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Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 5: Key Signatures

Key Signatures

What are key signatures and why do they exist?

A key signature is placed at the beginning of each line of music immediately after the clef.

It reminds you which sharps and flats you need to play.

Here are some examples:

 

 

 key-sigs 01key-sigs 02key-sigs 03key-sigs 04key-sigs 05key-sigs 06

 

Every piece of music is in a certain key. The key signature tells you what that key is.

 

Every key signature represents two keys: one minor key and one major key. Here are those examples again, with the keys they represent:

key-sigs 01 key-sigs 02 key-sigs 03 key-sigs 04 key-sigs 05 key-sigs 06
G Major Bb Major Eb Major E Major B Major Gb Major
E Minor G Minor C Minor C# Minor G# Minor Eb Minor

 

How do I write a key signature?

You must write key signatures very carefully. There are two important things to remember about writing them:

  • The position on the staff
  • The order of the sharps and flats

 

(Don't forget you will need to know how to write any key signature in any clef for Grade 5 Theory!)

 

 The sharps are written in this order: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#.

G major -F#;

D major - F#, C#;

A major - F#, C#, G#;

E major- F#, C#, G#, D#;

B major- F#, C#, G#, D#, A#;

F sharp major- F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#

C sharp major- F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

 

in these positions on the staff: 

Treble clef

Treble Clef Key Signatures

 

Bass clef

Bass clef key signatures

Alto clef

Alto clef key signatures

Tenor clef

Tenor clef key signatures


 The flats are written in this order:

Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

 

F major- Bb;

Bb major- Bb, Eb;

Eb major- Bb, Eb, Ab;

Ab major- Bb, Eb, Ab, Db;

Db major- Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb;

Gb major- Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb;

Cb major- Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb;

 

in these positions: 

Treble clef

treble clef key signatures

Bass clef

bass clef key signatures

Alto clef

Alto clef key signatures

Tenor clef

Tenor clef key signatures

 

 How can I learn all these different key signatures?

1. Position on the Stave

 

Learning how to write key signatures correctly isn’t as hard as you might think. 

With the sharp keys, the general pattern is the same for treble, bass and alto clef. However, tenor clef is quite different and has to be learnt separately. 

With the flat keys, all the clefs follow the same basic pattern. Try to memorise the patterns. 

Look again at the examples above, and notice where the pattern is the same and where it is different.

 

2. Order of Flats and Sharps

 

To remember the order of the sharps, start at F (#) and then count 5 notes forward: F-G-A-B- C. The next sharp is C# . Repeat the process to find the next sharp: C-D-E-F- G, so the next sharp is G#, and so on. 

To remember the order of the flats, starting at B(b) , count 4 notes forward: B-C-D- E, so the next flat is Eb . Repeat the process to find the next flat: E- F-G- A , so the next flat is Ab , and so on.

 

Remember that you count 5 for sharps- the word “sharp” has 5 letters!

Remember that you count 4 for flats- the word “flat” has 4 letters!

 

Another method is to learn a phrase like this:

Father - Christmas - Gave - Daddy - An - Empty - Box

The first letter of each word gives you the order of sharps. F-C-G-D-A-E-B. Write the letters backwards to find the order of flats - B-E-A-D-G-C-F!

 

 

 How do I work out a major key from a key signature?

Sharps

If you have a sharp key signature, look at the last sharp in the pattern. This is the leading note, which is the 7th note in the scale. The next semitone up will be the tonic, or 1st note in the scale, and will be the major key.

 

For example, look at the following key signature:

The last sharp is the leading note of the major keyThe last sharp in the pattern is G#. The next semitone up is A, so this key signature represents A Major.



Flats

If you have a flat key signature, you’ll first have to remember that F major uses 1 flat (Bb). For all key signatures with 2 or more flats, the last but one flat in the pattern represents the major key.

 

For example, look at the following key signature:

The last but one flat is the major keyThe last but one flat in the pattern is Db , so this key signature represents Db major.

 

 

 

How do I work out a minor key from a key signature?

The minor key represented by a key signature is always that of the 6th note of the scale in the major key (also called the sub-mediant). For example, in C major, which has no flats or sharps, the 6th note is A:

Find the 6th note of the scale

So, A minor also has no flats or sharps. We say that A minor is the "relative minor" of C major.

 

Use the same method for flat and sharp key signatures:

The sixth note is the relative minor

 

A major => F# minor

F is the relative minor of Ab major  

 

Ab major => F minor

 

Tools

print music manuscript papermusic theory referenceonline metronomevirtual piano

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