Learning and Teaching Key Signatures: Step 2

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key signature

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In Step 1, you learned the essential pattern for key signatures – movement by perfect fifth. And you are now able to recite the major and minor key signatures in order, as well as the sharps and flats that form key signatures.

If all you wanted to do was to memorize the key signatures, you wouldn’t need to do more. In fact that’s where most theory courses leave you. And that’s just the trouble. Being able to recite key signatures doesn’t tell you anything about what they mean, or how they came about. It doesn’t seem to relate in any meaningful way to playing music. And that’s why most people forget them.

But when you know where key signatures come from, you begin to develop a new depth of musical understanding, one that can help you learn music faster and play more expressively. And learning where key signatures come from is what Step 2 is all about.

For a scale to sound “major,” the seven different notes – A,B,C,D,E,F,G – must form a precise pattern, one comprised of 2 half steps and 5 whole steps between the notes. A major scale uses this pattern – whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. If we take the sequence of notes that form a C Major scale, we can see that there is a whole step between notes 1 and 2 (C and D), a whole step between notes 2 and 3 (D and E), a half step between notes 3 and 4 (E and F), and whole steps between notes 4 and 5 (F and G), notes 5 and 6 (G and A) and note 6 and 7 (A and B) and a half step between notes 7 and 8 (B and C). If we were to start the scale on another note, we would have to add sharps or flats to the other notes in the scale to keep the same pattern. For instance, if we start the scale on D, this is what we find:

D Major

The two sharps (F# and C#) that we need to add to form a major scale starting on D, are the two sharps that become the key signature for D Major. So now we can see that the “key signature” is not an arbitrary collection of sharps or flats, but the result of the creation of the scale pattern. In fact, it functions the same ways our own signature does:

1. It is unique to one key (actually one major key and one minor key), as our signature is unique to us.
2. It identifies the key.

Here are some suggestions to practice “creating” key signatures:
1. Be sure you are confident writing, naming and playing half steps and whole steps.
2. Begin to play a scale from any note, carefully calculating the half and whole steps and adding the accidentals as you play. Check your performance with the key signature you know belongs to that key.
3. Pick a note as your key note, or tonic. Then, using C as a starting note, play up or down to the tonic adding appropriate accidentals to make the major scale correct. Here’s an example:


You can do the same drills to study minor key signatures as well!

Enjoy practicing Step 2!

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