How To Read Key Signatures
Updated: Jan 21
What is a key signature? And why is it important??
A key signature is the series of sharps or flats found at the beginning of a piece of music. This combination of sharps or flats tells you in what key or scale the song is written.
For example, if the song has 2 sharps, it is in the key of D Major because the D Major scale has 2 sharps, F# and C#.
But how do you know that the 2 sharps are F# and C#? And how do you know that 2 sharps = the key of D Major? Do I just have to memorize all of this??
Not to worry! There is a specific order of sharps and flats that never changes. You can use this order to help you figure out what sharps or flats are given in a song.
There are also tricks to figuring out the name of the key, so keep reading to find out.
Let’s start with sharps since those are the most common in beginner violin repertoire.
The Order of Sharps is: F# C# G# D# A# E# B#
You can remember this order by coming up with an acronym. My favorite is “Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds”.
Now let’s say you have a piece of music that has 4 sharps in the key signature. Those 4 sharps would be F# C# G# D# because those are the first 4 sharps in The Order of Sharps.
If you have a piece that has only 1 sharp, it would be F#, and so on.
OK great, but how do you know what key or scale the song is in? Here is my simple trick for figuring that out.
Take the last sharp in the key signature and then go up a ½ step on the violin and you will find the name of the key.
In our example of the song with 4 sharps, the last sharp was D#. If you go up a ½ step from D#, you will be on the note E. That means that the piece is written in the key of E Major.
In our example of the song with 1 sharp, the sharp was F#. If you go a ½ step up from F#, you will be on the note G. That means that the piece is written in the key of G Major.
Flats work very similarly with a slight difference in how you find the name of the key.
The Order of Flats is backwards from The Order of Sharps and is B E A D G C F. You can come up with an acronym like Before Eating A Donut, Get Coffee First to help you remember.
Or, you can remember it by knowing that it spells the word Bead, and then the acronym for Greatest Common Factor.
So, just like with The Order of Sharps, if you have a song with 2 flats, they will be B flat and E flat.
4 flats would be B flat, E flat, A flat, and D flat.
To find the name of the key, go to the second to last flat and that will be the name of the key.
In our example of the song with 2 flats, the second to last flat is B flat, so the song is written in B flat Major.
In our example of a song with 4 flats, the second to last flat is A flat, so the song is written in A flat Major.
The exception to the rule is F Major which has only 1 flat, B flat. You will just need to memorize this key.
If you want to learn more about reading music and playing the violin, check out my courses page here: https://www.rachaelridge.com/adult-violin-academy