14.Major Keys

The Definition of a ‘Key’ 

The pitches that composers and musicians use are determined by the key they are writing in. A key is a specific group of pitches used to write a piece of music (or part of a piece of music. 

Composers and songwriters use the 7 distinct pitches of scales to write their music. For example, if a song is made up from the pitches of the C major scale, we say that the song is written in the ‘key’ of C major; if the song is made up of from the pitches of G major scale, we can say that the song is written in the ‘key’ of G major. 

Key Signature 

The key a piece is written in is indicated through a key signature. A key signature is the sharps or flats placed on the staff at the beginning of each line of music. Here is an example: 

A performer who sees this key signature above, ‘F sharp’ will know that the song is written in the key of G major. There are two ways the performer will know this. The first way of knowing is through knowledge of scales; if they have learned their scales well, they will know that G major scale consists of G, A, B, C, D, E, and F sharp. The second way is by memorizing the circle of fifth.  

All key signatures are written with the sharps and flats in a particular order. Sharps in a key signature are always placed in the following order on the staff. We call this, the order of sharps.

Flats in a key signature are always placed in the following order on the staff. We call this, the order of flats.

There are two useful mnemonic devices that will help to remember the order of sharps and flats. The order of sharps can be remembered with the following mnemonic device. 

Father Christmas Gave Dad AElectric Blanket’ 

The order of flats can be remembered with the following mnemonic device. 

Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet’ 

Note: the order of flats is the reverse of the order of sharps. 

Major Keys with Sharps and Flats 

The circle of fifth is a very useful tool that has many applications. Understanding and memorizing it will help you to know all of different keys that songs may be written in. The keys that contain sharps are found on the right side of the circle of fifth. And the keys that contain flats are found on the left side of the circle of fifth.


Here are a few important things to note about the preceding diagram. 

  1. Starting with the key of ‘C’ and moving in a clockwise direction, each key is a 5th apart. (‘G’ is a 5th higher than ‘C’, ‘D’ is a 5th higher than ‘G’, etc.) In regards to flats, starting with the key of ‘C’ and moving anti-clockwise direction, each key is a 5th apart. (‘F’ is a 5th lower than ‘C’, ‘B flat’ is a 5th lower than ‘F’, etc.) 
  1. Starting with the key of ‘C’ and moving clockwise direction, each key has an additional sharp (1 sharp more than the previous key on the circle). And starting with the key of ‘C’ and moving anti-clockwise direction, each key has an additional flat (1 flat more than the previous key on the circle). 
  1. Each additional sharp follows the ‘order of sharps. (‘F sharp’ is the first sharp added; ‘C sharp’ is the next sharp added; etc.) And each additional flat follows the ‘order of flats. (‘B flat’ is the first flat added; ‘E flat’ is the next flat added; etc.) 

Another very useful technique to identify key signature is by counting down the number of sharps or just look at the last sharp and discover the name of the key. Let’s say you are looking at a piece of music and the key signature has 3 sharps. You want to know what key this is. All you have to do is simply name the last sharp and then name the pitch one half step higher.

The last sharp in the key signature above is ‘G sharp’. One half step higher than ‘G sharp’, is ‘A’. Therefore, the name of the key is ‘A major’.  You can use this technique to find the name of any key signature that contains sharps.  

Here’s another example: 

The last sharp in the key signature above is ‘E sharp’. One half step higher than ‘E sharp’, is F. Therefore, the name of the key is ‘F major’.  

Now let’s look at flats. Let’s say you are looking at a piece of music and the key signature has 3 flats. You want to know what key this is. Unlike we did for sharps, we have to name the second last flat.

The second last flat in the key signature above is ‘E flat’. Therefore, the name of this key signature is ‘E flat major’.  

You can use this technique to find the name of any key signature that contains flats. Except for the key of F major. F major only has one flat, there is no “second last” flat. The key signature of F major must be memorized.  

En-harmonic Keys 

When two different keys have the same sound but are spelled differently, they are considered to be en-harmonic keys. For example, a song written in the key of ‘F sharp major’ will sound just like the exact same song written in the key of ‘G flat major’, but the music on the page will look different, since the key signatures are different.  

Because all major keys come from the pitches of the major scale, this means that there will also be six en-harmonic scales. En-harmonic scales are scales that sound the same but are spelled differently. Here is an example of the en-harmonic scales ‘F sharp major’ and ‘G flat major’.

(Chapter 14 – Audio Sample 1)

(Chapter 14 – Audio Sample 2)

Both of the scales above will sound exactly the same when played. As you can see, the difference is in how they are spelled. One is spelled using sharps and the other is spelled using flats. Composers will choose one over the other depending on the musical context or the instrument they are writing for. 

‘B major’ is the en-harmonic equivalent of ‘C flat major’

‘F sharp major’ is the enharmonic equivalent of ‘G flat major’. 

And lastly ‘C sharp major’ is the en-harmonic equivalent of ‘D flat major’.

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