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Probably one of the most used terms in learning to read music, understand music theory, or playing an instrument, for some it’s a term that explains everything. For others musical keys are one of the biggest mysteries, an impenetrable series of patterns just too hard to decode.
Before we go any further, we should probably explain (just to make sure), what these key things are that we’re talking about!
What’s a key signature?
We can think of a key signature as a sort of “stamp” at the start of a line of music to tell us what notes we can expect in the piece of music or song. These essentially work as a rule for the music that the composer can choose to follow or not to a greater or lesser extent.
In the vast majority of cases, this could mean that this rule will govern anything from 60-90% of the notes in the piece, depending on style. Sometimes it can be more, sometimes less, but at least as a starting point, that’s pretty good going. The key signature has narrowed down the notes you can expect to seven. If you’re interested in a concise history of the conventions of key signatures, you can check out a good summary HERE.
I’ve told students for many years to think of the key signature as a musical equivalent to a label on the front of a tourist information guide. That label tells you what language to expect inside. I often compare musical keys to “languages” (and scales to “alphabets”). I hope that helps YOU have something to hold on to as a starting point.
Having read music for more than 35 years, I’ve come across a lot of different ways / methods / tricks (depending on the sales pitch nature of the advice!) that people advocate to learning your keys and key signatures.
For many there are various sentences, varying in sillyness, to help them become more memorable. The first letter of each word will usually spell the order of the sharp keys or flat keys. There’s one that begins “Father Charles…” you might be familiar with for example?
Who WAS Father Charles…?
Lots of people start looking for patterns, often as a way to try and avoid having to use raw memory power! I know that a lot of musicians use something called the Circle of Fifths – is that a method you have come across? How does it work for you? I must confess I didn’t come across the term circle of fifths until I’d been playing music for more than 10 years. As a result I was already used to thinking in a different way, but I know a lot of people swear by it.
Then there are the methods I know people use that involve referring to the last sharp or flat that was added and working out the next key in relation to that. When we started discussing this the other day in the FREE ReadTheDots Facebook group we had a couple of members who mentioned that this is one that they have used.
I came across another, more unusual method the other day when researching this month’s theme called the Rule of 7. If you’re interested in reading more about it and seeing if it works for you, you can find more information about it here. Beware though, it got a bit complicated even for me… there’s got to be an easier way!…
(Spoiler alert – there is!)