Another Way to Remember Key Signatures

There are many ways to remember key signatures. One of which I describe in the introduction to Key Hunt. Another is the famous circle of fifths, which is a great way to do it, but somewhat challenging for the beginner. Well here is another one!

First off, a reminder of what a key signature is. Basically a key signature shows the accidentals (sharps and flats) within a key. To build a major scale using a key signature start with one note of every letter name. For example the key of “A”, start with A B C D E F G. Adjust the notes to fit the key signature. The key signature for  ”A” has F# C# G#, so adjust all those notes and you get A B  C# D E F# G# A, which is the “A” major scale.

Now on to memorizing key signatures. Let’s take a look at the key signatures for sharp keys:

G: F#
D: F# C#
A: F# C# G#
E: F# C# G# D#
B: F# C# G# D# A#
F#: F# C# G# D# A# E#

Notice that all keys follow the same pattern. They all start with F#, then move to C#, etc. They differ in the number of sharps, but not in the order of their appearance. If you can memorize the order, and the number each key has, then you would know is signature! To remember the order sharps appear in (called the order of the sharps) use the sentence: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Bananas. (F C G D A E B).

To remember the number of sharps a key has, I put together the following music theory number lines. (Sounds fun, eh?) On a music theory number line sharps are positive and flats are negatives. Any time you move in the positive direction you add sharps, in the negative direction you take away sharps/or add flats when you go below 0. The number lines show the name of a key and the number of sharps or flats in its signature. Notice the following, any time you move up 2 whole steps (2 frets) a signature adds 2 sharps, or if you move back you take a way 2 sharps (or add flats). That is pretty convenient. Move up 2 add 2, move down 2 take away 2. Notice there are two number lines, since if you move by 2s you only get odds or evens. A good place to start on the number lines are the keys of “G” and “C”. Remember that “C” has 0 sharps or flats, and “G” has 1 sharp. Then move up or down the number lines and you can easily find key signatures. Let’s try the key of “B”. “B” is four half-steps higher than “G”, so it will have 4 more sharps for a total of 5. That means it’s signature is: F# C# G# D# A#. Try it out with a few and see for yourself.

Key Signature Number Lines

Key Signature Number Lines

For flat keys the number lines work equally well, except they follow a different order. The order flats appear in is: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb. Which is the sharp order in reverse. I remember that it starts with the word BEAD, and adds “GCF.” Lets try using the number lines and the order of flats to find the key signature for Ab. Ab has a -4 (4 flats) on the number line, so it’s key signature is Bb Eb Ab Db.

Each method for memorizing key signatures has its advantages and disadvantages. The benefit of using number lines is that they are relatively easy to build and use. I like that they follow a predictable pattern, move up 2 frets get 2 more sharps, move down 2 frets take 2 away. Musical number lines also have other uses (they are helpful in finding parallel minor keys and modes). By thinking of sharps as positives and flats as negatives much of music theory can be simplified to basic arithmetic.

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