How to Understand Key Signatures for Beginning Pianists

We hear a lot of different terms when we first start playing the piano that can include things like:

  • This piece is in the key of D Major
  • We have 3 flats in this piece
  • Every major key has a relative minor

On top of that, we have to learn what key signatures look like in our piano music and how to visually read them so we know how to play the piece correctly.

It is important to understand and know key signatures in music and whether we're in a major or minor key because if we don't, we will play the wrong notes and it isn't going to sound very good.

This lesson is going to show you what key signatures look like in piano music and how to determine what the key signature is in any piece of music you want to play.

Step 1: What Is a Key?

We need to understand what a Key is before we can understand what key signatures are.

A Key tells us:

  • what the tonal center is - meaning whatever letter the key is (for example C), then that same note on the keyboard is our tonal center...in this case, it would be the note C. This is true whether it is a major or minor key.
  • how many sharps or flats we must play on the keyboard while playing in that specific key.

Each Key has its own signature that makes it unique. Next, let's find out what a Key Signature is and how they help us know what notes to play in our music.

Step 2: What Is a Key Signature?

Just like you have your own unique signature that you use every day, each Key in music has its own unique signature as well. No two are just alike.

Key Signatures will always be written at the beginning of each line in your music right before the time signature. It will also be noted in each clef.

A Key Signature tells us what notes to play in a given Key. It tells us also which notes are played as sharps, flats, or naturals.

Image 2 shows us a Key Signature that has 4 sharps in it. The way we can tell what note the sharp sign is on is by looking right in the center of it, and that is our note. The image shows a small note drawn in the middle of each one to show you how to see these.

In this example, our 4 sharps are F#, C#, G#, & D#. This tells us that every time we play one of these 4 notes, we will play them sharp.

The one thing that a Key Signature doesn't tell us is what key we are in. Let's look now at how we can figure out what key we are in even when we can't tell by the Key Signature.

Step 3: What Key Are We In?

Remember that we only learn what notes to play in a piece when we look at the Key Signature.

Our example in image 1 shows us 4 sharps and that happens to be the key of E Major if we're playing in that specific Key. But notice how there isn't an E sharp listed in the Key Signature?

In order to find out what key we are in we just have to learn a simple formula! There is 1 for sharps and 1 for flats.

  • For sharps: simply go to the last sharp listed in the key signature and then count up a 1/2 step. The note that you land on is the Key that you are in.
  • For flats: simply go to the next to the last flat listed in the key signature, and that note is the name of the Key.

All sharps and flats are listed in a specific order and when you learn that order, it will be a lot easier to recognize what sharps or flats are in a given key signature.

The order of sharps is: (image 4)

  • F, C, G, D, A, E, & B.

The order of flats is: (image 5)

  • B, E, A, D, G, C, & F.

The final step in understanding the basics about Key Signatures is seeing and playing examples of what we've gone through so far, at the piano and go through all of this together. Are you ready to practice with me?

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

The video portion of this lesson will really help to reinforce what we've gone through so far.

It will make more sense after watching the video and actually working through lots of examples that I will show you, and by seeing the different sharps and flats in actual piano music will help you recognize them on your own, in your music.

Once you get the basics of key signatures you'll be ready to move on to more advanced music and you'll start to understand how chords and chord variations work as well as being able to sail through several different key signatures in one piece without missing a beat!

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