Key Signatures – what are they? What do they tell us? How do you identify them? These are some questions that all musicians, guitarists, pianist, singers and theorist alike will ask. There are 15 major keys and 15 minor keys all identifiable by the key signature found in every piece of music. Each key, both major and minor, have corresponding scales. The key signature is the compilation of flat or sharp signs that are found at the beginning of a musical score between the musical clef and the time signature that identify which notes in the musical scale are flatted or sharped to signify the key of the music and the musical scale.
Each major key has a corresponding relative minor key that is identified by the same number of sharps or flats, so how do you know if the key is major or minor? You have to understand a little bit of music theory to fully comprehend and recognize the difference between major and relative minor keys. The easiest way to explain this is to examine the key of C which has no sharps or flats in its key signature. The scale for the key of C is C D E F G A B. Count up from the C (including the C) to the 6th note in the scale and the note is A. If a piece of music ends on the A it is most likely the key of A minor. Minor keys will have a sad, mournful feel. The determining factor of major or relative minor key is going to be the tonic of the scale. If the tonic of the scale is C or the 1, the key is C major, if the tonic of the key is A or the 6, then the key will be minor.
There are also what we call enharmonic key signatures. The major enharmonic keys are B and Cb, F# and Gb and C# and Db. The minor enharmonic keys are G# minor and Ab minor, D# minor and Eb minor and A# minor and Bb minor. Enharmonic keys sound the same but are written differently. For instance, the keys of B and Cb sound exactly the same but B is written with 5 sharps where as Cb is written with 7 flats. The B major diatonic scale is B C# D# E F# G# A#. The Cb major diatonic scale is Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb.
If you examine the other enharmonic keys and scales you will see the relationship between each enharmonic key.
All major diatonic scales are going to follow the same pattern - whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step half step or w, w, h, w, w, w, h. Take for instance the C scale, C D E F G A B C. From C to D is a whole step. From D to E is a whole step. From E to F is a half step (on the piano keyboard there is no note between the E and the F.) From F to G, G to A and A to B are whole steps. From B to C is a half step (as with the F to G there is no note between them.)
The Pure or Natural minor scale follows a similar pattern to the major diatonic scale. Simply start with the 6 of the major diatonic scale. Using the key of A minor, which is the relative minor of the key of C, we would use the C scale and count up 6; 1-C 2-D 3-E 4-F 5-G 6-A. Start on this 6th note of the scale and continue the pattern like this:
w h w w h w w.
There are also two additional minor scales that are modified versions of the Pure minor and they are the Harmonic minor scale and the Melodic Minor scale. For the purpose of this article we will be listing the Major diatonic and Pure minor scales.
The order of sharp or flats is always going to follow a certain pattern as well. The order of sharps will always be F C G D A E B. The order of flats will always be B E A D G C F. The best way that I have found to memorize or remember the order of sharps and flats is with a mnemonic acronym. Sharps - Father, Charles, Goes, Down, And, Ends, Battle. Associate that phrase as being sharp or cool, Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle, that is pretty sharp. On the other hand, to remember flats, just reverse that phrase Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father, that is bad or flat.
Following is the major and relative minor keys and scales.
C and A minor – identified with no sharps or flats.
The C major scale is C D E F G A B
The A minor scale is A B C D E F G
G and E minor – identified with 1 sharp – F (Father)
The G major scale is G A B C D E F#
The E minor scale is E F# G A B C D E
D and B minor – identified with 2 sharps – F and C (Father Charles)
The D major scale is D E F# G A B C#
The B minor scale is B C# D E F# G A
A and F# minor – identified with 3 sharps – F C and G (Father Charles Goes)
The A major scale is A B C# D E F# G#
The F# minor scale is F# G# A B C# D E
E and C# minor – identified with 4 sharps – F C G and D
(Father Charles Goes Down)
E major scale E F# G# A B C# D#
C# minor scale C# D# E F# G# A B
B and G# minor – identified with 5 sharps – F C G D and A
(Father Charles Goes Down And)
The B major scale is B C# D# E F# G# A#
The G# minor scale is G# A# B C# D# E F#
F# and D# minor – identified with 6 sharps F C G D A and E
(Father Charles Goes Down And Ends)
The F# major scale is F# G# A# B C# D# E#
The D# minor scale is D# E# F# G# A# B C#
C# and A# minor – identified with 7 sharps - F C G D A E B
(Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle)
The C major scale is C# D# E# F# G# A# B#
The A# minor scale is A# B# C# D# E# F# G#
F and D minor - indentified with 1 flat – B (Battle)
The F major scale is F G A Bb C D E
The D minor scale is D E F G A Bb C
Bb and G minor – identified with 2 flats – B E (Battle Ends)
The Bb major scale is Bb C D Eb F G A
The G minor scale is G A Bb C D Eb F
Eb and C minor – identified with 3 flats – B E A (Battle Ends And)
The Eb major scale is Eb F G Ab Bb C D
The C minor scale is C D Eb F G Ab Bb
Ab and F minor – identified with 4 flats – B E A D
(Battle Ends And Down)
The Ab major scale is Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
The F minor scale is F G Ab Bb C Db Eb
Db and Bb minor – identified with 5 flats – B E A D G
(Battle Ends And Down Goes)
The Db major scale is Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
The Bb minor scale is Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab
Gb and Eb minor – identified with 6 flats - B E A D G C
(Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles)
The Gb major scale is Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F
The Eb minor scale is Eb F Gb Ab Bb Cb Db
Cb and Ab minor – identified with 7 flats - B E A D G C F
(Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father)
The Cb major scale is Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb
The Ab minor scale is Ab Bb Cb Db Eb Fb Gb
For some reason, at least for me, some people have trouble memorizing sharps, but memorizing flats just seems to come more natural. An easy way for me to remember sharps is to take the key of the sharp – for instance B which has 5 sharps, flat it – B flat, I know that Bb has 2 flats (I use Bb quiet frequently) subtract 2 from 7 – 5… B has 5 flats. This works for all the sharp keys. The key of Eb has 3 flats – 3 from 7 equals 4 – E has 4 sharps.
I hope this helps to clarify and understand key signatures and major diatonic and natural minor scales.