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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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The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths (also called cycle of fifths) gives us a handy overview of the different scales and how they are related to each other.

How to form the circle of fifths

In the lesson ‘How to form a major scale’, I explained that starting from the C major scale, every time we take a major scale a fifth higher, the scale gets one extra sharp note. And, starting from C major, every time we go a fifth down (or a fourth up, which is basically the same), we get one more flat note in the major scale.

We could now display all the roots (starting notes) of the major scales in a row with C major (no sharps, no flats) in the middle. At the left of C, all the major scales with flats. Every step to the left would mean a fifth down (or a fourth up) and thus an extra flat note in the scale. At the right of C, all the major scales with sharps. Every step to the right would mean a fifth up (or a fourth down) and thus an extra sharp note in the scale.

Gb      Db      Ab      Eb      Bb       F        C        G        D        A        E        B        F#

It is important to realize that the most left scale (Gb) and the most right scale (F#) are actually the same scale, since Gb and F# are the same note, only written differently: they are enharmonic equivalent.

So that means that we could display this row with scales in a circle, as follows:

circle of fifths major

At the right side we have the major scales with sharps, on the left side the major scales with flats.

Every step clockwise in this circle (this would correspond with a step to the right in our row above) means a fifth up (or a fourth down). And every step counterclockwise a fifth down (or a fourth up). That’s why we call this circle the ‘circle (or cycle) of fifths’. Since a fifth up corresponds with a fourth down and vice versa, this circle is sometimes also called the ‘circle (or cycle) of fourths.

The minor scales in the circle of fifths

Since a natural minor scale has exactly the same notes as its relative major scale, we can also put the natural minor scales in our circle of fifths. So, for example: since the A minor scale and the C major scale share the same notes, we can put them in the same place in the circle of fifths:

circle of fifths major minor

And see here our circle of fifths, which gives us a quick overview of the number of sharps and flats in every major and minor scale, plus an overview of relative minor/major relationships.

Why would I need a circle of fifths?

As mentioned above, the circle of fifths gives a good overview of sharps/flats and relative minor/major.

The circle of fifths is among other things very handy for example in transposing a song (I’ll come back on this in a later lesson).

The circle of fifths also quickly shows us why the major scales that start on a black key on the piano are mostly written with flats instead of with sharps. Let me illustrate this with the Eb major scale, which has 3 flats.

Eb is enharmonic equivalent with D#, so let’s look how the D# major scale looks like. First of all, in the circle of fifths, from F# I will go on clockwise to C#, G# and then to D# (so every step a fifth up). You can see that D# major has 9 sharps (wow!).

circle of fifths D# major 9 sharps

Let’s, for fun, see how the D# major scale looks like (see also the lesson ‘How to form a major scale’):

From D#, a whole tone (W) up to E#

From E#, a whole tone (W) up to F## (or Fx)

From F##, a half tone (H) up to G#

From G#, a whole tone (W) up to A#

From A#, a whole tone (W) up to B#

From B#, a whole tone (W) up to C## (or Cx)

From C##, a half tone (H) up to D#

So the D# major scale is:

D#  E#  F##  G#  A#  B#  C##  D#

As you can see: a total of 9 sharps (don’t count the D# twice)!

Compare this with the Eb major scale:

Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C  D  Eb

Now, my question to you is: “Which scale do you prefer, the Eb major scale, or the D# major scale?” I think I know the answer… 🙂

 

Please tell us what you think of this lesson by leaving a comment below.

 

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The note names and how to find the notes on a piano keyboard

What are the music note names used in Western music?

In Western music, we can distinguish 12 different notes. Every song or piece of music is made of only those 12 different notes.

The easiest way to show the 12 notes is on a piano keyboard. On the keyboard, you can see a repetitive pattern of white and black keys.

Repetitive pattern piano keyboard

One such a pattern consists of 12 keys,

7 white keys:

7 white keys

and 5 black keys:5 black keys

Those are exactly the 12 different notes in Western music we spoke of above.

The note names of the white keys

This might sound funny, but to find the names of the white keys, look first at the black keys: they come in groups of 2 black keys and 3 black keys. Just at the left of a group of 2 black keys you can find the note C.

How to find the C on piano keyboard

To find the names of the other white keys, just go up alphabetically to G as in the next figure.C to G piano keyboard

Now, we have to name 2 more white keys. Notice that we’ve used the letters C to G in alphabetical order, but we haven’t used the 2 first letters of the alphabet yet. So, let’s use them for the 2 missing keys, as follows:

Note names white keys piano

The note names of the black keys

Do you remember that we had to look at the black keys first to find the names of the white keys? Well, let’s reverse the roles now: to find the names of the black keys, we have to look at the white key names first, since the names of the black keys are derived from the white key names.

As you can see, a black key is always situated between 2 white keys. The black key indicated by the arrow in the figure below is for example between the C and the D. As this note is higher than the C, but lower than the D (the pitch of the notes gets higher when you go from left to right), we call this note C sharp, or D flat.C sharp D flat So, sharp means: the note just at the right, and flat means: the note just at the left. We write C sharp as C# and D flat as Db.

So the black keys actually have 2 names, the name of the white key at the left with a sharp (#) sign, or the name of the white key at the right with a flat (b) sign.

In the next figure, you can see all the names of the notes on a piano keyboard.

Note names on piano keyboard

As you can see, this is a pattern of 12 different notes (represented on the piano by 7 white keys and 5 black keys) that repeats itself.

Double sharps and double flats

Btw, notice that on the right side of the B and on the right side of the E, there is no black key. So you could call the C also B#, and the F an E#. Or, in the same way, you could call the B a Cb and the E an Fb. In music theory, this is sometimes needed (the 7th note in the F# major scale is an E#, not an F, even if it is exactly the same note). It is even possible to have double flats (bb) or double sharps (##). For example, a C## is raised 2 times, so this is equivalent to a D. A shorter writing for double sharp looks a bit like an x (see figure below), so Cx would be the same note as C## or just simply D.

Double sharp

Enharmonic equivalent

Two notes that are written differently, but that are actually one and the same note, are called enharmonic equivalent notes.

C# and Db are for example enharmonic equivalent notes: they are written differently, but are the same note.

Other examples:

  • A# and Bb
  • E# and F
  • F## (or Fx) and G
  • Bbb and A
  • etcetera

 

After this lesson, you should be able to recognize the keys of the piano and know the names of the corresponding notes. In the beginning, you will probably not remember every note and every key on the piano, so just practice 5 minutes a day and you will see: in no time you will master it.

The exercises that are accesible via the links below will certainly help you to practice the notes.

Which note is played on the piano?

Place the note on the right key of the piano

 

Did you already know the note names and/or the corresponding keys on the piano? Did this lesson help you to learn the notes and keys on the piano? If so, please leave a comment below.

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