Music is often described as the universal language.
However, there are variations within this language.
Key signatures tell us what dialect/variation of this universal language we are speaking at any one time.
In order to understand key signatures when learning how to read sheet music we need to learn about scales and keys.
Scales and Keys
Crucial things to know about scales and keys:
1. There are 2 main types of scale/key – Major and Minor (major sounds happy, minor sounds sad).
2. There is a major and a minor scale for every note (including sharps and flats) – this means that there are 12 major and 12 minor scales.
3. Each scale has a different number of sharps and flats in it.
When a composer is writing a piece they will have to decide the following….
- Which key (or scale) to write it in.
- Whether to write it in major or minor (this will largely depend on what mood they are wanting to create).
- Which note of the scale to write it on (different notes have distinctive tones to them. e.g. Bb Major is a very rich key, whilst F# Major is very bright in tone). They will also need to think about the range of the instrument they are writing for and the difficulty of the piece (keys with a greater number of sharps and flats tend to be more difficult to play in).
One thing which does make the whole process easier is that every Major scale has a corresponding Minor scale with the same same number of sharps/flats. These are called the Relative Major and the Relative Minor.
What’s the point of Key Signatures?
So, why not just mark in where the sharps and flats are in a piece. Well, if I was to compose a piece of music in C# Major then I would be using 7 sharps. This would mean that I would be writing the # sign all over the page and it would look very untidy and difficult to follow. This problem is overcome by the use of key signatures.
Reading Key Signatures
Key signatures are placed at the beginning of a stave to show which key the piece is written in and so which notes of the scale are to be sharpened or flattened. Key signatures with sharps consist of a series of #s on the lines/spaces of the notes which should be sharpened. Let’s have a look at this example below…
….This is the key signature of G Major/E Minor. Can you see that there is a # sign on the top line (F) of the stave? This means that every time any F is written in the music an F# should be played instead.
Key signatures with flats consist of a series of bs on the lines/spaces of the notes which should be flattened. So, in this example….
….there are 2 b signs on the middle line (B) and the top space (E). This means that every time any B or E is written it should be played Bb and Eb respectively.
Key signatures are found in Bass Clef as well. Here is G Major/E Minor in the Bass Clef….
Again, every time an “F” is seen in the music it should be played F#.
This is why looking at the key signature is one of the most crucial things to do when 1st approaching a piece of sheet music.