When you look at a piece of sheet music, have you ever noticed those weird clusters of # and ♭ symbols clustered just to the right of the treble or bass clefs? Well in this article, we’ll learn about those clusters, or “key signatures,” discuss how you can read a key signatures chart, list out key signatures for major and minor keys, and even introduce the infamous circle of fifths!
How to Read and Write a Key Signature
What Is A Key Signature?
A key signature is a kind of musical notation wherein flats or sharps are arranged on particular lines or spaces on a staff to indicate that the corresponding notes should be raised or lowered by a half step depending on which key you’re in.
A key includes a series of tones and semitones and is very similar to a scale. However, scales are set in their order of notes, while keys refer more to the notes as a group. So, although a major and minor scale may have a different order of notes, they share all of the same notes in general, which means that they’ll share a key signature.
Rules For Key Signatures
The following is a list of things which are true for all key signatures:
1. There is one major scale for every key signature.
2. Every major scale shares its key signature with a minor scale.
3. Key signatures will have a cluster of sharps, or a cluster of flats, but sharps and flats are never mixed.
4. The greatest number of sharps or flats you can have in a cluster is 7.
Order of Sharps and Flats
Key signatures are always written in a particular order and on specific lines or spaces on the staff. Not only is it important to memorize the key signatures, but to recognize which lines and spaces are used in the standardized notation.
For sharps, the order is F, C, G, D, A, E, B, and you can see which lines they should be written on in the image below:
For flats, the order is B, E, A, D, G, F, C, and you can see which lines they should be written on in the image below:
Even though the sharp or flat is only written on one of a note’s lines or spaces, the key signature gives you an example of which note you should raise or lower, and means that ALL of the same note, regardless of line or space, should follow the same pattern.
The Circle of Fifths
What Is The Circle Of Fifths?
As a beginner pianist, the best way to learn key signatures is through rote memorization. Simply being able to recognize a key signature can help you remember which notes you should play, but if you’re struggling to see the relationship between keys,
However, as you advance, you may want to use something called the circle of fifths.
In the image below, the key signatures are accompanied by letters. The capital letters represent the major keys, and the lowercase letters represent the minor keys.
This trick gets its name from the interval, or space, relationship between keys. If you start with C major or A minor and work around clockwise, the space you move between each major to major or minor to minor key is a perfect fifth. In other words, perfect fifths work regardless of whether you’re moving between major keys, or minor keys.
If you move counterclockwise, you’ll see the progression as fourths. This is why the circle of fifths is sometimes also called the circle of fourths. However, this is way less common.
There’s only really one issue with the circle of fifths. Because of the way the keys are laid out on the piano, you’ll see two different key signatures for two different scales that share the same place. This occurs twice in the circle (isn’t 2 such a fun number?!)
These scales are called enharmonic scales because they share the same notes as another scale, but in music theory are represented by flats while the other is represented by sharps (or vice versa).
As you can see in the circle of fifths, C# major and D♭ major are in the same place but are represented by different key signatures. If you find the C# key on the piano keyboard and then find the D♭ key, you’ll notice that it’s the exact same key! This also goes for F# major and G♭ major.
The circle of fifths uses a fifth interval, but if you’re interested in learning about other intervals, check out this article.
Relative Scale Pairs
Since every major scale has a minor scale with which it shares the same key signature, they are often grouped as pairs called “relative scales.” These scales share all of the same tones—naturals, sharps, flats, everything!
In fact, you can think of major and minor scales as being like twin siblings! Like how twins share almost the same DNA, these scales share all of the same notes, and in the same order…only they start at different places in that order.
You may hear someone refer to relative major and minor scales as having different “moods.” Major scales are usually regarded as happy or cheerful while their relative minor scales are seen as depressing or melancholy. Sometimes you can tell if a key signature is for a major or minor key when you play the music and see if it makes you feel happy or sad.
In any case, to move from a major to a relative minor, move three half steps to the left. To do the opposite and move from a minor to a relative major, move three half steps to the right.
As you check out the list of key signatures below, also pay attention to which major and minor scales pair up and how the circle of fifths plays out in the order of their notes.
Major and Minor Key Signatures Chart
Let’s begin by covering scales with no sharps and no flats.
SCALES WITH NO SHARPS OR FLATS
C Major and A Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is blank since there are no sharps or flats.
C Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
A Minor Scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
SCALES WITH SHARPS
G Major and E Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 1 sharp.
G Major Scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
E Minor Scale: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E
D Major and B Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 2 sharps.
D Major Scale: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
B Minor Scale: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B
A Major and F# Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 3 sharps.
A Major Scale: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
F# Minor Scale: F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F
E Major and C# Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 4 sharps.
E Major Scale: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E
C# Minor Scale: C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A, B, C#
B Major and G# Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 5 sharps.
B Major Scale: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B
G# Minor Scale: G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#
F# Major and D# Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 6 sharps.
F# Major Scale: F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#, F#
D# Minor Scale: D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#
C# Major and A# Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 7 sharps.
C# Major: C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#, C#
A# Minor: A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#
SCALES WITH FLATS
F Major and D Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 1 flat.
F Major Scale: F, G, A, B♭, C, D, E, F
D Minor Scale: D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C, D
B♭ Major and G Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 2 flats.
B♭ Major Scale: B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B
G Minor Scale: G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G
E♭ Major and C Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 3 flats.
E♭ Major Scale: E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D, E♭
C Minor Scale: C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C
A♭ Major and F Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 4 flats.
A♭ Major Scale: A♭, B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G, A♭
F Minor Scale: F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F
D♭ Major and B♭ Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 5 flats.
D♭ Major Scale: D♭, E♭, F, G♭, A♭, B♭, C, D♭
B♭ Minor Scale: B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G♭, A♭, B♭
G♭ Major and E♭ Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 6 flats.
G♭ Major Scale: G♭, A♭, B♭, C♭, D♭, E♭, F, G♭
E♭ Minor Scale: E♭, F, G♭, A♭, B♭, C♭, D♭, E♭
C♭ Major and A♭ Minor
The key signature for this major and minor key is noted with 7 flats.
C♭ Major: C♭, D♭, E♭, F♭, G♭, A♭, B♭, C♭
A♭ Minor: A♭, B♭, C♭, D♭, E♭, F♭, G♭, A♭
This key signature, however, is one that you’ll most likely never see. Instead, check out the B major and G# minor key signature.
Quick Review and Extra Charts
So there you go! All of the scales, their key signatures, and their relationships as organized by the circle of fifths.
If you’re a visual learner, you can use the extra charts below for more guidance or check out the full key signature chart.
In all truth, as a beginner pianist, it might be in your best interest to just memorize the key signatures chart, especially if you’re still learning scales.
But, as you advance, keep the circle of fifths in mind and it will come in handy as you learn to transpose, compose, and sightread music!
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