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Music Reading for Guitarists: Key Signatures

Updated on March 23, 2017

For those who know the basics of standard music notation but don't yet sight read at any level, my Sight Reading for Guitarists articles each focus on a different aspect of standard notation. In this article, we'll look at one aspect of music sight reading for guitarists that many beginners to sight reading find quite off-putting. That troublesome aspect is key signatures.

Note - click on any examples to enlarge them, and if you're watching them on the video, view them in full-screen (high quality) mode for maximum clarity.

Key Signatures

A key signature is a series of sharps or flats that are placed on particular lines and spaces of the music staff at the beginning of each staff system. They are there to remind you to automatically raise or lower the pitch of those notes to ensure you stay in the key of the music.

For example, if you play a piece of music in the key of D major, you can expect lots of occurrences of the notes F# and C#, and few, if any, occurrences of the notes C natural and F natural. That's simply because the scale of D major is D E F# G A B C# D. Without a key signature, those sharp notes (F# & C#) would have to be shown with the '#' sign placed in front of every affected note. With a key signature, there's no need to do that, but you do have to remember to do it automatically to every F and C note wherever it appears on the staff and play them as F# and C#.

Key signature with accidentals

See the example below showing how accidentals temporarily contradict the key signature.

  1. This note is F# because of the key signature.
  2. This note is also F# because the key signature affects all F notes no matter on which line or space of the staff they appear.
  3. This note is F natural because the natural sign over-rides the key signature for that space on the staff for the remaining duration of the bar or measure or until cancelled by another accidental.
  4. This note is F# because the key signature is still in force for all other F notes. Accidentals, unlike key signatures, affect only the line or space they're placed on.
  5. This note is F natural because the previous natural sign is still in effect for that space on the staff until the end of the bar.
  6. This note is F# because it's a new bar and the previous natural sign is no longer in effect. The key signature takes effect again.

Guitar-Friendly Keys

Every pitched instrument has its preferred set of keys. The design of the instrument means that certain notes and note combinations are easier than others. For guitar, the 'friendly' keys are shown in the table below. This is especially true of styles of guitar playing that feature lots of open strings. Styles that don't feature open strings so much, e.g., jazz, aren't limited in the same way. A competent acoustic guitarist playing folk, classical, pop, etc., however, usually wants the sustain and resonant quality of open strings so prefers to play in keys that offer at least a few.

Keep in mind that the challenges associated with certain keys have nothing to do with pitch. They're all to do with ease of playing. Any guitarist playing in, for example, D major, and making use of some open strings can always place a capo on any fret and transpose the music automatically to any other major key.

Key signature
Sharps or flats
C major/ A minor
zero sharps or flats
G major/ E minor
1 sharp
D major/ B minor
2 sharps
F#, C#
A major/ F# minor
3 sharps
F#, C#, G#
E major/ C# minor
4 sharps
F#, C#, G#, D#
F major/ D minor
1 flat

Sight-Reading Exercises in Various Keys

Try the following four-bar phrases in a variety of keys with appropriate key signatures. Each exercise in a major key is followed by one in the relative minor key, i.e., the minor key that shares the same key signature.


Audio demos of the above exercises

The above short exercises feature the so-called 'guitar-friendly' keys that use key signatures of no more than four sharps or one flat. Note, however, that even though the keys of A major and E major with three and four sharps, respectively, are considered relatively easy to read, their relative minor keys (F# minor & C# minor) have an extra challenge as minor keys commonly use sharped 6th and 7th notes, which aren't part of the key signature but occur within the music as accidentals. Depending on the key, these may include notes that are rarely seen, such as E sharp in the key of F# minor and B sharp in the key of C# minor. They're also more physically demanding if you're playing chords in those keys, as most are barré chords.

The presence of raised 6th and 7th scale notes in any piece of music is usually a good indicator that its key is minor and not the relative major key that uses the same key signature. So in the key of E minor, for example, which takes a one-sharp (F#) key signature, you can expect to see the notes D# and (less frequently) C# used within the music as accidentals, especially when rising to the key note, E. The harmonic and melodic minor scales of all minor keys show these particular alterations.

Play the exercises and force yourself mentally into the key signature. Don't think of the keys - just the key signature. It takes a lot of practice, and you need as much music as you can get your hands on, but eventually, you feel the signature and don't have to keep reminding yourself about which notes need to be altered. It happens automatically.

Recommended Reading

Basics of standard notation - If you're not able to read the exercises in this hub, you should learn the basics of standard notation.

Ear Training - If you want to improve your ability to hear and identify notes, this hub will help you.

Dolmetsch (off-site) - If you want a good source of music theory terms in dictionary form, check out Dolmetsch.


All images, music and audio in this Hub are created by chasmac on Finale, Goldwave and Photoshop.

© 2014 chasmac


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    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 2 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I really like your clear and direct style for teaching the musical basics. I wish I had had such a site when I was starting out. Interesting and useful!

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 2 years ago from UK

      Thanks very much Dressage Husband. It's much appreciated.

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