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I wanted to write a simple introduction to keys and key signatures as a way of helping my children as they started learning the theory side of playing music.  Let’s face it, once you’ve decided to move beyond playing the standard introduction1 to an instrument and actually learn it you don’t get far before at least encountering a key signature.

This article is about the western musical system which splits each octave into 12 notes (or semi-tones), the best representation of which is the piano keyboard.  There are other systems from a range of cultures, they’re not covered here.

The goal was to make this introduction understandable by children – no fancy words, convoluted terminology, fluff or esoteric nonsense that you can find in any of a hundred books – just plain everyday language.

I’ve seen numerous examples of the Circle of Fifths and, whilst it may work for some people, it never worked for me.  Sure it made sense technically but – and here’s the funny thing ’cause for me in every other area of learning it had to make sense technically first – in music it never helped me understand.  Keys, their signatures, and applying them in anything other than a very clinical way were always consigned to some kind of mysterious gift you either had or didn’t.  Constructing the keys signatures from the ground up helped me understand.

To construct the keys & their signatures it helps if you understand a bit about sounds, octaves & semi-tones although this is not essential.  Some basic terminology helps so you understand what I mean by certain words.  Keys can be classified or grouped according to some of their properties, for instance major vs minor:

For every key, each octave has 7 steps (or gaps) between the notes. Each octave is split evenly into 12 semi-tones. This means that the steps are not all the same (12 ÷ 7 is not a whole number), some steps are 1 semi-tone, some are 2 semi-tones. The pattern of steps is what defines a major or minor key.

Major keys have the step pattern: 2 2 1 2 2 2 1

Minor keys have the step pattern: 2 1 2 2 1 2 2

This is explained more in key classifications.

Continue To:

  1. Key Classification
  2. Constructing the Keys & Key Signatures
  3. Musical Sounds: Octaves & Semi-Tones
  4. Basic Terminology


1. For piano this is Chopsticks 2; for recorder it’s Mary had a Little Lamb; and for guitar it’s Smoke on the Water 3.

2. Just the one, best known part.  There are actually 3 parts that can be played as a round usually with 3 or more people on the keyboard playing whichever one they feel like at the time.  There’s also a song, but that’s another story …

3. Anyone who has ever been within arm’s length of a guitar can automatically play the single string version of the Smoke On The Water riff.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they’ve ever heard the song.  No-one knows how this happens, it just does.

Posted by Tessa on Monday, June 15th, 2009

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