Learn to Read Music: Key Signatures

Dissect key signatures from a more guitaristic standpoint.
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So here we are in our fifth installment of this series, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. As a teacher, I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to hear from guitarists—some of whom have been playing for decades—who are just now, for the first time, embracing reading standard notation. A good teacher encourages students to teach themselves, so let me put it back to you. What do you want to learn? What part of reading music is most confusing? What would help you get over the next hurdle? What just plain doesn’t make sense? Tell me at mblackett@musicplayer.com and I’ll do my best to address it in a future column.

Since I can’t hear you right now, I’ll have to offer up a topic: key signatures. Key signatures are those collections of sharps and flats that you see at the start of a line, next to the time signature. They tell you what key you’re in (duh), and they make reading the notation easier, because they tell you, for example, that all your Fs are sharped in the key of G, all your Bs are flatted in the key of F, and so on, so we don’t have to clutter the chart with accidentals (sharps or flats) every time those notes come up.

Key signatures represent a deep, heavy concept that we can (and probably will) spend a lot of time dissecting. But, in keeping with the spirit of this series, we’re going to approach them from a very guitaristic standpoint.

When there are no sharps or flats in the key signature, that’s the key of C, home base for pretty much every instrument in the world except guitar. Every note is natural, as in C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Anything else will be accompanied by an accidental (a sharp or a flat). Since we don’t see any accidentals in Ex. 1, use your favorite C major scale shape—probably the third or eighth position—and all these notes will be waiting right there for you.

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A super common key, which is also very guitariffic, is one sharp, as you can see in Ex. 2. Where is that sharp? On the top line, right? That’s F, which is now F#. Since most of our playing chops are beyond our reading chops, you probably know what you get if you play all natural notes with an F#. Think about it. Play the notes. Recognize it? Of course you do—it’s a G major scale, which you most likely know is also an E minor scale.

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Okay then. When you see one sharp in the key signature, that is the best news you will get all day as a guitarist. That’s E minor, y’all! So don’t freak out trying to find all the notes in Ex. 3. You know you’re in Em/Gmaj. Put your hand in one of your favorite Em positions, like at the 12th fret, and then find your notes. This isn’t some random collection of pitches that you have to hunt and peck for. This is an E minor thing that you already have under your fingers. Don’t you feel better? This lick doesn’t have an F, but if it did, it would be sharped.

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What if you see two sharps in the key signature like Ex. 4? Ain’t no thang. What are they? Well, first off, they will always (and I mean always and forever) go in the same order. So the first one is F(#), and the second one is C(#). What do you get if you play all natural notes except F# and C#? If you said D major/B minor, you would be right. So what’s your best strategy for reading something like Ex. 5? Well, I’m going to grab my favorite Bm grip at the seventh position, and then all the notes fall much more naturally. Don’t forget that the note that looks like an F on the and of beat four is now an F#. Why? Because of the key signature!

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Now, back to that whole “students teaching themselves” concept. It would defeat the purpose of these lessons for me to post videos of them, because you’ll just watch, use your ear, and play what I play. But what if you created the videos, showing what you learned and explaining how it all works? We could all benefit from that. So, starting with the February issue, feel free to send me links—YouTube, Dropbox, whatever—to your take on these lessons. I’ll check them out and some might get posted to guitarplayer.com.