Key Signatures and Scales
Everyone has played sports at one time or another and experienced what happens when you don’t know the basics of the game. It is frustrating! Whenever I used to play basketball, I wanted to have all of the moves. I wanted to be able to dribble like Dwyane Wade or shoot like Kobe Bryant. I used to dream of hitting the buzzer beater in the finals… but I could hardly shoot a layup. Playing basketball was hard because I didn’t have the right foundation. In music, Key Signatures and Scales are like a layup is in basketball.
Key signatures are one of the most basic concepts in music, yet many musicians don’t know what they are! Key signatures, or keys, define the pitches that will be used. Simply, they are a set of 7 notes that are related to each other. The key defines the relationships between the notes by showing the performer which ones to use.
How many key signatures are there? Most people say 24, and that isn’t completely wrong. However, there are actually 30 key signature used in music. First, there are major keys and minor keys. Essentially, the difference between major and minor keys are the starting pitches (it makes a huge difference in the relationships between these pitches, though!). There are 7 notes in a key, so there are 7 opportunities for sharps, as well 7 opportunities for flatted notes in the key. Double this (major and minor), and you get 28. The other two are your keys with no sharps or flats.
|Key||Number of Sharps|
|G Major/E minor||1|
|D Major/B minor||2|
|A Major/F♯/ minor||3|
|E Major/C♯ minor||4|
|B Major/G♯ minor||5|
|F♯ Major/D♯ minor||6|
|C♯ Major/A♯ minor||7|
|Key||Number of Flats|
|F Major/D minor||1|
|B♭ Major/G minor||2|
|E♭ Major/C minor||3|
|A♭ Major/F minor||4|
|D♭ Major/B♭ minor||5|
|G♭ Major/E♭ minor||6|
|C♭ Major/A♭ minor||7|
Circle of Fifths
You’ll notice in the tables above that the keys follow a pattern. This pattern is called the circle of fifths. Remember when we said that music doesn’t have to be difficult? This is no exception! The pattern is really easy: You start on C Major/A minor (No sharp notes or flatted notes) and go up a fifth every time. Each time that you go up a fifth, you add 1 sharp note to the key signature. If you want to add flatted notes, you go backwards. It’s as simple as that! For a detailed diagram, click this link.
Sure, they aren’t hard to understand and the circle of fifths makes enough sense. Really though, how do you remember all of that? Here are two tips that will simplify the process for you. Don’t forget, though, that these tips are learning tools to help you to figure them out faster, they aren’t a replacement for learning the key signatures.
Tip #1: Sharps
So the key signature has a list of sharps on the staff, but what key is it? Simple: find the last sharp and read the note a half step above it. This is your key signature.
In this example, the last sharp is G sharp. If you raise that by a half step, the key signature is A major. Simple!
If the key is minor, then you take A and go up a sixth. The result is F# minor.
Tip #2: Flats
Flats are just as easy. This time, instead of taking the last sharp, you take the second to last flat. That’s it, you’re done! The second to last flat in the key is your key signature.
Here you will see that the second to last flat is A flat. So, the key signature is A flat! It really is that simple. The same principle applies if it is minor, just go up a sixth. If this example were minor, it would be F minor.
What if there is only one flat?
The last two options are ones that you will just have to remember. If there are no sharps or flats, then it would be C major (or A minor). When there is one flat, it is F major (or D minor). These two there are no tricks (that I know of. If you have one list it in the comments!) to remember these.
Key signatures we defined as the set of pitches that are used. As a result, scales are those pitches arranged from high to low. However, this definition may be too basic for scales. There are many scales that do not come from key signatures, causing this definition to fall flat. So then, what exactly are scales? Scales are a collection of pitches that are arranged in an order.
The most common sets of scales are major and minor. These scales are the foundation of most music. They are derived from the major and minor key signatures. These aren’t the only two options, though.
These scales are the most common ones in contemporary music. Tunes that are played with these notes typically sound “happy.” The scales consists of 7 pitches that are arranged in intervals of: Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step.
Minor scales aren’t all that different from major scales. They consist of 7 notes arranged in intervals of: Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step. These are the same intervals as a major scale, but with a different starting pitch.
This is a popular scale that is used much more often than most people realize. It is different from the first two because it cannot be used to build an entire song. The blues scale consists of 6 notes that are used for a special effect or inflection. To learn more about the blues scale, listen to Just the Bassics talk about it here!
The Bebop scale is similar to the blues scale because it is a tool for inflection. This scale exists because people tried to explain what the musicians of the bebop era were doing.
The guitarists scale! Pentatonic scales are very popular and are really good for beginners to improvisation. The scale is made up of 5 notes and essentially eliminates the half steps of the scale. Since there are no half steps, there are no crunchy notes in the scale.
As the name implies, this scale is made up of only whole steps. It’s quite simple, really. It is rarely used, but it is a good improvisational tool to add some crunch when soloing over dominant chords.
There are two diminished scales: the whole-half diminished scale (sometimes called the dominant diminished scale) and the half-whole diminished scale (sometimes called the fully diminished scale). As the names imply, the difference is the intervals that start the scales. The whole-half diminished scale uses the interval series: whole step, half step, Whole step, half step, whole step, half step. The half-whole diminished scale uses the interval series: half step, whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step.
Ex 1: Whole-half
Ex 2: Half-Whole
Mastering the key signatures and scales and is vital to being a successful musician. It is important to remember that it isn’t likely that you’ll learn it all overnight – music takes a lifetime to truly master. However, this is a huge stepping stone. Start small and learn what it one step at a time. If you need any help, don’t hesitate to reach out!