Introduction: What Is a Key Signature?

If you think that the number sign and the small letter "b" in the title are in a strange place and make no sense, then you're right unless you know about Key Signatures!

The number sign is actually a Sharp sign, and the small letter "b", is actually a Flat sign.

Flats and Sharps are what we find in the Key Signature of each piece of music we ever play; whether it is an exercise or a short piece, or a longer concerto or sonata.

So what exactly is a Key Signature and what does one tell us in our music?

First, let's talk about what a Key is, in music that is...not in your door.

Key is the name given to any set of notes that connect through a common tonal format that is unique for each separate group of common notes.

For example, when we say we're going to play in the Key of C, we play notes that are contained in the C scale, and only those notes unless indicated otherwise in our music.

The notes that we play in the Key of C or in a C Major scale are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. All of these notes are natural...because the Key of C has no sharps and no flats in it.

Now, if we were to play a scale in the Key of G, the notes are different because we're in a different Key, with a different Key Signature. G Major has 1 sharp in it, and that sharp is F#. (in comparison to C Major, which has no sharps or flats in it)

The notes that we play in the Key of G or in a G Major Scale are: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G.

Whatever music you are playing on your piano, you will need to play them in the right Key Signature so the music will sound correct.

Every Key has a scale that comes with it...sort of like a package deal. These scales are how we learn the different notes and patterns for each Key. They are wonderful teachers.

Let's see what the big deal about scales is!

Step 1: Scales

As we said, each Key has its own scale that comes with it.

It's one thing to "know" that the Key of C has no sharps or flats in it intellectually, and it's another thing altogether to learn those notes by playing them, and that's what scales allow us to do.

A scale is a set number of notes played in a specific pattern that correlates with the Key being played in. In other words, they are all of the notes in one particular key.

One of the easiest scales we ever learn is the C Major Scale. Again, we already know that C major has no sharps or flats in it so we know that all of the notes will be natural.

The notes in the C Major Scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. That's it!

Notice how you start on C and end on C? That is true with all of your Major and Minor Scales.

Sometimes we run into Accidentals in our piano music. Not Accidents, but Accidentals. While they can trip us up a little bit, they're nothing to worry about once we know how to play them. Let's find out.

Step 2: Accidentals

Sometimes in our music, we'll see an added sharp or flat right before a note, on the left-hand side, that isn't in the regular Key Signature.

These aren't there by accident but are there to show you that the composer is taking the notes in that specific measure outside of the normal key signature and changing it up a bit. When you see this, remember that all of the same notes in that measure will be played with the same accidental applied to them as well.

For example, if you are playing a piece in the Key of C, and in one measure you find a # right next to an F, then you will play that F sharp as well as all other Fs in that measure. It will only be marked one time by the first F in the measure, so you have to remember to continue that sharp throughout on your own.

Now let's find out what Key Signatures look like in your piano music.

Step 3: Key Signatures in Pieces

The key signature will be one of the first things you find in your sheet music. It will always be at the beginning of the first line of your music on the left-hand side. (see image 1) In this case, we find 2 sharps so we know that we're playing in the key of D.

Sometimes, a different key signature will appear somewhere else in your music other than in the beginning. This is just a way of adding in a contrasting section to your piece, which was and still is common practice for composers. Make sure you are keeping watch for changes in the key and/or accidentals popping up throughout your music.

It could be that one of the reasons the key signature appears at the beginning of our music is to reinforce the importance if seeing it so we know what notes to play sharp, flat, or natural. If we play notes that aren't in the Key that we're supposed to be in, the music won't sound right at all.

Image #2 shows the different sharps and flats for each Major Key we have.

Notice how the key of C is an "all or nothing" kind of Key! C natural has everything natural, C# has everything sharp, and Cb has everything flat.

If you're ready to go over this with me to help reinforce this lesson, head to the final step and we'll work on this together!

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

Watch me in the first image write in a couple of key signatures and show you what an Accidental looks like in your music.

In the next video, I go over Major and Minor Keys and play some of those scales on the piano to show you what they sound like.

Enjoy using these tutorials to help you understand what the different Key Signatures and how to recognize them in your music.

The faster you learn your different key signatures, the faster you will be able to play a wider variety of music on your piano which will just open up a whole new level of experiences and fun!