Key signatures are the group of sharps or flats placed after the clef to indicate the tonality or key of the music to follow.
Key Signatures are vital for a young musician to learn if they are to continue developing their musicianship. However, it can be a boring concept to teach and boring for your students to learn – which means they are not going to remember it!
Your students need to understand that this is an important concept to learn, but how do you do that? Step into the lesson/concept from something they ALREADY KNOW! Make it RELEVANT!
I often begin teaching the concept of key signatures by asking the class the following question.
“What does a key do”?
Of course their reply is always along the lines of “it opens things/unlocks a door”
“RIGHT!! They do! And so do key signatures in music! If you know keys and key signatures, the whole world of music opens for you!”
Knowing key signatures makes understanding other music concepts soooo much easier. Concepts like:
There are a number of tips and tricks to finding the key of key signatures.
Here are some familiar way:
1. For MAJOR key signatures with sharps, look at the last sharp on the right. The tonic note of the key with that key signature is the note a half step ( or one semitone) above that last sharp.
If the key signature is four sharps …..
look at the last sharp. ( It’s D# ) Half a step up from D# is E.
Therefore this is the key signature of E major!
2. For MAJOR key signatures with flats, look at the flat second from the far right, or the second last flat.
The name of this flat is the name of the key for this key signature!
If the key signature is four flats
look at the second last flat. It’s Ab. Therefor this is the key of Ab major!
However, this is NOT how I prefer to teach students about key signatures!
To me this method is more like a quick fix, or trick, but isn’t terribly helpful in terms of deeper understanding.
And – what if the student forgets which way to move and how many moves to make from the last sharp or flat? There are no anchor points to help them remember!
The method I use involves the students remembering only two things!
1. The order of sharps ( and I drill this hard!)
2. The major scale that has NO key signature is C major. This is an easy one for them to remember!
The order of sharps is easily taught via a mnemonic. You can use which ever one you prefer, or have the students make their own, but the one I like is:
This tells us that the order of sharps is F C G D A E B
Drill this with the students. Have each student state the order of sharps before they exit the lesson.
Follow this up the very next lesson by asking each student as to state the order of sharps as the enter your classroom!
Complete the following three steps to find ALL major keys with sharps in their key signature.
I draw this out as I talk through each step. (see the image below – this is what it looks like when you draw the three steps)
1. Write out the order of sharps
2. Write 0 above the letter C and number the rest of the letters in order
3. Draw a # sign next to the letter C and every letter to the LEFT of C.
Go through the steps and draw the diagram again, but this time have the student tell you the steps
Finally – have the students draw the diagram, following the three steps.
This little figure/diagram can tell us so many things!
The THREE steps outlined in a one page PDF. It's a FREE download!
Just CLICK on the image to download a copy for yourself!
This very handy FREE chart outlines the THREE steps and is a great visual reminder for students.
If you’d like to know more about this method of teaching key signatures, there are teaching slides and student pages in the KEY SIGNS EXPLAINED resource.
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