Sharps and flats – Key signature

In the treble clef and bass clef lessons, you learned how to read and write the ‘white key notes’, the ones without sharps or flats; how to write sharps and flats in sheet music?

Sharps and flats

How to write a sharp note in a staff? It’s really simple: just put the sharp sign (#) before the note.

For example, this is an F#:

F sharp

And this is a D#:

D sharp

For a flat note, just write the flat sign (b) before the note:

This is a Gb:

G flat

And this is an Eb:

E flat

Important is that this sharp or flat sign is only valid from the moment the sign is displayed till the end of the measure you’re in. In the next example, I’ll explain this in more detail (btw, the staff is in treble clef):

sharp sign example

The notes in the first measure are: F#   G   A   F#. So, the last note in the first measure is an F#, not an F. The notes in the second measure are: F   G   A   F. The sharp sign from the first measure is not anymore valid in the second measure.

But what if I wanted to have F#   G   A   F in the first measure? In that case, we have the natural sign, that cancels the sharp sign before the first note:

sharp and natural sign example

The same rule applies to flat notes. The flat sign is only valid within the measure where it is used. If we want to cancel the flat sign for a certain note in the same measure, you can apply the same natural sign as with the sharp notes.

Key signature

Have a look at the next melody, which is in the key of F major:

melody in F major 1

You see that the melody has one flat note, the Bb. That’s normal, since F major has a flat note in its scale, the Bb!

You would expect this Bb to occur even more often in the melody. And that’s exactly what happens, have a look at the next line in this song:

melody in F major 2

When I would display also the rest of the song, you would see even more B flats appear.

Wouldn’t it be much easier to say at the beginning of the song that every B should be seen as a Bb? Well, that’s exactly what is normally done. We put the flat sign in the beginning, between the clef and the time signature. Now, the same song can be displayed as follows:

melody in F major 3

 

B flat

 

Note that not only B’s that are on the 3rd line of the staff become Bb’s. All the B’s become Bb’s, so also this one.

 

Sharps and flats that are displayed between the clef and the time signature, are called the key signature.

Key signature GThe key signature corresponds with the major or minor key the song is in. When a song is in G major, which, as you know, has only one sharp (the F#), the key signature looks as:

 

Now, the same key signature also applies to E minor, since E minor is the relative minor of G major. So, every key signature can be used for a major key and its relative minor key.

Other key signatures

We can display the key signatures for all major and minor keys in the circle of fifths. This gives us a nice and quick overview of all the sharps and flats in the major and minor keys:

circle of fifths

Now that you know about sharps, flats and key signatures, check your knowledge with the quiz that is accesible via the link below:

Final music reading exercise – Level I

 

Please let us know if this lesson helped you in learning about sharps, flats and key signatures by leaving a comment below.

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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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