Key Signatures: What Are All Those Sharps And Flats?

Key signatures are one of the most important parts of music - they tell us what notes to play. Here's some information on them. It also talks about major, minor, intervals, and accidentals.

One of the major things one needs to know to understand written music is key signatures. In many ways, they are simple, because there are only fifteen different ways to write them, and the order in which the sharps and flats are added in never changes. However, one must first learn what that order is, the difference between major and minor key signatures, and about accidentals.

The first key signature is C major, which has no sharps and no flats. On a piano, it would mean playing a scale using only the white keys (the black keys are all the sharps and flats, the white keys are the natural notes). The relative minor is A minor, meaning that it has the same key signature as C major - no sharps and no flats.

Sharps and flats are added to the key signature in fifths. A fifth is when there are five notes between two notes, including the beginning and ending ones. For example: G, A, B, C, D - from G to D is a fifth because there are a total of five notes. If one looks at a violin, one will notice that sharps are added in ascending order, while flats are added in a descending order. For example, the strings that a viola/violin possesses are C, G, D, A, and E, in that order.

As sharps or flats are added, key signatures also move up or down in fifths, just as the strings do. When sharps are added, the key signatures go from C major to G, then D, then A, then E, then B, then F-sharp. When flats are added, the key signature goes from C to F, then B-flat, then E-flat, then A-flat, then D-flat, then G-flat, then to C-flat.

The second key signature in ascending order is G major. It has one sharp, F-sharp. Its relative minor is E minor. The third key signature is D major. It has two sharps - F-sharp and C-sharp. Its relative minor is B minor. The fourth key signature is A major. It has three sharps - F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp. Its relative minor is F-sharp minor. The fifth key signature is E major. It has four sharps - F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, and D-sharp. Its relative minor is C-sharp minor. The sixth key signature is B major. It has five sharps - F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, and A-sharp. The relative minor is A-flat minor. The seventh key signature is F-sharp major. It has six sharps - F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, and E-sharp. Its relative minor is E-flat minor. The eighth key signature is C-sharp major. It has seven sharps - F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, E-sharp, and B-sharp. Its relative minor is B-flat minor.

The second key signature is descending order is F major. It has one flat - B-flat. Its relative minor is D minor. The third key signature is B-flat major. It has two flats - B-flat and E-flat. Its relative minor is G minor. The fourth key signature is E-flat major. It has three flats - B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat. Its relative minor is C minor. The fifth key signature is A-flat major. It has four flats - B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat. Its relative minor is B-flat minor. The sixth key signature is D-flat major. It has five flats - B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, and G-flat. The seventh key signature is G-flat major. It has six flats - B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat, and C-flat. Its relative minor is E-flat. The eighth key signature is C-flat major. It has seven flats - B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat, C-flat, and F-flat.

This may seem confusing now, but if you notice, in each case, only one more flat or sharp is added on, and all the rest are the same as before. They are added in the same order every time, including when they're written down in the music. It's not possible to "skip" a flat or sharp to create a "new" key signature. However, if a composer wants to write a different note than what's in the key signature, he or she may use an accidental.

An accidental is a note that's written with a sharp, flat, or natural sign in front of it to indicate that it's different than what's in the key signature. Natural means that the note isn't sharp or flat. When an accidental is signaled, it lasts throughout the entire measure, unless otherwise stated. It may aid the composer in putting together a new chord, or creating a new musical "idea." In most cases, the note will be annotated with one of the three signs mentioned above to show an accidental. However, it is possible to mark it with a double flat (two flat symbols that are touching each other) or a double sharp (an x). This means to move it up two steps. For example, an F-double-sharp will become a G.

In general music (forgetting about accidentals for a moment), how can one tell the difference between the major and minor versions of a key signature if they've got the same number of sharps and flats in them? Well, take C-major and A-minor. A C-major piece will be built on the C-major chord, composed of C, E, G, and the octave C. An A-minor piece will be built on the A-minor chord - A, C, E, and the octave A. In an A-major chord, there would be a C-sharp instead of a C natural. Some people say that minor chords sound "sadder" than major chords, but there is a definite difference between major and minor.

These chords are created based on intervals. C to E is a major third. (A to C is a minor third.) E to G is a minor third (C to G is a fifth), and G to C is a fourth. It's possible, however, to have not only thirds, fourths, and fifths, but to have sixths, sevenths, octaves, ninths, tenths, even thirteenths. Any interval is possible. Sevenths (and diminished sevenths, which means moving them down half a step - say, from B to B-flat) are used in creating a type of chord known as a major or minor seventh. This is when all four notes are used - like C, E, G, and C - and the "seventh" interval is added to them - in this case, either a B or B-flat. It creates two different versions of the same chord. This is common in more modern music.

Fourths and fifths are called "perfect" intervals, because they fit together well, and it is easily possible to tell when they are out of tune. It is much harder with thirds and sixths. For this reason, fifths are used when tuning string instruments - also because their strings are in fifths. These intervals are used frequently in music.

Key signatures, as one can see, are not very difficult, even there is a lot to them. All those fifths (along with those other intervals!), and those sharps and flats may seems confusing, but they will become easier and easier as a musician learns to read music more. It's very important to take note of the key signature and look for any accidentals before attempting to sight read a piece, because it tells whether to play flats, sharps, or naturals. However, musicians can easily learn to do with practice!

© High Speed Ventures 2011