When teaching, I’m often struck by how many students can play all their major scales but have little actual understanding of the keys that they play in and how their related key signatures are constructed. Having an understanding of key signatures will greatly improve your reading and general music literacy, which will set you loose in whatever you do as a player.
A Crucial Distinction
There’s a huge difference between knowing a scale and knowing a key. Just being able to play a scale up and down doesn’t take that much time to learn. Often, we learn a scale as a requirement of some sort and it just ends up as muscle memory. Consequently it doesn’t get you very far as a player, since you don’t understand how it was built and how it functions. It’s like living somewhere and knowing how to drive to a few places, but the moment you run into traffic, a road is closed or you have to go somewhere new, you realize that you don’t know east from west and north from south.
Making Sense of It All
So here we’re going to go over some basic things you should know about major scales and their key signatures. Although much of this might seem like basic information to some of you, spend some time with it and do your best to plug up any gaps that might be present in your musical knowledge.
First, you must understand that scales, and for that matter all melodic material, are a set of relationships, not a set of specific notes. The musical relationship that makes up the ascending major scale is: Whole Step-Whole Step-Half Step-Whole Step-Whole Step-Whole Step-Half Step (WWHWWWH). For those of you who don’t know, a half step is a chromatic step to the neighboring note and a whole step is two chromatic steps. For example, C to C# is a half step, and C to D is a whole step, since we skipped over C#/Db. Note that B to C and E to F are both half steps, since there is no black key between them on the piano keyboard.
Now, just using this formula of whole steps and half steps, you can construct a major scale from all of the twelve notes.
Note: As a basic primer, the Circle of Fifths provides a great method for working your way through the keys and getting the key signature for every major scale. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_fifths. Once you understand it, be sure to print out a copy of the actual circle to keep on your stand as a reference for your practicing.
So let’s talk about the key signatures themselves. It’s crucial to know the order in which flats and sharps appear in the key signature. In case you haven’t realized it already, they always appear in the same order. Once you know this order, you only have to know the number of flats or sharps in a key signature to know which ones they are, since they always appear in that same order.
For example, if you’re reading music and you see a key signature with three sharps, you won’t need to look at each sharp individually. Instead, you’ll be able to instantly know that this is A Major, and your three sharps are F#, C#, and G#. Or if you see four flats, you’ll know right away that you’re dealing with the key of Ab Major.
Another major advantage of knowing your key signatures is that each scale starts to be a building block that is built on the last. As you go around the Circle of Fifths, you see how each scale is related. That is, E Major (key signature of F#, C#, G#, and D#) is just the next logical step from A Major, which has the first three sharps in common. Likewise, Ab and Db Major are only one flat apart from one another.
Tricks and Shortcuts
Now here are a few tricks for learning the order of sharps and flats in a key signature. Use this sentence to learn the sharps: Fat Cats Good Dogs Always Eating Bread. For flats, remember BEAD-GCF, or BEAD–Greatest-Common-Factor. If you would like, you can also come up with your own mnemonic devices for this…
And there are beginner shortcuts for finding which key is indicated by a key signature. For key signatures with flats, go to the second-to-last flat of your key signature to find your Major key. For example, if you see a key signature that has Bb, Eb, and Ab that means you’ll be in the key of Eb. For sharps, go a half step up from the final sharp in the key signature. If your last sharp is D#, that means your key is E Major. Note however that once you are well acquainted with the number of sharps or flats in any key and the order in which they appear in the key signature, you will never need to use either of these two shortcuts.
Hopefully all this basic knowledge will actually simplify the process of learning your major keys and help you to identify what key you’re in and what’s in a specific key more quickly.
Remember, your practice time is your chance to slow down, so take the time to think about what you’re playing and you will be rewarded. Always think of practicing your keys, not just scales, and put everything you play into as much context as possible.
Enjoy, and as always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below…
Learn with and Listen to Sam
Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. His new book, 12 INTERVALLIC ETUDES for Saxophone, is available here. His albums can be purchased at https://samsadigursky.bandcamp.com. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.