Hi, Emily. Do you know your key signatures?
Noo..I always get confused, and besides the circle of fifths scares me. It’s so big and complicated.
Yes, I understand why you are having trouble. It will take about two minutes to teach you nine key signatures representing 18 keys so you never forget them. That’s the first nine out of twelve in the circle of fifths.
What? In two minutes? That’s impossible.
No, it’s not, but we need a little extra time first to go over some basic stuff before the easy memorizing. Let’s start from the beginning:
What is a scale?
A series of notes, usually 8 for us, separated by whole or half steps spanning an octave. By the way, what’s so special about an octave?
Well, this is rather complicated and you don’t need to memorize it, but just so you know, if you divide a vibrating string in half by touching the middle very lightly you produce a note an octave higher than the whole string vibrating (let’s say D). If you vibrate the string in thirds you make a tone (A) an interval of a fifth (two pitches spanning five notes, DEFGA) above D. Vibrating the string in fourths produces a note two octaves above the open string.(a higher D) These harmonics are parts of the string’s natural vibrations. Using the open string and 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 the string length as fixed reference points we can divide the octave into the 12 half-steps that are the basis of our scale system. (Two half-steps make a whole-step).
A C major scale, for example, is like this: NOTE(C)-wholestep-NOTE(D)-wholestep-NOTE(E)-halfstep-NOTE(F) skip a whole step then repeat the pattern for the last half of the scale NOTE(G)-wholestep-NOTE(A)-wholestep-NOTE(B)-halfstep-NOTE(C).
Do, re, mi, fa, and so, la, ti, do. The scale is like a little tune with two parts, and remember because of the half-steps, the notes are not all equally spaced apart. At some point long ago the notes were given the names, ABCDEFG, and as our system of writing music and designing the piano evolved, C became the dividing note between bass and treble clefs. For the scale starting on C, there is a half-step between E and F and a half-step between B and C. We liked the way that pattern sounded, and that is just the way it all worked out. When the piano was designed, the C major scale used all the white keys. Black keys were added so that we could put half steps between any other notes if we wanted to. Going up or down a half-step from any white key (except for the half-steps in the C major scale) uses a black key and is called a sharp or a flat. Each scale is named by the note on which the scale starts.
What is a key signature?
A bunch of sharps and flats at the beginning of a piece of music.
Right, but what do they mean? What are they for?
I’m not exactly sure.
This part is pretty easy. When we play a simple tune, or even more complicated music, the music is usually based on a particular scale. Different scales sound differently on each instrument and certain scales are better for certain voices. Music sung or played in different keys has different qualities and is more or less difficult to play on certain instruments.
If we play or notate music in any other key besides C we have to use black keys, sharps and flats, to get the proper spacing of the scale notes. Because of the way our musical notation is designed and the way the keys of the piano are spaced, we discover that if we want to use only one black key as a sharp we have to start the scale on G for the scale pattern to fit. If we want to use one black key as a flat, we have to start the scale on F. So the key signature for G major has one sharp, the key signature for D major has two sharps and so on around the dreaded “circle of fifths”. It is a circle because if you keep going up the scale you wind up on a note you started on. It is called “fifths” because you go up five notes to start a scale each time you add a sharp.
How to use your strings to remember key signatures
Now that we have covered the basics and maybe more than you needed or wanted to know, let’s memorize the key signatures for 18 scales. It should take about two minutes to learn the 18 most common ones. This trick is for violins but can be adapted to any of the strings tuned in fifths.
Emily, does your violin have a C string?
O.K. So no C string reminds us that the key of C has no sharps or flats.
We’ll start with the G string then for one sharp. So the key of G has one sharp. What is the next string up?
Right. So the key of D has two sharps. Next?
A. Let me guess, three sharps?
Right! And E?
Four Sharps! Bravo!
Four strings, four key signatures.
Now for the flats. Since we have used all the open strings going up let’s use a low first finger on each string going down for the flat keys.
Low first finger on the E string is what note?
Good, so the key of F has one flat.
What’s the next string down? (remember we’re going down for flats)
What’s low first finger on the A string?
B flat...I get it two flats!
D string, low first finger is E flat so E flat major has three flats.
G string low first finger is A flat so A flat major has four flats.
Open strings going up: G, D, A, E, one, two, three, and four sharps.
Low first finger on each string going down: F, B flat, E flat, A flat, one two three and four flats.
There, counting C major that’s nine key signatures.
But you said 18.
No, I said 18 scales. Each major scale has a relative minor scale which uses the same notes but starts in a different place and therefore has a different pattern of whole and half steps.
Each major key signature also refers to a minor scale. It’s super simple. Name the major key as we have just learned and count down three half steps to find the minor key.
Like this: C major, count down three half steps to A so no sharps or flats means either C major or A minor. G major with one sharp also could be E minor, and so on.
The order of the sharps you don’t really have to memorize because they are always right in front of you unless you are composing, but just remember Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds. FCGDAEB. And for the flats it is just the opposite order: BEADGCF.
There is, of course, a ton more stuff to know about theory and scales and harmony but it is amazing how easy it is to learn the key signatures for the first 18 scales using your violin as a handy circle of fifths calculator.
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