Notes on Music – Scales/Key Signatures Edition

(Reprinted from an email sent out during the summer of 2016).

When I ask for a specific scale, how do you determine which notes are flat/sharp? There are several options. I’ll explain three of them, and you can decide which one will work best for you.

Firstly, there are the two circles. The Circle of 4th is for the flat keys, which the Circle of 5ths is for sharps. You do have to memorise that C Major has no flats or sharps, and C is always where you start with either circle.

I’ll use the Circle of 4ths to illustrate (because we don’t have strings so we like flats better):

C = 0 flats
(up a P4)
F = 1 flat
(up a P4)
Bb = 2 flats
(up a P4)
Eb = 3 flats
(up a P4)
Ab = 4 flats

I can’t say that I’ve found this understanding of much use to me outside of my earliest theory classes when I was first learning about intervals and chord structures and learning to analyse music (i.e. identifying progressions and relationships – how one chord can precipitate a key change because it exists in different keys). It’s probably not going to be the most useful method, but it does exist. Also, knowing the order of flats/sharps (so you know which 4 notes are flat in Ab) is important. I explain that in the next method.

Order of Sharps/Flats
A second way of determining your flats/sharps is by using the order of flats and sharps.

The last sharp in the key signature is one half-step below the key name. Thus, the last sharp in G Major, is F#, the last sharp in B Major is A#, etc.

Then, look at the order of sharps to figure out the key signature:

The key name is the second-last flat in the key signature. Thus, Ab Major has B,E,A,D flats, while Dd Major has B,E,A,D,G.

The order of flats is:

This is the way I believe I figure it out most of the time (or I just have them memorised – I’m not sure which). There is a bit of memorisation involved – I think it happened a bit organically for me because I have to do so much transposing on the fly as a Horn player. I find this to be most effective for transposing purposes in the context of a piece or short exercise. It’s also, I think, a better option for a faster scale (i.e. in quarter notes or shorter).

Scale Structure
Finally, there’s the major scale structure itself.

All major scales are made up of tones (T – a whole step as in C to D) and semi-tones (ST – a half-step as in C to C#).

The pattern to memorise is:

Here is how it applies – I’ll pick Ab Major (because it’s my favourite concert pitch chord):

Ab (+ T)
Bb (+ T)
C (+ ST)
Db (+T)
Eb (+ T)
F (+ T)
G (+ ST)

The pattern is reversed on the way down.

This is probably the method with the LEAST amount of memorisation required. I think it’s a very solid method to use for long-tone scales, because it makes no one key harder than any other – you’ve got the time to plan your next note out as long as you know the placement of tones and semi-tones.

I hope this gives you a bit of insight into some strategies for approaching a whole note scale when I just call out a key!

Happy Playing!


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