MUS 111 Basic Musicianship I

Key Signatures and Other Related Fears

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Key Signatures got 
you flustered??

No problem!  Understanding a few simple concepts will have you well on your way to a successful music theory experience.

Number 1

In determining a key signature for any named major key, it's important to know whether the key signature has sharps or flats.  

With the exception of the key of C major (no sharps or flats) and F major (one flat), any "stand-alone" letter is going to be a major key with sharps:  G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#.  Of course if a sharp follows the letter name (F#, C#), the key signature will have sharps.  If a flat follows the letter name, the key signature will have flats:  Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb.

 

C Major
(no sharps or flats)
Sharps Flats
G (1) F (1)
D (2) Bb (2)
A (3) Eb (3)
E (4) Ab (4)
B (5) Db (5)
F# (6) Gb (6)
C# (7) Cb (7)

Number 2

In order to determine the name of a major key that contains sharps, simply name the note that is a half-step above the last sharp.  

Above, the last sharp is D#, so the major key would be E major.

In order to determine the name of a major key that contains flats, simply name the next-to-last flat and that will be the key.  Again, the key of F major, with one flat, is the exception.  

Above, the next-to-last flat is Ab, which is the name of the major key.

Number 3

Okay, that works fine if you're given the key signature, but what if you're given a "tonic note" and asked to come up with the major key signature?

That's when you need the info from the table under Number 1.  You must know whether you're going to be creating a key signature with sharps or flats.

What should go through your brain if you are given the following tonic note and asked to provide a major key signature, or provide accidentals to form a major scale based on this note?

  1. Is it a major key with sharps or a major key with flats?

  2. The note is B-natural, not Bb, so it's going to be a major key with sharps!  Coo'.

  3. If I can determine the name of a major key signature by going up a half-step from the last sharp, then, conversely, I can determine the last sharp by going down a half-step from the tonic note, B.  (... Man, this theory stuff isn't as confusing as Burnette is making it out to be.)

  4. It sure is a good thing I memorized the order of sharps or I'd be up a creek right about now.

  5. Let's see ... Fat Charlie Goes Down All Escalators Backwards:  F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#.

  6. If A# is the last sharp, then the key of B major has five sharps:  F#, C#, G#, D#, A#.

Piece of cake, eh?  Now, what if you're given this note?

  1. Okay, this has got to be a major key with flats because the note is Db ... duh!

  2. If I can determine the name of a major key signature by naming the next-to-last flat, then, conversely, I can add one more flat to come up with the number of flats in the stinkin' key signature!

  3. It sure is a good thing I know that the order of flats is the exactly the same as the order of sharps, but in reverse:  Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb.

  4. So, then, if I add one more flat beyond Db, I'll have five flats--Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, the key signature for Db major.

Number 4

Alright, I've got the key signature stuff down now--quite a breeze--but this relative major and minor hoopla still throws me ....

All you've got to do is remember the easy formula--the relationship between C Major and a minor.  These two keys share the same key signature, as do other keys sharing the same relationship.  

C
a

For any given major key, its relative minor key will lie a minor third (m3) below.  For any given minor key, its relative major key will lie a minor third above.

If you are given the major key F# and asked for its relative minor key, you simply navigate down a minor third, and your answer is d# minor.  These two keys share the same key signature:  six sharps.

If you are given the minor key eb and asked for its relative major key, you simply navigate up a minor third, and your answer is Gb major.  These two keys share the same key signature:  six flats.

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