Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

A Chord Used in the Key of G

I have been learning music theory for only a little over a year, so I’m sorry if the answer to this question is obvious…How does an A Chord fit into the key of G? A few weeks ago I took a stab at learning Ben’s beginner version of Life’s Railway to heaven on banjo. The song is TAB’d in the key of G, but the chord progression has a measure of “A major” thrown in there. (Am would be in the key if G) Until this point I was under the impression that if you veered away from the chords in a particular key that it wouldn’t sound correct. I can see now that is obviously not true. So now that the rules that I thought were hard rules have been broken, what are the rules for writing music or improvising in a particular key?


1 Like

Hey Brandon,

I’m probably not the right person to answer your question as I play almost exclusively by ear. I know very little about music theory and all the rules and regulations of what chords, scales and notes go where. My theory is… If it sounds good and sounds right, it works.

Sometimes in Bluegrass or other genres, musicians will throw in a quick A chord before moving to the D chord to change it up a little. Makes the song more interesting. This is in the the key of G of course, as you mentioned.

To answer this question… Yes it’s okay to break the “rules”. Music is something we listen to, therefore if it’s pleasing to the ear, it must be right.

But please, don’t stop learning music theory! I wish I had more knowledge and had taken the time to learn more. My suggestion would be to use it as guide and not take it too literal. Combine what you learn in theory with what your ear tells you and you’ll become much better as you go along.

One more thing… Be creative. Try things that don’t make sense, you never know…

I hope this helps and I didn’t confuse you even more. Hopefully someone with a better knowledge of theory can give you a better answer,


1 Like

Thank you JW. You are correct in the fact that the bottom line is, Does it sound good?

Brandon -
great question!!! Let me answer this for you. You are absolutely correct in saying that Am not A major is in the key of G. So why is A major used? I like one of the answers I just read - if it sounds good, it is! :sunglasses:

But there is a music theory answer for this… and here i it goes… the answer lies in the chord that follows the A major… what is it? yup.The D major chord. Here’s the music theory answer… I call it “the rule of FIVE” …ANY chord can be preceded by its major FIVE chord… D, therefore can be preceded by the chord that is a FIFTH higher than it is… for D major, that would be A major (DEFGA)… even though A major is not in the key of G. The reason is this - A is sending you to D. The FIVE chord wants to do that. G wants to go to C. A wants to go to D, C wants to go to F etc.

so - two reasons it works… the “rule of FIVE” … and … it sounds good. Does that help?
mr g

1 Like

There are no rules, so to speak, about which chords can be played. I think of the chords as flavors. Some flavors go together to create certain tastes, and we get used to those. Then, you go to Mexico and they put cayenne on their candy :flushed: …which I’ve learned to love, by the way.

Yes, the 2 major chord (which is an A major in the key of G) is a very common way to transition to the 5 chord, or the D major. A minor would be the diatonic chord in the key of G, which shares more of the gene pool of the G maj chord. But the 2 major has a C# in it instead of the C natural, which makes for a more palatable tension to be resolved up to the D note when the D major is played. It also is often played with the melody note is an A note.

Try this: by yourself, play through and sing Life’s Railway and go to an A minor instead of the A major. How does it sound? I don’t think it sounds bad at all! It sounds a bit sadder and less jovial, and the need to resolve is lessened. When you play the A major, it picks up the mood and makes the D major chord more welcome to the ears.

Did the writers of Life’s Railway think about the theory or the “taste?” I would say the latter, most likely, though I don’t think they were theory ignorant by any means.

Hi Brandon

I am no expert either but I think the A major chord in this chord progression would be referred to as an incidental in this case a passing chord. Am is part of the G scale.

Opp’s I didn’t realise Mr G and Ben had responded

It is a bridge chord it is used to make music sound a tad better and it is along with the singing also when singing in the key of G the A chord just sounds better with certain notes played or sung . sort of like get ready here it comes speaking of the D chord . The second note in the scale and you have the bridge chord for all keys

I remember asking this question and a friend of mine gave me a short, 6 word answer that changed the way I look at chords. She said “It’s the 5th of the 5th.”

Blew my mind! If you look at the circle of 5ths, you’ll see that the A is 2 spaces clockwise from the G. And what’s in between? The D! It’s why you’ll almost always hear D follow the A. Your ear is expecting that A to be resolved.

Ray Stevens regularly takes it one step further. He likes to throw an E in there… which is the 5th of the 5th of the 5th. Those 6 little words explained so much for me. :slight_smile:

Yep, chords are fun. And the study of harmonies that fit with each other and lead toward each other is very interesting. The fast easy answer is that the A major chord in the key of G major is considered the V of V (V/V). There are 4 common “V of” chords in any major key; the V/V, V/ii, V/iv, and V/iii. Each of these chords leads back into the original key (that is why it works to your ear). A short study of these chords and you will immediately recognize lots of tunes that use these progressions.
Take care, Mike

Thank you all for clearing that up. It makes perfect sense to me now. I always like to know why or how something works. I remember when I first started learning guitar as a teen, I asked a guy (that could play much better than me) how do you know what chords fit together. He didn’t know either, but somehow he knew what sounded good. This was when I didn’t know there was such a thing as music theory.
Hey @Mark_Rocka, my wife would be pleased to know you mentioned Ray Stephens, she still loves to listen to her Ray Stephens cassette tapes when she has a chance!

1 Like

Hey Ben,
Any chance you could work up Ray Steven’s “Misty” for banjo sometime?

1 Like

As fun as that would be, I’m betting it falls under the copyright issue Ben has been facing. Legally teaching some copyrighted material IS one of the new features of this site though, so maybe?

If he can’t, I might just take the time to figure it out. It’s a great song that I’ve been meaning to work up for years. I’ll share it with you if I do.

Ha! Same here. :slight_smile: I actually cut my teeth on guitar learning Ray’s music. :slight_smile:

Damn those men in suits! I’ll look forward to that Mark, I’m not much good at work-ups. John Hartfords “Gentle on my Mind” is another great fav of mine so, get cracking!

1 Like

@Noodler, I have to be really careful about what I teach, but this forum has more freedom :wink:

Noodlar Before his passing John Hartford released a doubled DVD and I am pretty sure he included a study of “Gentle on my Mind”

Now my wife is wondering why I’m chuckling in bed whilst looking at my phone. :joy:

1 Like

Thanks for that Archie, I’ll check that out on iTunes. Great job on Silent Night BTW, love the harmonics at the end.

Archie - quite alright! your answer is a good one, and much simpler than mine! I tend to get all “wordy and nerdy” on this stuff.