How to Read Key Signatures

How to Read Key Signatures

Key signatures tell you which key you’re in and which set of notes you’re working with in a give passage of music.

The simplest key to work in is the key of C–it has no sharps and no flats; only natural notes.

The notes of the key of C move in order beginning on C– C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Notice that when you get to G, you swing back around to A and continue moving alphabetically from there.

When you read music, there is a specific place you can look in order to know which key the music you’re reading was written in. That place in the notation is called the Key Signature.

Here is an example of the key signature for a song written in the key of E:

The four sharps indicate the number and identity of the sharps in this key.

Pay special attention to the positioning of the sharps–their positioning indicates the note that receives the sharp. In this case, reading from left to right, this key has the following sharped notes: F#, C#, G# and D#.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part when it comes to reading music is keeping the key signature in mind as you move through the musical passages of the piece you’re reading.

You have to remember the key signature and translate any given instance of F, C, G or D into F#, C#, G# or D#.

Here is an example:
Learn to Read Music in the Key of E

As you read through these notes, be sure to add a sharp to any note that was included in the key signature.

So what do you end up with for the notes that are in this passage?

If you said, “E, F#, G#, D#” then you’re right!

But How Do You Pull In Notes from Outside the Key Signature?

Great question!! I’m glad you asked–it’s very normal for composers to bring in notes from outside of a key in order to add a little color or surprise to a passage of music.

When that happens, you’ll see the natural, sharp or flat sign next to the note that the composer has brought in from outside of the key of the passage you’re reading.

Here’s how this looks:
How to Read Music in the Key of E

As we’ve already seen, normally in the Key of E, G and D are sharped.

However, in this passage, natural signs appear directly next to the G and D notes.

This means you play them as G natural and D natural instead of G sharp and D sharp.

Two Ways You’ll Encounter Accidentals

When you’re learning to read music, you will encounter accidentals in two different ways:

  1. As Part of the Key Signature
  2. Next to Individual Notes Pulled from Outside of the Key of the Passage of Music in Question

Reading accidentals is often one of the biggest challenges for people who are new to reading music. Trust me, I know that this stuff can quickly get overwhelming and confusing!

Take things step by step.

Get to know simpler keys that contain fewer accidentals (like the Key of F with its one flat or the Key of G with its single sharp) before you dive into keys that have more accidentals.

Take this slowly and steadily, and be patient–pretty soon, you’ll be fluent in music and loving in!

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