This is the first in a series of posts called How to Memorize the 15 Key Signatures.
Since different people absorb information in different ways, I have included a 2-minute video explanation with the same information at the end of this post.
You Gotta Memorize Your Key Signatures
At some point in the training of any musician, it becomes important to just flat out memorize the key signatures. You can have a chart handy, but, oh well, you didn’t wear the pair of pants that day that has it in the pocket. Or you didn’t bring along your notebook, and someone hands you a piece of sheet music and wants to discuss it with you. And even if you have those things handy, it gets cumbersome having to look it up all the time.
I Tried All the Tricks & Shortcuts
As a singer, music school was not easy for me. While I tinkered at the piano and played a little guitar, all the piano players were way ahead of me when it came to the language of music. But there was no mercy for the singers. We had to learn it all just like everyone else.
What I found was that there are no shortcuts that serve you until you understand why they are shortcuts. You can’t remember which one is which. Is it Every Good Boy Does Fine? Or is it Good Boys Do Fine Always? Omg!
Learn Your Music Alphabet
The first step is be able to spell your music alphabet up and down without hesitation.
Going up is easy:
A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G on and on into infinity.
Going down is trickier, but you really have to get it:
G F E D C B A G F E D C B A G F E D C B A
And you should also be able to spell it backwards starting on any letter:
D C B A G F E
B A G F E D C
(If you are already a musician and can’t understand why this is hard for anyone, try respelling the music alphabet “Q R S T U V W” and then try saying it backwards. It will help you stop being judgmental.)
Use Your Hand to Spell the Fifths Up
I found that the most reliable way to get this right is to use your hand to count up and down using the alphabet.
Perhaps it’s hard to tell from my drawings, but I’m holding up my right hand with the back of it facing me as if I were going to play these notes on the piano. (It still works even if you don’t know your notes on the piano.)
We’re gonna start on C and the spell the fifths up from C until we get to C again. So C to C, and you should end up using every letter in the music alphabet only once.
To find a fifth up from C, hold your hand up and call your thumb C. Now count up on your fingers in the music alphabet until you get to your pinky. You should arrive at G.
A fifth up from C is G.
Now, we’re going to find a fifth up from G. Start the process over by calling your thumb G and count up in the music alphabet using your fingers until you arrive at your pinky. You should be at D.
A fifth up from G is D.
Now we have:
C – G – D.
Keeping going in this manner until you can say all the letters in the music alphabet in order of fifths from C to C. Then write them down so you can compare your fifths with these:
C – G – D – A – E – B – F – C
(Some of you musicians out there are probably freaking out right now because you are wanting me to spell perfect fifths, and the last two letters should really be F# and C#. We will get to that in a future post. Right now, we’re just trying to get the letters. Besides, B to F is a diminished fifth.)
Use Your Hand to Spell the Fifths Down
NOW it’s going to get tricky because you’re gonna have to spell the music alphabet BACKWARDS, but be brave.
This time, we’re going to start on the pinky finger and count on our fingers to the left going BACKWARDS, again, spelling fifths down from C to C.
A fifth down from C is F.
To find the fifth down from F, start over calling your pinky F and count backwards until you get to your thumb.
A fifth down from F is B.
Continue in this manner until you arrive again at C. You should have used all seven letters only once (except for C). Write them all down and see if they match this list:
C F B E A D G C
Why Can’t We Just Do It Once & Use It For Both?
Some of you smarty pants out there have figured out that the list is the same only backwards and want to know why you can’t just use the forwards list. It’s the same reason why you should just memorize your key signatures. You’re gonna be on the spot somewhere needing to remember which key uses two flats in the key signature, and you’re not gonna have either on you at the moment.
If I asked you, “What’s a fifth down from E?” you need to be able to answer lickety split without having to find the pair of pants that has the list of fifths in the pocket.
Believe me, there will be many tests. Lol!