Have you ever wondered what key signature you are playing in? If you are writing a new song, when you know what you are playing in, you can write in the same key. All it takes is a basic knowledge of how to read music.
There are two main types of key signatures – major and minor. Minor key signatures are a little more difficult to determine, but, in most cases, you know you’re playing in a minor key when the song has a general melancholy sound or ends on an unfinished chord.
Major key signatures, on the other hand, are the ones with which most people are familiar. Unlike minor key signatures that begin with A, major key signatures begin with C. You can spot them by sight and play them without much thought.
This article will explain how to read key signatures on a major scale.
Easy Key Signatures
The easiest way to figure out the key signature of a song is to look at the last note of the song. This note is also known as the “key note” due to the fact that it usually tells a person what key the song is written in.
For example, if the last note of a song is C, then the song is most likely written in C Major. If the song ends on F, then it’s probably written in F Major. The only time this will really change is when the last note of a song is part of a coda that goes up at the end, or, as mentioned, in minor key signatures that might end with an unfinished chord.
A quick tip for church musicians who are familiar with hymnals written in shape notes: “Do” (the triangle) is always the key note on a major scale, so whatever note Do falls on, it is also the key signature of the song.
Flat Key Signatures
Every note on a musical staff is written in a special order. If not, it wouldn’t make much sense. This is especially true for key signatures, which are the flat and sharp symbols located at the beginning of a song, right before the time signature.
Each of the notes in a key signature are placed in particular positions for musicians to read. The easiest one of all is C Major. When a person is learning to read music, C Major is usually the first key signature to be learned. It’s easy because there are no flats and no sharps, so, of course, the song must be written in C (unless it is a minor key, which would make it A Minor, but that is another topic).
But what happens when flats and sharps are added to the key signature?
For flats, when there is only one flat, the key signature is F Major (or D Minor). After F Major, the key signature is always the next to the last flat. See image above. The first flat is B♭, the second is E♭, the third A♭, fourth D♭, fifth G♭, sixth C♭, and the seventh and last is F♭. The next to the last flat is C♭, so the key signature for 7 flats is C♭ Major.
All keys written in flats follow this same general rule. If a song is written in 6 flats, the next to the last flat (and therefore the key signature of the song) is then G♭ Major. For 5 flats, it is D♭ Major, 4 flats A♭ Major, 3 flats E♭ Major, 2 flats B♭ Major, then back to 1 flat being F Major.
Sharp Key Signatures
Learning what sharp key signature a song is written in is almost as easy as C Major. The rule for sharps is simple. The key signature is always a half-step up the scale from the last sharp, which is the next note on the scale. When a song is written with one sharp (F♯), the next note on the scale is G, which makes a song written with one sharp G Major.
In this image, notice the second sharp is C♯, the third is G♯, fourth D♯, fifth A♯, sixth E♯, and the seventh is B♯. Using the above rule, the key signature for 7 sharps is C♯ Major, due to the last sharp being B♯ (which is actually C), so the next note on the scale is C♯. Six sharps is then F♯ Major, 5 sharps is B Major, 4 sharps E Major, 3 sharps A Major, 2 sharps D Major, and 1 sharp again being G Major.
Everything in music has a certain pattern it follows. Once you learn the patterns, reading, playing and writing music – along with determining key signatures – will become easier and easier.