or note 6 as your tonal center.

The good news is that you don’t need to do anything special to develop this ability. It just comes down to the two things we’re always talking about: (1) listen deeply to every note you play, and (2) always do all your thinking in tonal numbers. If you just continue doing these two things, life itself will put you in all of the harmonic situations I’m describing, and over time you’ll become so familiar with them that you can recognize them instantly.

If you do want to practice this ability now, there’s no substitute for real life! Starting right now, I challenge you to simply adopt the new habit that you’re ALWAYS going to find the key of the music by ear whenever you play! You can certainly try this with other musicians but you can also practice this at home with the IFR Jam Tracks if you prefer to do it privately. With the jam tracks, there’s really nothing to lose because even if it takes you all day to find the key by ear, you’ll make many valuable discoveries through that process.

You could even add the discipline of playing just one single note on your instrument and then listening to it to decide for yourself where you must be in the key of the music. This is the skill that I think you’re saying you want to develop. So give it a try! There’s no harm in playing a single note and listening to it, just to see if you happen to recognize it already. If you don’t, then try a different note. Just don’t fall into the trap of playing hundreds of notes looking for the right ones. You’ll grow much faster if you pause to really listen to each note before giving up. But if you can’t recognize the first note you play, then by all means try a different one.

Whatever you decide your process will be, my advice is to start living the life you envision for yourself right now. Start thinking yourself as a person who always finds the key of the music by ear, and make this the way you start every improvisation. I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get very comfortable doing this, just from a little practice. But as I say, you’re also going to get much better at this over time because you’ll have more experience in all of the different harmonic situations that I mentioned.

Thank you for the great question and for your enthusiasm. I’m happy you joined us here!



@ImproviseForReal I love that. I think I’ll take it as my moto for the day. :slight_smile:


Thank you David, this all makes perfect sense with my experience to date. One of my biggest take-aways from the workshops was the value we get from going slow & deep in our musical practices. I tend to always want to rush ahead. I will try as you suggest, knowing it will come in time but also trying to work with it now a little bit. I realized from your response that I tend to normally know what key I am in, from the jam tracks (where we see the key) or in songs I am learning on piano (where I work with one song a long time). And then with the other IF4 work where we ID chords in a playlist, I’m trying hard to identify chords AWAY from piano, so never know what key we are in. I could take those same playlists back to the piano and work on key as you suggest, taking my time.

I am really intrigued by your statements 1 & 2. With the cover band I’m in, I was trying to always think in #s, but it got overwhelming b/c we have so many songs to learn quickly and it is easier for me with chord names, especially in certain keys. I should probably revisit that assumption and see which songs I can now go back and think in #s for. Or to your point, ALWAYS try that first and only fall back on chord names when that’s my only option. Lots to ponder here–very grateful for your thoughtful response.


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One quick follow up on your suggestion to practice finding key with I4R jam tracks, am I missing done obvious way to play them without seeing the key? I purchased level 1 and also have the ones we have used in workshops but I always see the key in file name (and choose the keys that fit my vocal range). Which is great due that purpose but not for playing sling to find the key.

Hi Angela, I don’t know of any simple way to hide the keys from the name of the tracks. Even if you change the filenames of the mp3 files on your computer, your audio player will most likely still show the complete original title of each mp3 file because this title information is coded into the file itself.

Next year we hope to launch an IFR player app that will allow you to create playlists, set tunes to shuffle randomly, easily eliminate the piano or bass parts, and hide the key information when you want to practice finding the key by ear. But it’s a huge (and expensive) project so we’ll be lucky to launch that by the end of 2022.

In the meantime, the only thing that I can think of would be to download all of the mp3s and make creative use of folders on your computer. For example, if you know that there are 30 jam tracks that you want to practice with, and you don’t want to see the titles, then you just need to set up a situation where the songs play by themselves without your having to look at your computer. So you could just copy those 30 files to a special folder just for that practice session, and then load them all up into your music player on random shuffle. Then at least you can look away from your computer while the tunes play.

If you need to be able to skip to the next song, one way you can do that is to drag your music player window to an odd location on your desktop, such that you can see the player control buttons but you can’t see the filenames. I’m sorry these are all really dumb and primitive techniques, but honestly that’s what I would do.

Thanks for sharing your process. It really helps us to understand what kind of functions we need in an IFR player app. Most app developers would never in a thousand years suspect that there would be any value in hiding the song title information! But we’re an odd bunch so we just need to take very good notes about all the things we want our player to do. Sorry I can’t be more helpful at the moment, but I definitely hear you and we’re working hard to improve all of these tools for you.


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Some things I’ve used:

For getting an unknown sequence of files, either

  • Shuffle play (within a folder)


  • Set up one or more playlists & maybe randomly sort the list before use, or have so many variant playlists with cryptic names that you won’t remember which is which!

Of the two I prefer the latter, as it allows me to arrange something more purposeful than pure randomness.

For not knowing what’s playing:

  • Turn your back on the computer or player (or if the device is small, face it away from you).


  • If there’s a screen or power saver option set it to a short interval so the screen is blank!

Probably obvious ideas, but sometimes it’s handy to note these things. :slight_smile:

All great ideas, @DavidW. Thank you!

David & David W,

These are fantastic suggestions, thanks to you both! Yes all this sounds doable, great ideas. I mainly wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing something obvious before resorting to developing my own system.

An app will be FANTASTIC, that’s great news. Happy to do user testing or provide feedback on early versions. I’ve done software development work before and know how much goes into it so I wish you all good luck with the process!


