Join me while we take a journey back into traditional music theory territory with a little chat about key signatures!
Ok, seriously though…I had left out a detailed discussion on these as I felt they were too traditional for my readers – turns out I’m wrong about that!
So I’ll do my best to give you a no-nonsense version about them.
What are Key Signatures Anyway?
Key signatures are like a “code” that describes what major or minor key the music is in.
They are written at the start of any line of music notation and consist of between zero seven sharps or flats.
Each different key has different numbers of them – and are notorious for being confusing to learn (not to mention boring!)
(By the way – they cannot consists of a mix of sharps and flats – this is not a rule so much as a technical problem that means mixing them is kind of nonsensical)
They tell the person reading the music that it’s in a certain major or minor key – and that the notes marked as sharp or flat need to all be played that way unless it’s noted otherwise.
So with that first one – C major or A minor – all the notes are natural, nothing is sharp or flat unless specified in the score.
If we look below that to the one marked F major or D minor we can see that all “B” notes need to be played flat – unless they are marked otherwise.
So we can tell from this that the notes in F major are: F,G,A,Bb,C,D and E.
If we take the same notes starting on D we get the d minor scale: D,E,F,G,A,Bb and C.
If we zip across to…let’s say the C# major or A# minor one on the top right we are at the most imposing end of the chart!
It is however just the same, we just follow the symbols: seven sharps.
C#,D#,G#,D#,A#,E# and B# – everything is sharp!
You may have noticed that the E# and B# are unusual – and that’s because it’s not that common to see either of these notes sharpened. In terms of sound E# and B# are the same as F and C respectively – and it’s this kind of confusing aspect that makes keys notoriously confusing!
Taking a quick look at the relative minor to the C# – A# minor, we once again use the same notes but starting in a different place:
A#,B#,C#,D#,E#,F# and G#
That’s how the system works for all the key signatures of major or minor scales.
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The Circle of Fifths
If you read my site regularly you may already know my annoyance with the mighty and majestic circle of fifths. If not, I’ll try to keep this paragraph good natured!
The way key signatures work is they represent which notes are sharp or flat in any particular key.
You will notice on the diagram above that each one has two names underneath it.
This is because each key signature is shared by one major and one minor scale – these scales contain the same notes, but starting in a different place (another source of confusion for the newbie!).
The classic example of this is the C major scale – which you can play using all the white notes on the piano keyboard starting on the note C.
The A minor scale uses the exact same note but starting on A.
The both share a key signature too – no sharps or flats – like I said, it uses just the white notes on the keyboard.
This was my favourite key signature on the day I learned about them, and it still is today 🙂
A quirk of nature…
A mathematical quirk of the way notes are named and organised means that when we organise the scales by how many sharps or flats they contain, we end up with a list of keys that moves upwards by an interval of a perfect fifth each time.
The mathematical quirk is that by move a perfect fifth each time, we move through every note of the octave and back to where we started without repeating any notes.
This is known as the circle of fifths – and while it does have some uses, especially in jazz and classical music analysis (and for instrumental practice – it’s good for teaching fingers to play in all keys), in terms of its use for writing music – it’s limited.
I’ve been making and playing music for almost 30 years and I’ve never need to know the circle of fifths once.
Anyway – this process is what you see happening in the diagram above – sharps and flats being added one at a time, and the major and minor keys moving up by a perfect fifth with each step.
There are a number of “issues” with key signatures that cause confusion to most people who are new to them.
I’ll list the ones I know of as best I can – if you have any other questions please leave a comment and I’ll update the page!
Key signatures with an absolute ton of sharps and flats
Yes, the key signatures with lots of sharps or flats are a pain to read. One sad side effect of this is that some keys have a reputation as being more difficult than others – which is not true as the pattern for major or minor scales are the same.
What IS true though is that some keys are more suited to certain instruments -as a guitarist I’m very aware that we like sharp keys and are not so keen on flat keys.
Keyboardists and wind players are likely to feel the opposite – it’s just a matter of how instruments work…they tend to favour a certain way of doing things.
Perhaps a more serious issue is that some keys become unusable simply because of this system of writing them down. It rarely becomes an issue – it’s more of an “in theory” problem but keys like Fb minor are essentially impossible to work with – purely because of how the system is set up..
Music notation was not invented overnight (well the basic idea of it was, by a guy called Guido) – it evolved over centuries, and there is only common practice keeping it in use. There is no official version, no central organisation that governs it.
As you can imagine, music has changed over the last thousand years (since the basic idea of modern music notation appeared) – and the system cannot handle every possibility in a slick way.
“Do different keys have different characteristics?”
This is a more complex question than you might think – the answer is not a straight true or false. It’s kind of both.
If you read reviews or analysis of orchestral music you sometimes hear keys referred to as “distant” or “warm” or some other richly descriptive word.
This is not a direct description of the key itself – but of a change of key.
The relationship between two keys CAN have a particular quality to it – albeit a subjective one. Just like a change between two chords can have a variety of qualities to it…
The idea of different keys having a different characteristics comes from a problem of tuning many years ago…
This can be a bit a tricky one to get your head around, but modern Western music usually based upon a tuning system called 12TET – 12 tone equal temperament. (Wiki link there if you want deeper info on that)
It basically means the octave is split into 12 equally spaced notes called semitones.
This is a tweaked, adjusted version of a natural tuning, to sort out some technical problems.
The result of this is that all keys in 12TET tuning sound identical, whichever note you start on.
However – these is a complicating factor.
Before 12TET tuning, the semitones were not equally spaced – some were slightly larger than others.
This mean that different keys literally sounded different – and some were known for their “wolf notes” where the eccentricities of the tuning would create ugly “out of tune” sounding intervals.
Some would sound warm…some less so.
Music that sounded great played in one key might sound horrific played in another.
This doesn’t happen with 12TET…which started to be widely adopted in the 1600s.
The upshot of this is that there is still a perception today that different keys sound different.
The only correct answer is that when using 12TET tuning there is no different – but if you use a different tuning, they may sound different.
Another complication here is that some instruments don’t have fixed pitches, so are not locked in to 12TET.
Voices and string instruments like the violin are judged by ear and often move towards Just Intonation as a result.
Do you have to use/abide by key signatures?
Absolutely not – they are something of a relic these days, but I do think that learning the way music used to be organised in keys has its benefits.
For pure electronic music – especially the more clubby end of the genre, they are even less relevant.
My advice would be not to waste time memorising the keys unless you have some reason – if you are wanting to become an orchestral musician, they are something you’ll need to know inside out for example.
In terms of making music, time would be better spent on understanding intervals and chords, and the basic chord relationships.
That’s all I can think of for now – any questions pls gimme a shout either in the comments below, or over on the Facebook page.