KEY SIGNATURES

A lot of fuss goes on around key signatures.  Things can seem complex and hard to remember.  So here I will let you know the shortcuts that got me able to learn all the key signatures in no time.

Things you need to know first!

Sharps and flats

These are the little symbols that can be put next to notes to show that they should be moved up or down in pitch by one fret.  So to play C sharp (C#) you go up one fret from C.  To play B flat (Bb) you find the B and then move one fret lower in pitch.

Tones and Semitones

These are gaps between notes.  A tone is a two fret gap gap between notes.  A semitone is a one fret gap.  We use tones and semitones to build scales.  For more go here.

Where these intervals happen ‘naturally’

The gap between any adjacent notes, like A and B, is mostly going to be a tone.  But between E and F, and C and D there is only a semitone.  So the note C is just one fret higher than the note B.  The note F is only one fret higher than the note E.

Building a major scale

If you go up in pitch from one note to another in this pattern you will get a major scale.  Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone.

You may recognise the major scale from singing Doh, Rey, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Doh.

What is a key signature?

A key signature is a group of sharps or flats that give you a particular scale. 

For example to build a major scale starting from B you’ll get the notes B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B.  So the key signature of B major is 5 sharps.

They’re written at the start of each line of piece in standard notation.  You’ll see how the look further down this page.  Once you get used to them you can instantly know what key you’re going to be playing in with a single glance. 

But key signatures are not only useful when you’re reading music.  They can also help you to work out the chords, arpeggios and scale shapes in a particular key. 

What does ‘in the key of D major or B major’ mean?

It just means that you’re playing the notes and chords you would get when you build a scale up from a particular starting note.

The order of sharps and flats

When you look at a key signature you’ll see that the sharps and flats appear in a specific order.  I’ll show you an easy way to remember this in a moment, but first let’s see where that order comes from. 

Two key signatures you just memorise

All key signatures can easily be worked out as you’ll see in a bit.  But there are two exceptions.

C major

C major has no sharps or flats.  All the notes are natural notes: C D E F G A B C.  There are no sharps or flats because when you start a scale from C

F major

The key of F major just has one flat – Bb.  So the notes of F major are F G A Bb C D E F.

The order of sharps

The sharps in a key signature appear in a set order.  The order goes:  F C G D A E B.  I’ll show you why and how useful this is in a bit.

Father Christmas Gave David An Electric Blanket

The order of flats

Flats appear in the order B E A D G C F.  I’ll show you why and how useful this is in a bit.

Because Every Afternoon David Got Cold Feet

Why do the sharps and flats come in that order?

Key signatures have the sharps and flats in their set orders because of the way we can move from one key to another (modulation) in a smooth way.

The circle of fifths

Going up in 5ths

Let’s start from C major – we’ve got no sharps and no flats.  Now let’s move up a fifth from C.  Remember you have to count inclusively like this:

1 2 3 4 5
C D E F G

So we end up on G.  Now let’s build a G major scale:

 T T S T T T S
G A B C D E F#G

What we see is that when we move a fifth we have to add a #.

Let’s go up another fifth to show that again:

1 2 3 4 5
C D E F G

T T  S T T T  S
D E F# G A B C# D

So first sharp is F#, then we get C#, the G# etc and we can remember that with the sentence Father Christmas Gave David An Electric Blanket.

Going down in fifths

We’ll start from C again and count down to find the note a fifth below C and then build a scale from there:

1 2 3 4 5
C B A G F

T T S  T T T S
F G A Bb C D E F

Let’s go down a fifth again starting from F:

1 2 3 4 5 
F E D C Bb

We are counting down 5 notes in the scale of F major – that’s why we end up with Bb, because Bb is in F major scale, B isn’t.

T T S  T T T S
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

So each time we go down a fifth we add another flat.  And the order the flats appear in can be remembered as Because Every Afternoon David Got Cold Feet.

Here’s a diagram showing this cycle:

Notice how when we get to the bottom of the diagram we get key signatures that can be expressed in either sharps or flats, but I’m not sure why you would want to write B major as Cb major unless it was for clarity about modulation processes.  If you know, please do leave a comment below.

Minor Keys

In the inner ring of the diagram above you’ll see things like Am.  The ‘m’ stands for minor.  To understand minor keys see this page: MINOR KEYS.

Working out key signatures

OK, you’ve done the learning information now, you know about tones, semitones, sharps, flats, the order of sharps and flats and where they come from.  Now it’s time to put all that to good use!

Where to start

Whether to use sharps or flats

First of all you just have to know C major has no sharps or flats and F major just has one flat.  Then notice that keys with no ‘b’ in the name (like G, B etc instead of Eb, Db etc) use sharps.  Scales with names like Eb use flats.

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