Thank you for the offer of user testing @Angela! We’ll definitely keep your offer in mind. The biggest thing holding us back right now is the expense. If you have any bank robbing experience along with your software development background, send me a private message and we’ll talk. :slight_smile:

But the good news is that every year it gets less expensive to do really fantastic things with technology. There are services that we use at our website today for FREE that would have cost us $100,000 to implement just 5 years ago. So mostly we just don’t want to make a huge mistake and go deeply into debt to create something that could become commonplace (and free or open source) in the near future.

We’ve always tried to be on the cautious side of technology. Our students don’t want to pay 10x the price for the latest bells and whistles. We just want great tools that support us in having a wonderful and creative music practice. So we’ve always tried to wait until new technologies become “old news”, because that’s when they become reliable and inexpensive, and they still give us the awesome benefits we want.

For the technology required for an IFR player app, I think that this moment of perfect timing is right around the corner. New tools and libraries are being created every day, as well as new companies and SAAS solutions coming online. So even with our Fred Flintstone management philosophy, I think that a really cool player app is in our very near future. :slight_smile:


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Next year we hope to launch an IFR player app that will allow you to create playlists, set tunes to shuffle randomly, easily eliminate the piano or bass parts, and hide the key information when you want to practice finding the key by ear. But it’s a huge (and expensive) project so we’ll be lucky to launch that by the end of 2022.

maybe there members who can assist you in it.
we all have a talent. :wink:

Sorry David, no independent source of wealth, if so I would definitely invest in your app! Today I actually work as an instructional designer, creating training materials for adults. That’s another reason I was so impressed by the book / workshop. Most training courses make the mistake of not giving the learner enough processing time, your methods are the exact opposite. It’s all there, the trick for the learner is just navigating through in a way that makes sense to them.

I just started reading the book again after taking the 2 workshops, and am finding so many gems and ideas to revisit. You all have already provided all the needed content (in the book, tracks & workshops), so even though the app would be a nice-to-have, I feel like I have content to work with for a good, long while as is! So grateful for this program!

For sure, @VINNY! Thanks for the offer!

Thank you, @Angela! I love your observation about giving the student enough processing time. That also says a lot about your own maturity and relationship with music, because not every student feels comfortable knowing what to do with that “processing time”. But you’re exactly right that this is our intent, and it’s wonderful when it works out and people discover that spark of the connection to their own creative abilities. Thank you for the kind words. We’re grateful for you, too!


Hello all,

Just realized this morning there is a forum for IFR. Who knew?

I just got to the point in Ear Training for Musical Creativity, lesson 10, which has the exercise being discussed here in which Mireia describes the technique to get oriented in the key of the music by ear. As I was practicing this, I ran into the same issues as @Angela mentions which is not wanting to see the key of the music in the filename first. I tried a few approaches with my music player to hide the filename and it does work, but it was too much effort to setup.

Long story short, since I’m also a software engineer, I decided to write a single-page app that can queue up a jam track randomly based on which harmonic environments you want to study and have it hide the key information, unless you choose to show that. I just wrote it yesterday, and it wasn’t very difficult to make. I used the jam tracks from IFR (from 7 worlds level 1, and ETFMC) since I had those available to me. I have not made this app publicly available because the jam tracks are @ImproviseForReal intellectual property (also since I just wrote it yesterday). But seeing as how others have interest in a solution like this, I thought I’d share that I do have a solution that folks could use if interested, and if @ImproviseForReal is ok with that.

I see also that IFR is working on a custom player, which would be cool too, but in the meantime thought I’d share what I created to this forum. Here is a screenshot of it.


Hi @Michael . Welcome to the forum. I think there are several of us software guys here. I’m sure I read somewhere that there’s a strong correlation between ‘computer people’ & music people’. Maybe it’s something todo with seeking & recognising patterns?

That’s a neat app.

I posted several basic ideas in an earlier post above, but (for me) the simplest of all & the one I tend to use most is to use random play a folder (or playlist) & shrink (or move) the media player window (I usually use VLC Media Player, on a desktop computer) so the right hand end of the file name (i.e. where the key is) isn’t visible. When I want to check my ‘result’, I just stretch (or move) the window to reveal the truth.

PS. Probably obvious but the same simple idea can also be used if you’re wanting to work out a progression & don’t want to see giveaway clues in filenames (e.g. if you’re doing Mireia’s ‘Recognsing Chords by Ear’ course).

Hi @Michael and @DavidW, thanks for sharing these ideas. In my own personal music practice, I often do exactly what @DavidW suggests. I use the VLC player with a playlist and then just don’t look at the screen or I physically move the window to where the filenames aren’t visible. But I love that @Michael is working on a better solution. And thank you for respecting the intellectual property of the IFR Jam Tracks. We’ve worked very hard on all our learning materials and we do need our students’ financial support in order to keep going. But don’t worry at all about competing with an IFR player app. Our own needs for an IFR player app are so extensive that it’s really a massive development project, one that we still don’t have the funds to begin. When we do have a player app, it will be a window into all of the IFR learning materials, with the ability to create your own playlists, organize content yourself, select the keys of backing tracks, etc. And all of that is quite far off still. So anything you can share in the meantime to help IFR students get more enjoyment out of their music practice would be very much appreciated!

Hi @ImproviseForReal and @DavidW. Thanks for the replies.

@ImproviseForReal it’ll take a little bit of effort to get my app up and hosted. I’ll see if I can get around to it this weekend. Once it is, I will DM you via email with a link to the site so you can review it and decide if you’d like to share it out to the IFR community. I find it pretty useful.



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