Music Fundamentals – Lesson 7

Key Signatures

Before explaining key signatures, I suppose we’ll have to discuss what a key actually is. Key signatures sprang up in what Musicologists call the “Common Practice” period of music. This era of musical development spanned from the Baroque period to the end of the Romantic period (roughly, though the dates are negotiable, from 1650-1900). Key signatures came into use to fill the need for greater organization in music. As music grew to become more complicated, equal temperament was developed, and theorists firmed up the rules of harmony, there arose the need for a organizational system to help players read the music in front of them.  Prior to the advent of the key signature, during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was a great amount of polyphony, with no regard for key.

Each of the 12 notes has a major and minor key associated with it (two concepts we will get to later). Key signatures serve to let the person reading the music which key the music is in and which notes will always be either flatted of sharped.

Eb Major

This is the key signature for Eb major/ C minor. The three flats in front of the clef tell us so. To tell the root key of a flat key signature, look one flat back from the last flat- in this case, Eb. When reading music, it is important to look at the key signature first. the key signature lays out for you the notes which will always be flatted or sharped (unless marked with a natural ♮sign). In this way, key signatures present a short had way to write out music, so that composers will not have to constantly fiddle with writing sharps and flats, and so that performers will not have to read copious sharps and flats.

A Major

This is a sharp key signature. Specifically, it is the kay signature for A Major. To tell the root key of a sharp key, look at the last sharp and go up one half step. In this case, the sharp is G#, up one half step is A.

There is, however, a more technical way to learn your key signatures- the Circle of 4ths and the Circle of 5ths.

There is a simple pattern to each block of flat and sharp key signatures:
Circle of Fifths

Let’s break this chart down piece by piece.

 You’ll notice, if you move from C to the left, the intervals are increasing by perfect 4ths. This move to the left represents the flat key signatures. You’ll also notice that the order of flats also moves in perfect 4ths, starting with Bb.

Moving to the right denotes the order of sharp keys. The order of sharps in the key signatures move by perfect 5ths, starting with F#.  

The numbers in the gray circle represent how many sharps or flats each key signature includes.

The inner green circle represents the corresponding minor keys to the major keys. Minor keys are always one minor third down from the corresponding major key, and, as is shown in the chart, share the same key signature.

I know this is quite a bit of material to wrap your head around, but luckily, music is cumulative, and this concept will keep coming up, over and over again.

Worksheet 7

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5 Responses to Music Fundamentals – Lesson 7

  1. Norm Vork says:

    Question: I am a beginner using Sony ACID. I have a remix project with vocals and stems in E minor. Is the project key best set for “E”, or should I set it as the relative major “D”? I want to use loops known to be in A minor. Do I set their root note as “A” or reltive major “C”?

  2. Rick Louie says:

    Well, first of all, the relative major of E minor is G Major (see circle of 5ths chart above!) If you want to use loops in A Minor over a remix with stems in E Minor, you’ll have to transpose them down a fourth or up a fifth (if you dont happen know your intervals yet, go to the previous lesson!), or else you’ll have a hell of a time getting them to fit. Though, you can always try to use them and see how they sound- you might get something interesting; keys a fourth or fifth away from one another are closely related, only one accidental apart. But, as I noted previously, your best bet is to transpose them to fit the key of E minor. I’m not sure how Sony ACID works (I’m a logic user and have never used it), but most DAWs and sample manipulators have some sort of process which will allow you to transpose without affecting the tempo of the samples.

  3. But wouldn’t it be easier and same time to just write, for example, C#M instead of 7 # signs? …and save everyone who isn’t a music scholar the frustration? or write # 7 (squared). Ahh, what do I know? I love these lessons though. Really cool! Thnx Rick!

  4. Rick Louie says:

    Ha, yeah, I guess C# Major is an extreme example, and you don’t see it too often anyway. I think when dealing with C# Major my brain reverts in part to Db Major just to reduce my accidental headache.

  5. Norm Vork says:

    Thanks Rick for responding. ACID lets you enter a “root note” for each of your loops, then transposes them for you to match the “project key”. I expect I should enter the root note of an A minor key as “A”, rather than its relative major. If I use a minor key loop in a major keyed project, probably I should set the loop’s root note according to the relative major. Sadly, I find no info online about this and its not covered in a book I have about using ACID.

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