In a Relationship: Key Signatures and Major Scales

There is a definite relationship between key signatures and major scales. We will explore that today. You will learn how that relationship works!

First, a review of Key Signatures:

Key signatures tell us what scale a piece of music is based on.

Key signatures tell us what notes are always sharp or flat in a given piece of music.

Always read the sharps or flats in a key signature from left to right. And they will always be written in the same order.

C# Major Key Signature
C# Major Key Signature
C Flat Major Key Signature
C Flat Major Key Signature

 

 

 

Key signatures always have the sharps and flats listed in the same order. They always follow the same pattern.

Flats: B♭-E♭-A♭-D♭-G♭-C♭-F♭

Sharps: F♯-C♯-G♯-D♯-A♯-E♯-B♯

Notice how one listing is the exact opposite of the other! Now, compare the listings here to the key signatures shown above. Notice how they read left-to-right.

You can find the name of the major scale from its key signature. Here are a couple ways to do that:

Just memorize them

Key Signature with sharps – Find the name of the last sharp, go up a half step, that is the name of the major scale, or the key the piece is in.

 

D Major Key Signature
D Major Key Signature 

E Major Key SignatureE Major Key Signature

 

In the D Major key signature you can see there are two sharps. The last one (reading left to right) is the C#. If you go up a half step from C# you are on a D – and that is the name of the key.

In the 2nd example, E Major, the last sharp is D#. Up a half step from D# is E. The name of the key is E Major.

Key Signature with flats – The second-to-last flat in the key signature names the key.

A Flat Major Key Signature
A Flat Major Key Signature

B Flat Major Key Signature

B Flat Major Key Signature

 

Look at the example on the left, the key signature with 2 flats. Look for the 2nd-to-last flat. It is a B flat, so our key name is B Flat Major.

In the other example, the one with four flats, again, look for the second-to-last flat. In this case it is an A flat. So the key name is A Flat Major.

Next, a review of Major Scales:

All major scales follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps. Remember what it is?

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale
Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale

It doesn’t matter what note you start on, the pattern must be the same to make a major scale.

Use accidentals (♯,♭) to adjust the notes to fit the pattern.

Remember, each note in a major scale must have a different letter name.

You cannot have F, then F♯ in the same scale. But you may have F – G♭. Even though on a keyboard F♯ and G♭ are played as the same note, you must have different letter names in a scale.

Now – The Relationship between Major Scales and Key Signatures

The accidentals you use to make a major scale fit the right pattern become the key signature for that scale. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Example of G Major Scale on keyboard, its key signature, and written on staff
Example of G Major Scale on keyboard, its key signature, and written on staff

 

 

 

 

 

B Major Example on keyboard, key signature, and scale on staff
B Major Example on keyboard, key signature, and scale on staff

 

 

 

 

 

Now, if you are looking at a key signature, you can use the information I showed you earlier to find the name of the key. The name of the key is the starting note for your major scale. The sharps or flats in the key signature get applied to the notes in your scale to make it fit the pattern for a major scale.

Did you miss our explanations of key signatures and major scales? Check them out here: Major Scales  Key Signatures and more

Do you see now how the key signatures and scales are related? Any questions? Let me know in the comments!

A look at the relationship between key signatures and major scales.
A look at the relationship between key signatures and major scales.

What’s the Big Deal about Major Scales?

Major Scales – Know your Half Steps and Whole Steps

Before we can talk about  major scales, be sure you remember half steps and whole steps. Half steps go from one note to the very next note. Whole steps are made of two half steps.  Read what we learned about whole steps and half steps here.

Illustrations of whole steps and half steps.
Blue arrows show half steps. Purple arrows show whole steps.

Definition of a Major Scale

A major scale is a successive series of 8 notes in ascending or descending order, that follows a specific pattern of whole steps and half steps. The first note and the last note of the basic form of a scale are always an octave apart. They have the same letter name.

Pattern of a Major Scale

A major scale always follows the same pattern of whole steps and half steps.

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

The scale that most easily demonstrates this pattern is the C Major scale. Following the pattern, a C major scale consists of these notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Now, look at this on a keyboard. Look at how the whole steps and half steps are placed. Also, notice that the first note and the last note of the scale are the same, just an octave apart.

Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale
Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale

We can use this pattern to write a major scale starting on any note. Just remember, the half steps always come between the 3rd and 4th steps, and the 7th and 8th steps of the scale. Here are examples of some other scales. Look for the half steps and whole steps.

Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked
Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked

Importance of Scales in Music

Establish Tonality

Scales are important because they establish the tonality of a piece of music. The scale a piece is based on helps to set the mood of the music. It determines what chords will work best in a piece of music.

Establish Key Signature

When we talked about sharps and flats a couple weeks ago, we also talked about key signatures. A key signature is based on a scale. When we write a major scale starting on any noted except C we must use accidentals (sharps or flats) to make the notes fit the pattern of whole steps and half steps. Those accidentals determine the key signature for that scale.

Provide Structure

All music has structure. Scales provide that structure. They are the building blocks of music. Almost every step-by-step group of notes in your music comes from the scale the music is based on. The chords in the music are based on the scale.

What’s the Point of Learning all these Scales?

