Introduction: How to Read Key Signatures in Piano Music

Key Signatures in Piano Music are a map of sorts that tell us how to navigate through a piece using the correct roads and turns to get to our destination.

If we take a wrong turn or play a sharp when we're supposed to play a natural, we won't accomplish our goal and get to where we want to be.

The Key of a piece is the first thing that we need to learn before we start learning it so we'll learn the correct notes.

The Key of a piece tells us what the Key Signature is, and just like your own signature, every Key is unique and has its own unique set of notes in it.

Let's start by finding out what a Key is and how it helps us to learn a piece better.

Step 1: What Is a Key in Music?

In our piano music, we find that notes are grouped together in our music according to certain patterns.

Sometimes we play mostly white key notes and other times we'll mix both black and white key notes in together.

Well, why the difference...have you ever wondered about that?

The reason that notes are grouped together in a piano piece or exercise is so that they are all in the same Key.

The term Key in music simply refers to which notes are played as sharps, flats, or naturals.

Take, for example, C Major. There are no flats or sharps in C Major so all of the notes you play in the key will be natural. If you played an F# instead of an F would be playing in a different key (which would be G).

When you play a C Major Scale, you are playing in the Key of C. Make sense?

When you play a piece that has no sharps or flats in the Key Signature, you're in the Key of C.

Do you remember what a Key Signature is and where it is in your music? Let's review that quickly.

Step 2: What Is a Key Signature & Where Is It in Your Music?

The Key Signature tells us what Key we are playing in for our piece or exercise.

Remember that the Key is the way that the notes are grouped together so that you know what notes are sharp, natural, or flat.

The Key signature will always be found at the far left of each line of music in your piece.

See the image with the sharp circled? That tells us that we are playing in the Key of G, because the Key of G Major has one sharp, and that sharp is F.

Now, what if there were no sharps or flats written down at the beginning of your piece...what does that mean, do you remember?

Right..we're in the Key of C Major in that case, since all of the notes in the Key of C, are natural.

How do you get to know all of the notes that are in one key? For example, you are in the Key of C...well what exactly are the notes in the Key of C and how can you learn to play them.

Ready for some scales?

Step 3: How Do Scales Help Us Learn Keys and Key Signatures?

Scales are made up of all of the notes in a specific Key. It's that simple.

You probably already know a scale...C Major. <---we love C Major! :)

First of all, remember that there are no sharps or flats in the Key of C; so that means that all of the notes in the Key of C will be natural. (On the keyboard, this means you'll be playing all white keys).

Any scale that you will start on the note that is the name of the scale.

For C Major, start on Middle C with your right thumb, and the C an octave below that for your left pinky.

A scale is one octave: or... C to the next C. (Unless you are playing 2 or 3 or 4 octave scales).

For each hand, start on the C that your 1st/5th fingers are on and play up to the next C.

That's it...a C Major Scale.

If you want to play a G Major Scale, you first make sure you know the Key signature of G, which is F#...just one sharp. Then start on G, and play up to the next G...remembering to play F# instead of F natural like you did in C Major.

This is how you play every scale. Learn the Key signature of that scale (how many sharps or flats it has) and then play a scale in that key so you can learn those note patterns for that specific Key.

There are 11 Major Keys and twice that many Minor Keys! Don't worry though, once you learn the basics of how to read a Key Signature and learn how to play the scale of that Key, you'll be able to recognize what Key your next piano piece is in a lot easier and you'll know how to play all of the notes in that key so you'll learn your piece much faster!

Let's put all of this into practice now at our keyboards in the final step as you come and practice your key signatures with me: plus I'll explain what accidentals are and how you can recognize them in your music.

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

Quick Review:

  • a Key in music tells you how the notes are grouped together according to which notes are sharp, natural or flat; so that they conform to the specific Key you're playing in.
  • a Key Signature tells you in your piano music what Key you are in, so you know the exact notes to play for the piece to sound correct.
  • a Key Signature will be notated in the upper left corner of each line of your music; in both the right & left hands.
  • a Scale contains all of the notes in a specific Key and will start on the note of the name of the Key and go up to the next note with the same octave higher or however many octaves you are playing.
  • learning Scales helps us to know the Key Signature for every Key in Major and Minor Keys and helps us to identify what Key a piece is in and how to play the notes in that Key.

When you watch this video you'll get a chance to see Key Signatures for C Major and G Major and how I play those scales on the keyboard. I'll show you where you can find your Key Signature in your music too if you're having any questions about that.

There's one thing in the video that isn't included in this lesson that you really want to see that will expand your knowledge of Key Signatures and how they work in your music even more. Sometimes you will see notes that have a sharp, natural, or flat sign in front of them, even though these aren't indicated in your Key Signature. When you learn about these, you won't have any Accidents in your playing!

Ready to Practice With Me?