There are fifteen keys used in Western tonal music. With the exception of C major and its counterpart A minor, each key is identified by a series of flats or sharps. Flats and sharps are written on the staff in a specific order; they are never combined. In a key signature, the set of sharps or flats is written after the clef but before the time signature. All notes written in the body of a piece of music defer to the key signature. For example, if the key signature indicates the presence of an F-sharp all Fs found in the composition will be sharp. If a songwriter does want the performer to play an F-natural, he or she will write a natural sign ♮ next to the note.
To the deft ear, each key bears a specific musical “color” or “personality.” As a result, composers and songwriters alike sometimes have favorite keys. Key signatures have practical value, too. They are used to avoid writing lots of sharps or flats in the body of the music. Too many accidentals make a piece of music look overly complicated.
Additionally, key signatures identify a piece of music's home base, as it were. Most songs contain resolution or musical periods. A song's conclusion usually matches the key. For example, if you're in the key of C major, the song will probably end on a C major chord. Further, key signatures define the primary scale or mode of a song. In turn, this mode defines the specific chord names (not types) used. As music gets more and more complex, there are exceptions to these rules.
Each key signature denotes two keys: a major key and a relative minor key. The relative minor key uses the same set of pitches as its major counterpart. The minor key is defined by three scales that begin and end a minor third below (or a major sixth above) the relative major. The relative minor key also uses its own set of cadences (see Chapter 6).
FIGURE 4-1 shows you all the sharp keys. To identify sharp keys, look at the last sharp and then raise the pitch one half step. For example, the key of A major has three sharps (F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp). One half step above G-sharp is A.
FIGURE 4-1: Major and Minor Sharp Keys
FIGURE 4-2 shows you all the flat keys. To identify flat keys, look at the penultimate or second-to-last flat. That flat indicates the key. For example, the key of A-flat major has four flats (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat). The second-to-last flat is A-flat. Therefore, the key is A-flat. You will need to memorize the major and minor key signatures with one flat. They are F major and D minor, respectively.
FIGURE 4-2: Major and Minor Flat Keys
There are a number of mnemonic devices used by students to remember the order of the sharps and flats on the staff. One memory tool for remembering sharps is Fat Cows Get Dizzy After Eating Barley (F, C, G, D, A, E, B). A memory device for remembering the order of flats is BEAD Go Call Fred (B, E, A, D, G, C, F).
C major and A minor use all naturals (no sharps or flats) in their key signatures. Therefore, these key signatures have not been included in FIGURES 4-1 and