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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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7. Working with Key Signatures

Grade Two Music Theory Lesson 7: Working with Key Signatures 

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 2   Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 

Major Key Signatures with Sharps

(Note: D and A major are not required at grade 2 on the Trinity Syllabus)

The major scales that we've learnt which use sharp key signatures are G, D and A major. The sharps in key signatures are always written in this order:

F# - C# - G#

in these treble clef positions:

Position of sharps treble clef - music theory grade two


and these bass clef positions:

Position of sharps bass clef - grade two music theory

You need to learn the exact positions of the sharps on the staff. We never write the sharps in the following positions, for example:

Wrong positioning of sharps - grade two music theory

The F sharp and G sharp need to be moved up an octave.


Major Key Signatures with Flats

The major keys with flats we need to know about for ABRSM Grade Two Music Theory are F, Bb and Eb. For Trinity Grade 2, only F major is needed. The flats are always written in this order:

Bb - Eb - Ab

The treble clef flats are always written in these positions:

Position of flats treble clef

and the bass clef flats are written in these positions:

Position of flats bass clef

Again, the exact position of the flats is very important, so make sure you know where they go!


Minor Key Signatures & Relative Majors

Music which is written in a minor key will usually use a mixture of a key signature plus accidentals.

There are no special minor key signatures in music theory- we use the same ones as in the major keys, but we write accidentals in the music where they are needed.

Let's look at A minor again, as an example. For grade 2, you need to know these different A minor scales:

  • A minor harmonic: A - B - C - D - E - F - G# - A
  • A minor melodic, ascending (ABRSM only): A - B - C - D - E - F# - G# - A
  • A minor melodic, descending: (ABRSM only)  A - G - F - E - D - C - B - A
  • A minor natural (or "Aeolian") (Trinity only): A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A

So, in our music, sometimes we might need F# or G# and sometimes not!

For the key signature, we use the notes in the melodic minor descending or natural minor scale. For A minor, this means no sharps or flats, so it's the same key signature as C major.


The key signature for a minor key is always the same as the key signature for the major key which is the 3rd degree of the minor scale.

Count up three notes from the tonic to find the key with the same key signature. For example, in A minor, the 3rd degree of the scale is C, so A minor and C major have the same key signatures.

We use the words  "relative minor" and "relative major" to talk about this relationship. For example, C major is the relative major to A minor. 

In the Grade Two Music Theory exam (ABRSM and Trinity), you also need to know about D minor and E minor, so let's work out the relative major keys for these two:

  • D minor: D - E - F.
    F is the 3rd degree of the scale of D minor, so the key signature for D minor is the same as for F major - one flat.

  • E minor: E - F# - G.
    G is the 3rd degree of the scale of E minor, so the key signature for E minor is the same as for G major - one sharp.


Re-writing Music With or Without a Key Signature

In the grade two  music theory exam, you might be asked to copy out a short tune with or without a key signature.

If the melody has already got a key signature, you'll have to write it without, and if it doesn't have a key signature, you'll have to re-write the music with a key signature.


From "With" a Key Signature to "Without"

Look carefully at the key signature and accidentals in this melody, and think about which notes need to have sharps or flats next to them:

Example tune for key signature question, grade two music theory

All the Bs and Es will need to be flat, the low ones and the high ones, except where there are accidentals.

Start by pencilling in a cross above each flattened note, so you don't forget any.

Pencil in the notes which need accidentals - grade two music theory

Copy out the music neatly, adding the flats (or sharps) where they are needed. Remember that you only need to put one accidental in a bar for it to affect the rest of the notes in that bar that are the same pitch.

Check whether you need to keep any of the accidentals from the original tune, like the E natural here.

Write the accidentals on the left side of the note, making sure they are right next to the note-head on the same line or space:

Wrong positioning of an accidental - grade two music theory

Here's the finished answer:

The answer - grade two music theory accidentals question



From "Without" to "With"

If you have to rewrite a melody with a key signature in your music theory exam, you will be told the key of the melody (phew!)

Start by putting in the correct key signature. Check above if you've forgotten them!

Now start to copy the notes. Every time you come across an accidental, check if it's already in the key signature. If it is, don't copy it. If it isn't in the key signature, you'll need to keep it there in the music as an accidental.

We'll use the same tune as before, but work backwards on it!

Tune with accidentals - grade two music theory


The key is Bb major, so the key signature will have Bb and Eb in it.

The only accidental in this tune which is neither a Bb nor an Eb is the E natural in bar 4. So, we need to get rid of all the flats but keep this E natural:

Finished tune with key signature - grade two music theory

Always go back and check your answers, as it's very easy to miss out an accidental by mistake!



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