Reading Key Signatures

Each key signature identifies a Major and a minor scale a group of pitches arranged from high to low covering one octave. Every key signature is used for two keys, the relative Major and the relative minor. The Major scale and the natural minor scale share the same notes. The only difference is with the tonal center. The Major scale places the tonal center on do, the first degree of the Major scale. The minor scale places the tonal center on la, the sixth degree of the Major scale.

 

Sharp Keys

 

The quickest way to gain fluency with key signatures is to memorize the pattern and order of sharps, and then to memorize the pattern and order of flats. The key signatures always follow this pattern no matter how many sharps are included.

 

Memorize: F# C# G# D# A# E#

 

Say this over and over as fast as you can until it is memorized.

 

Next, practice writing the pattern in the exact order and placement as shown on both the G and F clefs:

 

 

Notice how the sharp signs are written. The vertical lines are straight up and down, and there is a slight slant to the cross lines.

 

Notice that the center of the sharp defines a line or a space on the staff just as a note would.

 

 

The last sharp in the pattern is the leading tone of the Major key. It is one half step a semitone, the octave is divided into twelve half steps below the key note. So if the pattern has four sharps, the last sharp is D#. D# is one half step below E. Therefore, the key signature with four sharps is E Major.

 

 

Flat Keys

 

Memorize: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb

 

Say this over and over as fast as you can until it is memorized.

 

Next, practice writing the pattern in the exact order and placement as shown on both the G and F clefs:

 

 

Notice that the flat signs are straight up and down.

 

Notice that the center of the flat defines a line or a space on the staff just as a note would.

 

 

The second from the last flat in a key signature is the same as the Major Key. For example, a key signature of three flats, Bb Eb Ab, would be that of Eb Major, the second from the last flat. With this method you must also know that the key signature with only one flat is F Major - with only one flat there is no second from the last flat.

 

Use the Staff Key Signatures objectives in MusicGoals to gain fluency.

 

see also: Tetrachords and Major Scale, Scales and Modes