Improve Your Understanding of the Music You Play

The more you understand your music and how it is written, the better you will be able to learn and play your music. When you look at the key signature, you should know what scale your music is based on. You will know what notes to expect to see in your music. And when you see something different, it should stand out to you. If you have learned to play scales, and can identify scale passages in your music, you should know exactly what to play.

Improve Technical Ability

Learning to read, identify, and play scales will make you a better player, no matter what instrument you play! Your teacher does have a good reason to make you learn and practice scales. Practice them in one octave, two octaves, three octaves. Practice scales at different speeds. Use different rhythm patterns to practice scales. Learn your scales!!!  (Links to copies of scales?)

Improve Your Sight Reading Abilities

You will definitely improve your sight reading abilities if you can recognize major scales in your music. Any time you sight read a piece, always look at the key signature first! That key signature should automatically connect with a scale in your brain. And that gives you lots of clues to help you play the music better.

Obviously, all this takes time. But, take the time to thoroughly learn your scales! Be able to identify them, play them, and connect them with key signatures. I guarantee you will be a better musician as a result.

From Here to There: Life of an Interval

Intervals up the StairsIntervals? What’s an interval? Good question. Have you ever played on the stairs? My kids did – even when they weren’t supposed to. You know, how many stairs can you skip on the way down? How stairs can you jump on the way down? How many stairs can you skip on the way up? Think about that for a minute. That’s going to help you learn about intervals.

 

 

What is an interval?

An interval is a way of measuring the distance in pitch from one note to another. Intervals help us figure out if we must hop to a note, skip to a note, or jump to the next note. Kind of like playing on the stairs. Do you just step up to the next stair, skip a stair, or jump down the last 4 stairs.

Why should I learn intervals? What’s in it for me?

Learning to read music by intervals will help you be better at sight reading. (Reading music without practicing it lots of times first.) Reading intervals also helps you transpose music in your head better and faster. If you are a non-piano player, learning about intervals and how they sound will help you hear if you are playing the right note. (Or, if you are playing in tune!)

From Here to There: Life of Interval

Recognizing Intervals

Because we are talking about distance, intervals are named with numbers. The numbers represent how many notes (or steps) are included in the interval. Bottom note + top note + notes in between = interval. We write intervals with the notes one after the other or with the notes “stacked” on top of each other. Like part of a chord. Intervals can go up from a note, or down from a note.

Interval of a 2nd

2nds are notes that are one step apart. You might say they are next-door-neighbor notes. Or like going from one step on the stairs to the next one. When we write them on the lines and spaces of a staff one note will be on a line, and the other note will be on a space, either higher or lower than the first note. Here are examples of how 2nds look when they are written on a staff, and when they are played on a keyboard.

 

Interval 2nds staff

Interval 2nds Keyboard

 

Interval of a 3rd

3rds are a little further apart than 2nds. 3rds skip over a note. Like standing on the bottom step, skipping over the next one, and going to the 3rd step. When we write 3rds on a staff either both notes are on lines, or both notes are on spaces. We go from line to the very next line, or from space to the very next space. On a keyboard, one note sits in between the top and bottom notes of a 3rd.

Interval 3rds

Interval 3rds Keyboard

 

 

Interval of a 4th

Guess what! 4ths are just a bit further apart than 3rds. Like going up stairs and trying to skip over two steps.  Or jumping down the stairs over the last two steps. If one note of a 4th is on a line, the other note is on a space. If you look at a 4th on a keyboard you will see that two empty notes are between the bottom not and the top note.

Interval 4th

Interval 4ths Keyboard

 

 

Interval of a 5th

By the time we look at a 5th we are jumping from one note to the next. I do not recommend trying 5ths on the stairs! 5ths are intervals whose notes are either both line notes or both space notes. Either the notes go from line to line with an empty line in between or from space to space with an empty space in between. Take all the fingers of one hand and place them on consecutive notes on a keyboard. Then play the note under your thumb, and the note under your little finger, and you have played a 5th. Now, if you play the 3rd finger, you just played a 3rd from the bottom of the 5th, and a 3rd from the top of the 5th.  Very convenient to play – 5ths fit right under your fingers.

Interval 5ths KeyboardInterval 5ths

 

 

Interval of a 6th

On to a bigger jump! Definitely do NOT do this on your stairs!! 6ths are more line-space intervals. If one note is on a line, the other note must be on a space – with two empty lines and two empty spaces between the top and bottom notes. Remember how you put your hands on the keyboard for a 5th? Do the same thing, except make your last finger stretch out to one extra note. You just played a 6th.   Interval 6ths Keyboard

Interval 6ths

 

 

Interval of a 7th

7ths are really big jumps! A 7th is another interval that goes from line note to line note, or space note to space note. Line to line with 2 empty line between or space to space with 2 empty spaces between.

Intervals 7ths KeyboardIntervals 7ths

 

 

Octaves

Octaves are intervals of an 8th. They get their own special name. Octaves are special, because both the top note and the bottom note have the same letter names. From A to A makes an octave. Or from F to F. Or from D# to D#. We write one note on a line and the other on a space. The two notes sound the same – one is just higher than the other one.  Intervals Octave Keyboard

Intervals Octave

 

 

 

Interval Table

 

 

 

 

So, learn your intervals! And make your musical life easier!