Need help on reading music/key signature

December 19, 2022, 11:47 AM · Dear Community,
I've always wondered. Are people capable of sight-reading keys with more than 4 sharps or flats proficiently?
Because I have never been able to wrap my hands around it.

Recently I've asked some friends what their approach to sight reading is and now I want to share this question with you.

What are your steps before you start playing in any key?

Replies (15)

December 19, 2022, 1:09 PM · For the sharp keys; the last sharp sign in the key signature is the leading tone to the key. For flats; the second to last flat sign is the key. If you remember the last sharp or flat note in the key signature, you will probably play the rest of them correctly. For more than 3 or 4 sharps or flats, run through a quick scale in that key before sight-reading the new piece.
The ones that still give me trouble are F# maj, and Gb maj, remembering which note is natural.
Hint for fingerings: Cb maj. = B, C# maj = Db.
Be able to play your scales and arpeggios from memory, off-paper.
Edited: December 19, 2022, 6:51 PM · Take note of the 'finger pattern' of the key/scale, there is only one 'major' scale pattern for each finger. Eg; Ab major is the same fingering pattern as A major but down a step; regardless of the key signature both keys are read the same using the same fingering; without open strings.
Same applies to F#maj; it has the same finger pattern as F major, but up a step, in closed positions. Position change has the same treatment.
Therefore, scale/arpeggio patterns need to be remembered in most positions.
Also; to identify the key signature remember which # or b is written first then the rest follow in a certain sequence as indicated by the 'circle of fifths'.
December 19, 2022, 6:10 PM · One reason it is good to be conversant with the "circle of fifths" is because it makes key signatures a lot easier. For example if there's five flats, you just need to remember the "last" one which is G-flat. Then the rest follow until you get back to the "first" one which is B-flat. That is essentially my thought process when I am sight-reading. And like all other aspects of sight-reading, the more you do it, the better at it you will become. The other thing you can do is get into a time-machine and go back to your youth and study the piano.
December 19, 2022, 7:03 PM · If you are having trouble reading music with a key signature of 5 or 6 flats try rewriting the music with appropriate sharps and see what that does for your fingering. It will probably feel better.

I think I did that once with a movement of the cello part of some Dvorak chamber music. Can't remember what, though!

The next step is to try to reorient your mind to reading the unmodified part the same way you read the #### modifications so you don't have to rewrite future challenges.

Edited: December 19, 2022, 9:09 PM · If you are reading something with a lot of flats in the key signature, but NOT a lot of accidentals measure-by-measure, then you can adjust your hand frame to "low first position" and cover a lot of ground that way just by "staying in the scale." Haydn Op. 20 No. 5 for example.

When I was a kid, I would learn pieces in C major on the piano (the first Clementi Sonatina for instance) and then I'd have fun with playing them again as if the key were seven sharps or seven flats. There are relatively few accidentals in such music, so you learn how to fit those in as well. Anything can be shifted by half a step by making a seven-flat or seven-sharp modulation. For example if you have a piece that's in A major, and you want to play it in A-flat major, that's a change from three sharps to four flats, and again, you can just pretend that the other key signature is there. It does become more difficult when there are a lot of accidentals that need to be processed on the fly. The direction that you go matters too, because if you start in A major and you want to go up, then you've got ten sharps to deal with in A# major (seven sharps and three double sharps). That's beyond my horizon. It's just a parlor trick, really, but it sounds to the uninitiated that you're transposing on the fly.

December 20, 2022, 12:04 AM · continued-- 1/2 position makes all the flat keys technically easy.
December 20, 2022, 8:22 AM · Thank you for the tips. However I didn't understand what you meant by looking at the last flat on the circle of fifths.

But maybe my question wasn't precise enough too.
I know the theory behind the circle of fifths, half- and whole-step patterns but my question is:
How do you subconsciously know where your fingers belong while sight-reading without having to think about what key you're playing in.

December 20, 2022, 3:03 PM · We know where the fingers belong because we know precisely where 'every' note is on the finger board. And we know which notes are sharp or flat because they are spelled in the key signature. Therefore, we can set our finger patterns appropriate to each string for the key we are in.
That is when we can sight read without thinking about the key or any other theoretical aspect. But once we have learnt this it only takes a split second to analyze this basic theory and then we can get on with sight-reading.
However, depending on the music, there may occur some accidentals which may modulate to other keys; as long as we play the correct notes for the original key and accidentals, we don't need to know which keys we have modulated to, but it helps.
We need to learn the basic music theory to sight-read, I don't know of any other way, unless we have perfect pitch, but we still need to decipher which notes are sharp or flat.
I'm not sure what Paul means by the "last flat". Learning the order in which the sharps/flats are written in the key signature will help us determine the key. Usually, this basic theory knowledge is learnt apart from the instrument practice.
The basic concept of the "circle of fifths" is that the keys change in prefect fifths, thus altering one note each key. This happens in reverse also but with perfect fourths.

