Laurie's Violin School: Learn (or Teach) Your Key Signatures in Nine Weeks

February 24, 2015, 11:23 AM · If only key signatures felt as logical on the violin as they do on the piano!

The true violin native, who did not take piano first or have music theory instruction at school (and these days, who does?), sometimes has a hard time remembering key signatures without the constant reinforcement that the physical structure of a keyboard provides. C major makes sense as the white-key scale that doesn't require any black keys, thus doesn't have any sharps or flats. The concept of G major seems a little easier to understand on a keyboard, where one sharp means one black key.

To back up, what is a key signature? Basically it's the name of the scale that any given piece is built on. A piece in the key of C is based on the scale of C major, which starts on the note "C."

Violin students, like all music students, need to know their sharps, flats and key signatures. At some point, they just need to memorize them. Here are a few aids to help:

SHARPS AND FLATS

First, you need to know the order of the sharps and the flats. (To be thorough in my definitions: sharps make a note a half-step higher, flats make a note a half-step lower).

Below is an acrostic saying that shows the order in which they appear on key signatures. (Sharps: F-C-G-D-A-E-B; Flats: B-E-A-D-G-C-F). Once you know this order, you'll have an easier time determining which notes are sharp and which are flat in various keys. Here is the order of the sharps and flats:

Sharps+Flats

This saying is nice because it demonstrates that the order of the flats is simply the order of the sharps in reverse, and the saying works the same way.

Why are they in a certain order? Because that is the order in which they appear in key signatures. If you have one sharp, it's F#. If you have two sharps, it's F# and C#. Same with flats: if you have one flat, it's Bb. Four flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. A few tricks: I'm always helped by the fact that the first four flats spell "BEAD." Also, when it comes to which saying I need, (battle ends, or Father Charles?) a flat ("b") looks like a "b" so the first flat is "B." If you use a bit of imagination, the sign for a sharp, ("#"), looks a bit like an "F" -- okay not really, but it doesn't look anything like a "b"!

Now that you have the order of the keys, how do you know what key you are in? Here are some tricks:

MAJOR SCALES

C MAJOR: You just have to memorize the fact that the key with no flats and no sharps is the key of C major. That's why those beginning piano students are always obsessing over "middle C."

SHARPS: The name of the key is a half-step up from the last sharp in the key signature. For example, if you just have one sharp, F sharp, the key is one half-step up from F sharp: G major. If you have five sharps, the last sharp is...F#, C#, G#, D#, A#...It's A#, and a half-step up from that is B, so it's the key of B major. I also have a violin-centered way to remember sharp keys: they follow the order of the strings. One sharp? G major. Two sharps? D major. Three? A major. Four? E major. See the pattern? It's the same as the strings on your violin. Five sharps? It's a fifth up from E, so it's B major. It keeps going up in fifths.

FLATS: You just have to memorize the name of the key that has one flat: it's F major. For the other flat keys: the name of the key is the second-to-last flat in the key signature. So what if you have two flats? They would be Bb and Eb; the second-to-last flat is Bb, so it's Bb major. If you have five flats? Going in order, the flats would be Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb. The second-to-last flat is Db, so the key is Db major.

Below is a visual representation of the major keys, called the Circle of Fifths. Why is it called that? Because there is a pattern to the key signatures: every sharp key is a fifth up from the last; every flat key is a fifth down from the last, and then somewhere around "too many sharps" they start crossing over. It makes sense that when you've sharped everything you can sharp, you have the key of C# major, and when you've flatted everything you can flat, you have the key of Cb major. It's come "full circle" from C major, that key with no flats or sharps!

Circle of Fifths

MINOR SCALES

Every major key has an evil twin -- a relative minor key that shares the same key signature. (Maybe it's just slightly more melancholy twin!) The name of the minor key is three half-steps below the name of the major key. If you have the key of F major, the relative minor is D minor. Both keys look the same, they have one flat, Bb. Other ways to think of this: You could also say that the name of the minor key is a minor third below the major key; or simply two notes in the given scale below. (For me, the latter way to think of it is most helpful.)

WORKSHEETS TO HELP MEMORIZE THIS

Let's say your teacher has explained this to you a few (hundred) times, but you still find yourself unsure about what key you are in, or which sharps and flats are what. Or, you find yourself having to stop and work convoluted calculations to figure it out. Should you just stay in the key-signature fog zone? No!

