This is a system you use to figure out what the notes are in all 12 major scale keys.
You see 2 words in “key signature”: “key” and “signature”
A key signature signifies a scale: each key signature shows for its corresponding major scale, how many notes that scale is different from C major scale, which is the major scale that consists of white keys (also called “naturals”) only.
In songs and compositions: the key signature is always mentioned at the beginning of the staff next to the clef. Musicians this way know immediately which key a song is written in, cause the key signature shows which and how many black keys are used in the song.
Once you have key signatures to all 12 keys memorized, you can instantly tell what key a song is in just by looking at the key signature notated at the beginning of the staff next to the clef.
Major scales either have sharps or flats in them; never combinations.
There are certain scales, like harmonic and melodic minor, where you can have combinations of sharps and flats in 1 scale.
However: since the most commonly used scale in our music is the major scale, that is what we will be working with in this blog.
Sharps in music notation are notated as # and flats as b
A # raises a white key note up 1 fret, and a b lowers a white key note down a fret.
As an example: C# means C note up a fret, it’s the note up a fret from C, and Bb means B note down a fret, it is the note down a fret from B
The Order of #’s and The Order of b’s
Sharps and flats appear in a very specific, organized order in scales. You want to memorize those orders.
The Order of Sharps.
F# C# G# D# A# E# B# → order of #’s (sharps)
- Memorize this order of sharps.
- You use the order of #’s for scales that start on WHITE keys: G major, D major, A major, E major, B major
- 2 exceptions: F# major and C# major scales. Those 2 major scales start on a black key and have sharps in them. The keys of F# and C# are exceptions because major scales that start on a black key always have flats, not sharps.
The Order of Flats.
Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb F(b) → Order of b’s (flats)
- Memorize this order of flats.
- You use the order of b’s for scales that start on BLACK keys: Bb major, Eb major, Ab major, Db major, Gb major, Cb. Another way of saying this is: when a major scale starts on a black key of the piano, that scale will always be called something flat, and it will have flats in the scale.
- 1 exception: F major scale. That scale starts on a white key (F is a white key) but it has 1 flat. This is an exception because major scales that start on a white key always have sharps, not flats. I put the b next to F between parentheses () because there is 1 little discrepancy in the whole system: there is a Bb scale, and an Eb scale, and an Ab scale, and so on… but there is no Fb scale.
How To Use The Order of #’s And The Order of b’s To Figure out The Key.
You want to be able to convert in both directions.
Meaning: depending on which musical situation you are in, you will either know the key signature, or you will know the key.
Those 2 situations are:
- You learn a piece of music using the book or song chart transcription: in that case, the key signature is a given, notated at the clef at the beginning of each staff.
You need to know how to figure out: I see 5 sharps, what scale/key is this song written in? Meaning: what scale did the songwriter use to write this song with?
- You jam with people, and they will name a key. A musician would never say: let’s play a blues in 3#’s, or let’s jam in 2 flats. They would say: “Let’s play a blues in A”, or “let’s jam in Bb”.
You need to know how to figure out: what is the key signature to that key? This is another way of asking: what are the notes I am going to have to play in order to play in that key?
Here’s How You Apply This.
The Order of Sharps.
- Apply following trick when the keysignature is a given, and you try to figure out what scale corresponds to that keysignature:
last # in line → go up a ½ step from there = the key
Example 1: 3 #’s → they are F#, C# and G# → last # in line is G# → up a ½ step from G# = A (major scale).
Conclusion: A major scale has 3 sharps (meaning: black keys; F#, C#, and G#.)
Example 2: 1 # → that # is F# → last # in line is F# (since there is only 1 # at the clef in this example, the 1st sharp is also the last #) → up a ½ step = G (major scale).
Conclusion: G major scale has 1 sharp (meaning: 1 black key: F#.)
- Apply the following trick, when in a jam session with musicians, somebody names a key, and you try to figure what the key signature is. (meaning: how many white/black keys and which ones they are).
Go over the line of #’s → count #”s up to the sharp that is a ½ step lower than the key you are looking for.
That is the # you end on, then count how many sharps you have up till there.
Example 1: how many #’s in the key of A → order of #’s is… F#… C#… G#… bingo → this is the sharp a ½ step lower than the key.
Conclusion: A major scale has 3 #’s
Example 2: How many sharps in the key of B → order of #’s is… F#… C#… G#… D#… A#… bingo → this is the sharp a ½ step lower than the key.
Conclusion: B major scale has 5 #’s
The Order of Flats.
- Apply the following trick when you want to learn a transcribed song where the key signature is a given, and you try to figure out what scale corresponds to that key signature.
the one before the last b in line → = the key
Example 1: you see 2 b’s at the clef → they are Bb and Eb → the one before the last b in line is Bb → = the key (scale).
Conclusion: Bb major has 2 flats
Example 2: you see 4 b’s → they are Bb Eb Ab Db → the one before the last b in line is Ab → = the key (scale).
Conclusion: Ab major has 4 flats
- Apply the following trick when in a jam session with musicians, somebody names a key, and you try to figure what the key signature is.
go up to the b with the same name of the key → then go 1 flat further (add the next flat)
Example 1: Musician you jam with says, Let’s jam in the key of Eb → walk up the order of b’s: Bb Eb → ah, there already… add the next b.
Conclusion: Eb major has 3 flats
Example 2: Musician you jam with says, Let’s jam in the key of Db → walk up the order of b’s: Bb Eb Ab Db → ah, there already… add the next b.
Conclusion: Db major has 5 flats
Helpful tips and Trivia!
A) Enharmonic scales/notes.
Enharmonic = different note names for the same sound (Eb and D#, F# and Gb, B and Cb, etc…).
The key signatures of enharmonic scales ALWAYS add up to 12.
C# = 7#’s ——- Db = 5b’s = 12 #’s and b’s
Cb = 7b’s ——- B = 5#’s = 12 #’s and b’s
Gb = 6b’s ——- F# = 6#’s = 12 #’s and b’s
Ab = 4b’s ——- G# = 6#’s + 1 ## (double sharp)= 12 #’s and b’s
B) ½ step apart but same alphabet note name.
For scales that are a ½ step apart but sharing the same note name (A & Ab, F & F#, B & Bb, etc…) → their key signatures ALWAYS ad up to 7
C = 0 b’s —– Cb = 7b’s = 7
A = 3 #’s —– Ab = 4 b’s = 7
F = 1 b ——– F# = 6 #’s = 7
G = 1 # ——- Gb = 6 b’s = 7
D = 2 #’s —– Db = 5 b’s = 7
How to practice key signatures.
Make 2 stacks of flash cards:
- Zero #, 1#, 2#, 3#, 4#, 5#, 6#, 7#, Zero b, 1b, 2b, 3b, 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b
- C, C#, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, Cb
With the first stack of flashcards, you practice: how to figure out the scale, based on a given key signature.
With the 2nd stack of flashcards: you practice how to figure out the key signature to a given scale.
That way you will memorize in either direction what the notes are in all major scales, and what the major scale/key is that you are dealing with when you see a grouping of notes.
Go through each stack of flashcards, and apply the above-explained practice systems.
Practice this for about 3 minutes per stack of flashcards, about 3-4 times a day.
If things are still a bit unclear, you can actually find a pdf here with tons more info, explaining all the above in much greater detail with tons more examples.
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