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