Pitch, Scales & Key Signatures

Musical notes have pitch - some notes sound low, others sound high. Any two different pitches have a relationship in which one pitch is higher or lower than the other. On a piano, if one key is to the right of a second key, then the first key sounds a higher pitch than the second one. The notes (pitches) are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet, and on a piano these all occur on the white keys. [Point the mouse at the keyboard to see what notes the keys are.] The black keys are named in relation to the nearest white keys: if the black key is to the right of (higher than) a white key, it's a sharp (#), if it's to the left of (lower than) a white key it's a flat (b). This means that each black key has two names. For example, the black key to the right of C may be called C sharp (C#), but because it's also to the left of D it may be called D flat (Db). Which name is technically correct to use depends on the musical context in which the note appears.

If two notes (pitches) are different, then one note is higher than the other. We can also say how much higher the note is, that is, we can say what the interval between the notes is. The smallest interval between two notes (the nearest that any two notes can be to each other) on a piano keyboard is called a semitone (in the USA a half-step). For example, from C to C# is a semitone - those two keys are right next to each other on the keyboard, just as E is next to F, or B to C. Note that F is not a semitone away from G, because there is a black key in between them - F#. The distance from F to G is therefore two semitones. When two notes are two semitones apart, that distance is described as a whole tone (whole step), or simply as a tone. For example, the distance from C to D is a whole tone because there are two semitones in it: the first from C to C# and the second from C# to D. E to F# is a whole tone, F# to G#, Ab to Bb, etc.

Notes are written in a variety of shapes on a five-lined staff (or stave, plural staves). Each line and space represents a fixed pitch, so a staff is capable of representing a set of nine notes with its 5 lines and 4 spaces. A note outside the compass of the stave can be represented by using a ledger line. When a clef is placed on the stave, it specifies a particular set of fixed pitches. [clefs, etc] When a treble clef is placed on a stave, the 5 lines (from lowest to highest) then represent E, G, B, D, & F and the spaces (from bottom to top) are F, A, C, & E . When the bass clef is placed on a stave, the lines are G B D F A and the spaces are A C E G. A note's shape represents its length (duration) [see the rhythm page for a list of these], and the position of the note-head determines the pitch.

A scale is an ascending or descending series of notes. If you play all the white notes on the piano from any C up to the next C you'll hear a C major scale (the major scale is familiar as Doh Ray Me Fah Soh Lah Ti Doh ). [C major scale] You can see that in the major scale the distance from the first note to the second is a whole tone, from 2nd to 3rd a whole tone, 3rd to 4th a semitone, 4th to 5th a whole tone, 5th to 6th a whole tone, 6th to 7th a whole tone, and 7th to 8th a semitone (T T S T T T S). You can also see that we have exactly one of each note, except for the key-note on which the scale starts and finishes.

If we wish to use the major scale starting on G (the G major scale), we find that we can no longer use only white notes to get the sound of the major scale - playing G A B C D E F G sounds wrong. Because we've started on G, the relationship of tones and semitones has been altered and is now T T S T T S T. We can correct this distribution of tones and semitones by sharpening the F; now when we play the scale we have G A B C D E F# G. [G major scale] Whenever we play the G major scale we need the F#, so we say that the key signature for G major is F#, or the key signature for G major is one sharp, and write the key signature next to the clef at the start of the line. This indicates that every written F really represents F#. [D maj. key sig] We can repeat this procedure to start a major scale on any of the 12 different notes on the piano, and for each scale (except C major) we must sharpen or flatten one or more of the white notes in order to preserve the arrangement of tones and semitones. For example, the key signature for D major is two sharps - F# and C#.

There are two versions of the minor scale, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. [C min. h.] Both minor scales differ from the major in that the third note of the minor scale is a semitone lower than the third of the major. In the harmonic minor the sixth is also lowered a semitone. For example, C major is C D E F G A B C, and C minor (harmonic) is C D E F G A B C.

[C min. m.]
The melodic minor scale has an ascending form and a descending form. The ascending melodic minor differs from the major scale only in that the third is a semitone lower; so C minor melodic ascending is C D E F G A B C. The descending melodic minor differs from the major in that the third, sixth, and seventh are flattened (lowered a semitone); C minor melodic descending is C B A G F E D C. The descending melodic minor is sometimes called the natural minor.

The following tables list the major and minor keys (scales) and their key signatures

The order of the sharps in a key signature can be recalled with the mnemonic:
Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle
Sharp Keys
G1 sharpE minor
D2 sharpsB minor
A3 sharpsF# minor
E4 sharpsC# minor
B5 sharpsG# minor
F#6 sharpsD# minor
C#7 sharpsA# minor
The order of flats in a key signature can be recalled with the mnemonic:
Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father
Flat Keys
F1 flatD minor
Bb2 flatsG minor
Eb3 flatsC minor
Ab4 flatsF minor
Db5 flatsBbminor
Gb6 flatsEbminor
Cb7 flatsAbminor

C major and A minor each have a key signature of no sharps and no flats.
If you see a piece of music with a key signature of 4 sharps, you know from the sharp mnemonic that those sharps are F#, C#, G#, and D# (Father Charles Goes Down). You know from the table of sharp keys that you are in E major (or its relative minor, C# minor).
In the same way, if your music has a key signature of 5 flats, the flat mnemonic informs you that those flats are Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb (Battle Ends And Down Goes). You know from the table of flat keys that you are in the key (scale) of Db major (or its relative minor, Bb minor).

Minor Scale Test applet

The applet presents 5 notes on the staff; try to determine whether the one minor scale in which all 5 notes appear is harmonic, ascending melodic, or descending melodic. Press the Show Answer button to see if you're correct. Press New Minor Scale for the next example.