Learning and Teaching Key Signatures: Step 1

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Many music students hate learning key signatures. It can seem too much like “homework,” and too little like playing music. As a teacher, my job is to make sure that students learn key signatures thoroughly; it’s both necessary and important. (For the “WHY” of key signatures, see this previous blog post.) When students have mastered key signatures, they make fewer mistakes with accidentals, and we can move along to more interesting musical material.

I have two goals when teaching this subject:
1. To make the learning as relevant as possible to playing music, and
2. To make sure the students only have to learn the key signatures once.

I have developed a three-step method for teaching key signatures that addresses both goals, and helps students learn and understand key signatures . Basically, these are the three steps:

1. Teach students to write, recite and play perfect fifths. Without understanding this fundamental interval, the progression of keys and the patterns of sharps and flats make no sense. Once a student is confident with perfect fifths, they can recite the keys in order and the hardest work is done.

2. “Create” the key signatures by adding flats and sharps to a scale. This step gives the student knowledge of the underlying patterns of major and minor scales.  I ask students to add sharps or flats as needed to form the proper pattern of half and whole steps, and to write and play the resulting scales.

3. Apply the knowledge of key signatures.  It is vital for a student to know how they will need to use key signatures in “real life.”  We study the ways in which key signatures can help them read and learn music faster, and the specific situations where their knowledge of key signatures will be tested.

I believe the first step is the most important and also the one most likely to be neglected.  But it is a simple one to study and teach, using elementary playing and writing drills. These are the ones I like to use:

1. Using staff paper, I write out a line or two of perfect fifths. The student practices naming both notes of the fifth, and playing the fifths.
2. Using staff paper, I show a student a line of single notes. He names and plays the note a perfect fifth above that note, and then he repeats the line, naming and playing the note a perfect fifth below the given note.
3. I give the student a starting note. Then I ask her to play and name a perfect fifth up (or down) from that note, and then from the next note, and so on. We stop the sequence when we run into double sharps or flats.
4. Recite major keys backward and forward. You can drill flat keys and sharp keys separately.
5. Repeat step 5 with minor key signatures.
6. Recite the flats and sharps in key signature order.

By the time a student has mastered these drills, they are able to say the key signatures in order.  And although this is where we are tempted to stop, the next two steps create the understanding that will help the student retain and use this information. I will cover those in future posts.

Just for fun – here is an entire website devoted to the Circle of Fifths! And if you would like to print your own staff paper, you can try blanksheetmusic.net.

Question: What do your students find hardest about key signatures?

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  • Jeff McFadden

    A very interesting post. I learned key signatures simply by rote starting in 1955, in 3rd grade, leaving the formal study of music in 1965 when I graduated from high school although I have never lost interest nor abandoned some form of music study. In all those years nobody taught me the link between the circle of fifths and key signatures. Before now. Thank you.


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