Learn to Read Music: Repeats, 8va's, and Key Signatures

Wrapping your brain around these nuts and bolts of notation will make reading music infinitely easier.
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Last time around we saw a bunch of notation to read through, and we applied a bit of advice from the readeriffic (yes, that is a word) Carl Verheyen. That advice was, in a nutshell, don’t stop. Read with a metronome, and no matter how slow you set it, keep going. Even if you make a mistake. Especially if you make a mistake. Fix it the next time around. Or the next. This might be the most important bit of reading advice you ever get, provided you know the nuts and bolts of notation. So, let’s get a few more of those nuts and bolts into our brains.

Look at Ex. 1. It has some eighth-notes, an eighth-rest, and a series of sixteenth-notes, in a key that has two flats in the key signature (Bb and Eb, right?). It’s followed by a weird, percentage looking thing. That symbol means repeat the previous bar. It saves a lot of work when it comes to notation. We like stuff that saves work, because music notation is not easy. We’ve already seen stuff like 8va, as in Ex. 2, which means, “You’ll want to play this awesome phrase up an octave, but we have considerately notated it down an octave, because it’s way easier to read without those annoying ledger lines.”

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Repeats, 8va’s, and other things make reading and writing music easier. Another thing that makes music reading easier is key signatures. We’ve dipped a toe into these waters in prior columns, but this is the be-all/end-all lesson on memorizing and understanding key signatures. If you commit what I’m about to tell you to memory, you will be able to decipher any key signature you see on a page, and you will know the notes in every major scale (and, by extension, all the modes of that scale) in the Western universe. Are you ready?

Key signatures with sharps follow the cycle of fifths. This is a fascinating and musical exploration in its own right, but for right now, just accept that. That cycle goes like this: F, C, G, D, A, E, B. (In a key signature, every one of those notes is sharped.) A mnemonic device for remembering that sacred order is, “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.” (Props to Father Charles for being on the side of pacifism, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Say that again: “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.” That, my friends is the cycle of fifths. When you see a key signature with sharps in it, it will always go in that order. As we’ve said, to know what key you’re in, go up a half-step from your last sharp. Three sharps? Father Charles Goes… up a half-step from G#—key of A! Get it? It’s magic!

Now for the flats. The flats in a key signature follow the cycle of fourths. That gives you the exact opposite of the cycle of fifths. Say it with me: “Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father.” Say it again. Isn’t that cool? The rule for flat key signatures is this: Look at your second to the last flat—that is your key. If there’s only one flat (Bb, as in “Battle”), that is the key of F, which you’ll have to take on faith (unless you realize that “Father” comes before “Battle” once you repeat the cycle). Two flats, like in Ex. 1, adds up to the key of Bb (second to the last flat). So now go to your comfy sixth-position Bb shape and take another stab at Ex. 1. Easier, right? Do the same with Ex. 2. Three flats: Battle Ends And. Penultimate flat: Eb. So now you know you’re in the key of Eb major. You also know that you’re supposed to play this passage up an octave, so cruise up to the eleventh position and have at it.

Moving on, what if you see a piece of music like Ex. 3? Four flats? You should be saying to yourself, “Battle Ends And Down,” and thinking about what your second to the last flat is. “And.” Ab. Get to your favorite Ab position and find your Ab notes. I like a one-finger barre at the 1st fret. Recognize this passage? Let me know!

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle. Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father. These two sentences changed my life. The two rules that accompany them changed how I have viewed every chart I have seen since 1979. Sharp key signatures: Go up a half-step from your last sharp—that is your key. Flat key signatures: Look at your second to the last flat—that is your key. This works, people. The cycle of fifths is never wrong. Neither is the cycle of fourths.

There are those that would tell you that these sorts of “cheats” and gimmicks don’t work for learning how to read. I am living proof that they do work, and if you apply yourself, they can work really well. There are other methods that can work equally well, and I intend to introduce those concepts in future installments.

Keep reading. Music only gets better if you do.