Monday Mailbag – How to Teach Key Signatures

I’m starting to wonder if my method of teaching both major and minor key signatures is too cumbersome for my students. So I have been researching more intuitive approaches. When do you start teaching key signatures and how do you introduce and drill them so that they are second nature?

This is an area that I start drilling into my students almost from day one…and keep drilling for the rest of their lives! I think I’m particularly passionate about it because when I attended an intensive music course my senior year of high school, my biggest question was how to figure out what key a piece was in. After covering two years worth of college theory in three weeks I went home finally understanding the concept of keys and key signatures. Imagine my shock a short while later when I uncovered several years worth of old theory books where I had dutifully identified dozens of key signatures throughout the lessons! Obviously there was a complete disconnect between the theory work I was doing on paper and the music I was playing. (This is part of the reason why I rarely use theory books with my students…)

Within the first several months of lessons I introduce my students to pentascales. As they learn their pieces, I often ask them if they can tell what pentascale notes the piece uses. This is the preliminary terminology I use to pave the way for discussing key signatures later. Even with simple pieces, students can understand the concept of playing the same pattern using the notes from a different pentascale. For example, an early level piece in the C-pentascale can be transposed to the G-pentascale and will sound almost the same if they play the same pattern of notes.

Similarly, I encourage students to pick out familiar tunes by ear from the first lesson. A simple rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can become a pretty exciting challenge when I assign the student to see how many different keys they can start on to play the same tune! This, again, can lead to a discussion of what pentascale a tune is using.

Honestly, the concept of key signatures usually comes quite a bit later and is much less important to me than that a student understands the concept of musical keys and scales – both Major and minor (part of the reason why I made and gave each of my students a Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys). I thoroughly dislike the practice of teaching students to identify key signatures by looking to the second to last flat or figuring up a half step from the last sharp, etc. This does nothing to aid their understanding of what it actually means for a piece to be in a particular key.

Sequentially, I usually work around the Circle of 5ths to learn the scales, primary triads, and chord progressions, and incorporate Major and relative minor keys as seems best for each student. It’s not perfectly systematic for every student, but I do hope that by the time they are encountering key signatures in their music they have a solid enough foundation of musical scales and the concept of keys that they quickly grasp the idea of key signatures.

This is a huge topic, so I’d love to have input from others! What do you find works best in regards to teaching your students about key signatures and what they mean?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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2 thoughts on “Monday Mailbag – How to Teach Key Signatures

  1. I haven’t played in years and bought the circular chart for my daughter and found it bewildering. I don’t know what a pentascale is and find myself having to teach my daughter what was never taught to me.

    I’ve been trying to open the key and scale matching charts on this site but can only get the page actually shown.


  2. Hi! I’m not sure if this is the worksheet you’re referring to, but here’s a direct link to the key signature and scale matchups: You might also want to look at the Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys for a complete list of scales with keyboard fingerings:!/The-Pianists-Book-of-Musical-Scales-and-Keys/p/43143367/category=11004139. Let me know if you need anything else!

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