How can I learn all the key signatures effectively?

Perhaps you're studying for your music theory exam, perhaps you're just curious. Either way I hope to inform you in a simple yet effective way of how to learn all your key signatures (or at least be able to work them out very quickly!).

There are 3 types of scale played on the piano (other instruments too of course, but I'll stick to my instrument for simplicity)

The major scale

The minor scale which can be harmonic or melodic. (The key signature is the same)

For ABRSM Grade 5 music theory you need to know the key signatures for every key. This may seem daunting, bearing in mind that each note can have two different names eg D# or Eb

Therefore instead of trying to learn each and every key signature, the best thing is to look for a pattern.

The circle of fifths.

I'm sure you'll agree that it is much easier to do a quick diagram in the margin of your exam paper than to try writing out every key signature in sequence until you get the right one. Rather than trying to explain it to you, it is better just to take a look at it.

I've put in my drawing rather than a computerised diagram just to show that it's very simple to draw. There are numerous (better) diagrams if you google circle of fifths.
I've put in my drawing rather than a computerised diagram just to show that it's very simple to draw. There are numerous (better) diagrams if you google circle of fifths.

Some key conclusions can be drawn from looking at this diagram.

  • Each scale begins on the 5th degree of the previous scale. C to G(1#) to D(2#s) to A(3#s) to E(4#s) etc,
  • Each scale adds one more sharp to its predeccesor until you get to the seventh degree of the scale
  • The added sharp is exactly a fifth above the last sharp (F# to C# to G# to D# etc)

The same rules apply to scales with flats.

  • Each scale begins on the 5th degree below the key note of the previous scale. (or to put it more simply) It begins on the 4th degree of the previous scale. C to F(1b) to Bb(2bs) to Eb (3bs) to Ab (4bs)
  • Each scale adds one more flat to its predeccessor until you get to the seventh degree of the scale.
  • The added flat is exactly a fifth below the last flat (Bb to Eb to Ab to Db to Gb etc)

We arrive at a crossover point at which we encroach into enharmonics (Gb is the enharmonic of F#)

This results in the clock like circle which is so aesthetically pleasing that even a slightly dim person such as me can get my head around it. Hooray!

The good news is that the same can be applied to the minor keys,

A very quick sketch. (but perfectly fine to jot in the margin of your exam paper)
A very quick sketch. (but perfectly fine to jot in the margin of your exam paper)

Therefore you can easily walk into your exam armed with 2 little clocks which will guarantee you key signature success............. now as to the rest of the exam, that's a separate hub!

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Comments 9 comments

caramellatte profile image

caramellatte 4 years ago

Great hub! This is very useful. I learned this when I took piano lessons and that was a long time ago. When I was little, I'm not THAT old.:) Lol. But I remember this.


Talisker profile image

Talisker 4 years ago from UK Author

Thank you Caramellate. Yes it's only since I've just started up piano lessons again that it's become an issue!

I'm not THAT old either, but I'm a good bit older than I was when I took my last piano exam!!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

It is very aesthetically pleasing, the key circle. And handy for transposing too, especially for guitar chords. I passed my Grade 5 theory too, many moons ago!


Talisker profile image

Talisker 4 years ago from UK Author

Yes it's just like a clock :-)I didn't know little wooden figures were eligible to take their theory exams? congratulations though. Did you pass with flying colours?!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

I did pass quite comfortably but never sat any of the higher grades, though I did study the material. I'm sure you'll sail through it!


Talisker profile image

Talisker 4 years ago from UK Author

It's pretty interesting stuff and very useful to understand. Although I can't say I'm too familiar with the equal temperament! Oh I know a hub that delves into that territory....although I can't do the link!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Yes you are - your piano is tuned to equal temperament ;-)


livingsta profile image

livingsta 4 years ago from United Kingdom

Explained in a simple way. I have forgotten most of what I learned, cos did not practice for years! Voted up :)


Talisker profile image

Talisker 4 years ago from UK Author

Yes it's a shame we can't retain it all as effectively as when we learn it originally! It's like playing a piece of music beautifully and then months later mucking it up several times and having to re-learn it... :-(

Thank you for taking the time to read it!

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