Learn Piano - Key Signatures

To give music a certain sound, different key signatures are used.

‘Keys’ are different sets of 8 notes that include a different combination of white and black notes – known as scales. For every note on the piano there are at least two different keys: major and minor – as well as some other more complex variations that we won’t delve into in these lessons. Suffice it to say, major keys sound bright and cheerful, while minor keys sound sad and dark.

You have already played the keys of C and F major and in this lesson we are going to have a look at just some of the many other key signatures!

To begin with, here is a piece in a familiar key signature, F major. This piece should be well known to you! Remember to play a B flat every time a B note is shown.

Across the second and third bars you will be able to see a tie – an arched curve over two notes.

A tie is basically just what it sounds. It is a curved line that ‘ties’ two notes together, so they are played as one. In this case, two crotchets are tied, so this note will end up being played just once, but held for as long as a minim (for 2 beats).

Ties are used when the composer wants a long note, but can’t use one because the beat allocation for the bar has already been used up. To solve this problem, a tie can be used to tie two shorter notes into one longer note. We will be going over this again later, so don’t worry if you don’t fully understand ties at this stage. What is important to know is that the tied crotchet here is only played once, but held for two beats. Listen to the audio while counting aloud if you are still unsure how this works.

There is also a pickup beat at the beginning of this piece. Count this as 4+. Note that the end bar contains only 3 counts, effectively ‘making up’ the incomplete bar.

You may well ask: sharps and flats are the same ‘actual’ notes (the five black keys) – so how do they make a difference to key signatures?

Well, the difference is in the major and minor sound. If these same notes are incorporated into either a major-keyed or minor-keyed piece, they can either ‘sharpen’ or ‘flatten’ the sound. Normally, a major piece will just stick to the sharps or flats in the key signature. With a minor piece though, other accidentals will appear throughout the music for a particular note, apart from the sharps or flats in the key signature. This means that by reading the key signature and looking for accidentals, you can tell whether the piece you are about to play will sound sad or happy.

Listen and play this example to hear a minor sound. This piece, called ‘Minor Lament’, is in D minor. Minor keys have key signatures the same as their relative major keys. In this case, F major is the relative of D minor and so the key signature has one flat. The clue to telling whether this piece is in a minor key is by looking for accidentals (sharps, flats or naturals) in the music. Notice all the C sharps throughout this piece?

Look at the scale below of D minor to see how this works:

Note the tied note again in this piece. This piece is for the right hand only.

Now, as an example of the difference between a major and minor sound, I have turned the ‘Minor Lament’ into a major key (D major – 2 sharps). View the D major scale below and then listen to the audio.

Isn’t it an odd contrast? Although it sounds strange, this shows you how a major key can brighten a previously gloomy piece!

To finish off this lesson, here is a piece using the D major scale. Although this piece has a wistful sound, you can tell that this is NOT a minor key because there are no extra, repeated accidentals.

You will also notice that this piece is called a ballad. A ballad is a slow tune, often including lyrics that tell a story. There are a lot of famous ballads in pop and folk music, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. Two famous examples that come to mind are ‘The Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, both by Bob Dylan.

Glossary of Terms

Ballad: A slow tune, usually with lyrics that tell a story.

Composer: A person who creates music.

Tie: A tie is a curved line connecting the heads of two notes of the same pitch, indicating that they are to be played as a single note with a duration equal to the sum of the individual notes' note values.