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Key Signatures - The Easy Way

Bob Bonnington is a qualified acoustician who through learning to play the bass is trying to find ways that help him and other assimilate and use musical theory.

As a beginner you may find it hard to remember what notes go flat or sharp in a major key. However you may be surprised to learn that you are not alone and that this is a common difficulty faced by many musicians irrespective of their playing ability. For some being exposed to the 'circle of fifths' in diagrammatic form is all that they need. Others may not be so lucky and simply be turned-off by information presented in this way. For the many who make up this group a different approach to ordering the information may be more helpful.

One such approach uses memory techniques or mnemonics.

Jai Josefs describes such a method in his book: Writing Music For Hit Songs (ISBN: 0825672457). The method uses two mnemonics in conjunction with the answers to three simple questions. What follows is a summary of that contained in the book.

The first question you must answer: 'Is the scale I'm dealing with sharp or flat?'

All major scales have either sharps or flats, never both (with the exception of the C major scale, which has neither sharps nor flats). Scales that have sharps are referred to as sharp scales, while scales that have flats are referred to as flat scales. Any scale with a sharp in its name, such as F# or C# , is going to be a sharp scale. Any scale with a flat in its name, such as Bb or Eb, will obviously be a flat scale. The only ones in question are those that have as their root a natural note such as A or B. In these cases the rule is: F is Flat, the rest are sharp. So, for example, A, D, G, and B are sharp scales because F is the only scale with a natural note as its root that is flat.

The second question that you must answer is: 'How many sharps or flats are in this scale?'

You answer that question through the use of the first mnemonic:

'Guide Dogs Are Everyone's Best Friends'

The way this mnemonic works is that the number of sharps in sharp scales proceeds from left to right, while the number of flats in flat scales proceeds from right to left. Therefore G, a sharp scale, has one sharp because G is the first letter of the first word in the mnemonic. Similarly, D has two sharps, A three sharps, etc. F; the first flat scale, has one flat. B, because it is the second scale reading from right to left, has two flats, and so on.

The third and final question you must answer: 'Which sharps and flats are in this scale?'

The answer to this question is found by the use of a second mnemonic:

'Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds'.

The sharps are read from left to right and flats from right to left. Thus, if a scale has one sharp, it will be F#. If a scale contains two sharps, they will be F# and C#, and so on up to six sharps. Reading the mnemonic from right to left, if a scale has one flat, it will be Bb. If a scale contains two flats, they will be Bb and Eb, and so on up to six flats.

There are two major scales (in addition to the C-major scale that has no sharps or flats) that are not covered by this system. They are C#, in which all the notes are sharped (C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#, C#) and Cb, in which all the notes are flatted.

The system takes much longer to explain than it does to use. Give it a try and you'll be surpised and how easy it becomes to use.