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41: Key Signatures

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Lesson 41: Key Signatures

This lesson teaches key signatures, which are "automatic sharps and flats" in written music. You will need these to read any music that's not in the key of C major.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:

Patterns of Sharps and Flats


Before we see actual key signatures, let's see the patterns of sharps and flats which make the notes in the different major scales easier to remember. Key signatures are based on these patterns.

First, here are the notes in the different major scales, copied from Lesson 17: Major Scale 1-8:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A♭B♭C D♭E♭FGA♭
ABC♯ DEF♯G♯A
B♭CD E♭FGAB♭
BC♯D♯ EF♯G♯A♯B
CDE FGABC
D♭E♭F G♭A♭B♭C D♭
DEF♯ GABC♯D
E♭FG A♭B♭CDE♭
EF♯G♯ ABC♯D♯E
FGA B♭CDEF
F♯G♯ A♯BC♯D♯ E♯F♯
G♭A♭ B♭C♭D♭E♭ FG♭
GAB CDEF♯G

Now, here's the same table, rearranged to show the patterns of sharps and flats. This table shows only the sharped and flatted notes in each scale, and arranges the scales by how many sharps or flats they have:

Scale Sharps or Flats
C major
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♯ major F♯C♯G♯D♯ A♯E♯
F major B♭
B♭ major B♭E♭
E♭ major B♭E♭A♭
A♭ major B♭E♭A♭D♭
D♭ major B♭E♭A♭D♭ G♭
G♭ major B♭E♭A♭D♭ G♭C♭

The above table is also the table of key signatures! It shows the key signature for each major key, as we'll see below.

Key Signatures


A key signature is a set of sharps or flats placed on the musical staff, and it means that certain notes should be automatically sharped or flatted. The key signature is written at the beginning of every line in traditional sheet music; but in jazz charts, it's often only written at the beginning of the song.

Here is a key signature, the one with one sharp (F♯):



That single sharp is on the staff's F line. This tells you two things:
  1. Any time you see an F note on this staff, it's actually an F♯.
  2. It also tells you the song's key:
    • What major scale has just this one sharp, F♯? The G major scale.
    • What natural minor scale has that same single sharp? The E natural minor scale (the relative minor of G major).
    • So, this key signature says that the song is either in the key of G major or the key of E minor.
    • Note, the key signature alone doesn't tell you which of these two keys the song is in; you have to look at the actual notes and chords to decide that.

Now, here's a key signature with an actual note:



The note above looks like an F, but it's actually an F♯ because of that key signature. Note that that single F♯ in the key signature tells you to sharp all the F notes in the music, not just the notes on that particular staff line.

Table of Key Signatures


There are only about 12 different key signatures. The sharps or flats are always added in the same order, and on the same staff lines or spaces. Here are the common key signatures, and the major and minor keys they go with:

Sharps/FlatsKeys
NoneC major
A minor
F♯G major
E minor
F♯ C♯D major
B minor
F♯ C♯ G♯ A major
F♯ minor
F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ E major
C♯ minor
F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯ B major
G♯ minor
F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯ E♯ F♯ major
D♯ minor
B♭F major
D minor
B♭ E♭B♭ major
G minor
B♭ E♭ A♭ E♭ major
C minor
B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ A♭ major
F minor
B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ D♭ major
B♭ minor
B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ C♭ G♭ major
E♭ minor

Next:
Go on to Lesson 42: Diatonic 7ths, which you'll need to understand the examples in Hook Melodies.

Lessons

1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Diatonic 7ths
43: Non-Root-Bass Chords
44: Major Pentatonic Scale
45: Embellishing Tones
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Pitch & Frequency

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