The solution: some simple exercises can help make sense of this while also helping you commit it to memory. Inspired my students' need to drill keys, I created some very simple worksheets to reinforce and practice naming sharps, flats and keys. The first three require writing out the order of the flats and sharps, then identifying some major key signatures. The next three are all about identifying major key signatures; the last three ask for major key signatures, and their relative minor. For all, they have to write out the names of all the flats and sharps in each key. I spend about five minutes of lesson time each week on this for nine weeks, and I send each sheet home with the student, so they can study for next week. After we've done the worksheets, I then forever ask them the key signature of every etude, solo piece, orchestra piece, etc. If they need remediation, we just do it again!

Here are PDF's of the worksheets I've made for my students (home-grown but effective!):

Laurie's key signature worksheets.

Please share your ideas about teaching and learning the key signatures in the comments below!

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Replies

February 24, 2015 at 06:52 PM · Circle of Fifths is a fun app for learning/memorizing 5ths. And just a fun game on its own.

February 24, 2015 at 06:58 PM · Lindsey, thanks for the tip! Here is the link for the Circle of Fifths app.

"There's an app for that --" I should have known! ;)

February 24, 2015 at 08:16 PM · I'm a fan of the mnemonic device. Thanks to a similar thing, I still remember the twelve cranial nerves from a high school course (over 30 years ago).

On the other hand, one could actually assign one's students pieces or studies in all of the keys -- if they existed. I understand why Suzuki Book 1 does not have pieces in Bb minor, but eventually that mold has to be broken. Piano students get it much earlier (read: easier) because of the Bach Inventions and especially the Well-Tempered Clavier. (Isn't is always Bach?)

The easy way would be to play your Wohlfardt studies on your midi keyboard at a slow tempo, transfer the data to software such as Musescore, transpose them to random keys, and print them back out again. You can take a simple study and make it pretty darned hard by changing the key. Imagine K2 in 7 sharps.

February 24, 2015 at 10:08 PM · Oh, Laurie...

Good luck not getting giggles from high-schoolers with those mnemonics!

It happened to me a few times too many, therefore I've been using these for the last 15 years or so:

"Fluffy Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Breakfast" and "BEAD GCF" (Greatest Common Factor, or, in my neck of the woods, Great Chicago Fire).

Plus, younger kids enjoy the non-violent Fluffy Cats than some Father Charles "going down"...

February 24, 2015 at 10:13 PM · Andrei, you get less giggles with the fluffy cats? ;) Anyway, I tell the kids that Charles' father is just going down the block to get an ice cream cone. They know it's a fib but they remember it all the same!

Here is a cute one from Martha Yasuda:

Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket -- Blanket Exploded And Dad Got Cold Feet!

February 25, 2015 at 12:58 AM · Long ago, for sharps, a first grade student invented "Fat Cats: Good Dudes". That's a keeper. This student was quite fond of the household cats, so there you go. For flats, I use "Bead".

This may be boring and sort of old-school, but this is how I teach keys:

Before playing through every newly assigned piece, scale, exercise, etude, or duet, I get the student to name the accidentals, name the key, (for minors, count down three from the major key note), and review (mention, or demonstrate and/or play together in unison) what these accidentals mean for the hand shapes of the various strings and positions. Just in case of forgetfulness, I pencil in the letter names of the accidentals next to the first key signature, and the piece's key above that.

After awhile, it usually sticks.

February 25, 2015 at 05:48 AM · The only thing I would add is that I try to emphasize to my students that the questions: What's the key signature. And, what's the key? Have different answers.

February 25, 2015 at 07:04 AM · Order of Sharps #

Five Children Got Dessert At Ed's Bakery

or (for adults) Five Cowboys Got Drunk At Ed's Bar

Flats b

spell BEAD

Count back two letters for minor scales

February 25, 2015 at 10:00 PM · Thank you do much for putting this together. So helpful!

March 1, 2015 at 07:17 AM · I like using a mnemonic for the order of sharp and flat keys (major). I know you can figure it out easily from the key signature, but it always seemed simpler to me. For sharp major keys: Great Detectives Always Eat Before Finding Clues (remembering that Finding Clues is F# and C#). For flat major keys I haven't come up with a perfect one for young students but for myself I use Fiddler Bob Eats And Drinks Good Cider (remembering to add the flat to everything after Fiddler, ie Bb, Eb etc.)

Thanks for the article - I've been asking every student in recent weeks to tell me their key and time signature, and getting more blank stares than I was expecting, so I'm spending lesson time on theory these days.

March 2, 2015 at 08:49 PM · Once you have all that down, it may become helpful to point out there is actually a 7-note scale based on each note in a given key signature. To know what key you are playing in, you must know the scale mode, as well as the key signature. Just as A minor (Aeolian) is the relative ("natural") minor of C major (Ionian), D minor Dorian shares the same key signature. So do E Phrygian, F Lydian, and G Mixolydian, all in use in modern music. Simple, right? Studied historically, it begins to get complicated.

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