December 20, 2022, 4:41 PM · The problem with multi-flat or multi-sharp keys (multi = 5 or more for me) is that they are rare in violin literature. Tchaikovsky's third quartet* is an exception (in e-flat minor). Piano pieces are more often in keys with lots of accidentals; maybe pianists are in love with the black keys? So one gets only rarely an occasion to practice sight reading in those keys. And when the occasion occurs it is something like the slow movement in Haydn op. 74/2: The piece is in B flat Major and you are playing comfortably along on second violin until the third variation changes the key to B-flat MINOR. Not only do you need to rethink the key on the fly: You also have the leading voice to play!

This is the challenge with sight reading those keys. Little practice and sudden occurrence. There are similar occurrences in several Dvorak pieces and elsewhere.

* Hardly ever played but absolutely gorgeous, as good as the first though very different.

Edited: December 20, 2022, 6:11 PM · Thomas, I meant the "most recently added" flat.

So, with Ab major there are four flats (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat). When you go to D flat major you've got all those PLUS G-flat. So that's the "new" one. That's what I meant. It's kind of mnemonic device, really.

About your hand position, if you're in D major, then on the A string you're playing B, C#, D, and E with 1-2-3-4. If you switch to A-flat major, then you're playing B-flat, C, D-flat, and E-flat. Your whole hand has shifted down a half step. I call this "low first position" and Joel called it "half position" and we can quibble about which term is correct but you get the idea that there's been a wholesale shift of your hand frame, right? So ... the question is, how many flats does it take before you are really thinking in a different "position"? That is something that we could probably debate endlessly.

(I don't call it half-position unless I'm playing a note that would ordinarily be fingered with a 1, with a 2 instead. But I am an amateur and I would love to be educated if this is wrong.)

December 20, 2022, 8:16 PM · Paul D.-- I know my definition of 1/2 position is a minority opinion, but I have found it to be very helpful. For me 1/2 position is when the 1st finger is in that low spot next to the nut, AND, the 4th finger lands a 1/2 step below the next open string. 2nd and 3rd finger move within that 1-4 perfect fourth frame. The thumb is also a 1/2 step lower than the 1st position. I make a similar distinction between 2nd (low) and 2 1/2 (high) position. Guitarists have a better system. They label each 1/2 step fret with consecutive numbers, 1,2,3 etc.
Thomas J.--- "How do you subconsciously know..." Perhaps we are overthinking all this. There isn't time to go through these mental calculations while actually playing. We can take a lesson from the singers, who do not have to deal with a fingering system. Instead, they can imagine the sound, the melodic contour. If you can hear it in your head you can sing/play it. For sight-reading, a major part of a singer's training is in interval recognition. Translated to violin, interval training on the violin ignores the note names, keys, position numbers, etc. and instead focuses on the tonal difference between the notes and the space between the fingers for those pairs of notes.
December 21, 2022, 1:15 AM · I think a lot of the work is done between playing all kinds of scales and just sight-reading a lot. There are all kinds of Schradieck exercises that run you through all kinds of keys so that the different whole and half-steps fall across all kinds of finger combinations.

You do a lot of the work embedding these patterns so that your fingers know what to do when you hear the scale in your head, and eventually this is pretty available for sight-reading, especially for pretty diatonic music.

There's also the skill of trying to see if you can read a few measures ahead while not losing where you are immediately.

Edited: December 21, 2022, 7:15 AM · When you are sight reading remember you are not just playing notes -- but you are playing (broken) intervals. If the next note is a half-step away, then your next finger needs to be close, etc. You'll be surprised how quickly you can calculate this. But if you're sight-reading classical-era quartets, being able to grasp the key that you're in, and the scales and arpeggios that are operative within that key, will put you at a solid advantage because then the calculations can be grouped rather than made individually.

So there's hand-frame, hearing the music in your mind's ear, intervals, a little "theory lite" and probably a whole lot more going on at the same time. Takes a lot of band width but that's part of what makes it fun.

December 21, 2022, 11:48 AM · I don't do the above. My mind simply does not program into keys. I just look at which notes are sharp/flat at the beginning of the first line and play them that way. If there are more sharps/flats than 4 then I just remember which notes are natural (its always the same ones respectively).

The advantage of this method is that you can very easily add accidentals - and much interesting music has so many of them knowing which key you are in is of rather limited value. I do (shamelessly I will add) add notations to my music to remind me of the unmarked sharps and flats after accidentals so that I am not thrown off - but that is pretty standard anyway really.

Edited: December 22, 2022, 4:35 AM · Most of what I can suggest comes from piano playing. You practise scales and arpeggios, so that your hands are familiar with the correct shape for every key sig.
Flats are comforting on the violin, as they mean less pinky stretching.
Bb and Eb are very comfortable keys. Ab is much of the same.
Play one octave scales in first position on the G(+D), D(+A) and A(+E) strings. I wouldn't recommend converting them to sharps.

The rest is about intervals, which is getting more technical: in, say, Ab, if you have A and C in the music, it's a combination of sensing that it's a major third and the hand shape that is trained by scale playing that tells you the A is Ab. There's probably a bit more to it than that - playing scales and pieces helps develop pitch memory (if only for the duration of the piece) which contributes to your sense of key, and ultimately, you do learn to remember what key you are in - Ab becomes more of a mindset.

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