I posted a similar article on keys in music some time ago, but since it is now buried under about two years’ worth of posts and several of my students have been in need of a study guide for major scales and keys with more focus on how they apply to the cello, here’s a new and improved version
Firstly, let’s define three important terms which often get confused and are therefore important to be distinguished from each other before exploring how they are related.
- Key: a family of notes which belong together and have a distinctive sound or “colour”. A key can be major or minor and is represented by a key signature (see definition 2). Every key has 7 individual notes which are represented in the scale (see definition 3) of the key.
- Key signature: a representation of the accidentals found in a key. These are shown at the start of each stave just after the clef and just before the time signature* and greatly reduce the number of accidentals that have to be shown in the main body of the score**. The order of accidentals in a key signature does not always follow the order in which they appear in the scale. Instead, they follow the order in which they appear from one scale to the next.
- Scale: a representation of the notes belonging to a key in ascending and/or descending order starting and ending on the key note (i.e. the letter name of the scale). A scale of one octave covers eight steps but since the first and eighth steps are the same note, there are only seven individual notes as mentioned in definition 1. There are 3 main types of scales: major (which represent major keys), harmonic minor and melodic minor (which represent minor keys). Each type follows a specific order of intervals***
* Times signatures, unlike clefs and key signatures, are only shown at the start of the first stave and do not appear again unless there is a change of time signature in the music
** Score: a written or notated representation of music
*** Interval: the pitch distance between 2 consecutive notes (e.g. C – D = a whole tone or major second; C – D-flat = a half tone or minor second)
The structure of Major Scales
All major scales – no matter what note they begin on – follow the same structure. They are made up of a sequence of whole tones and semitones as follows:
Step 1 – 2: whole tone
Step 2 – 3: whole tone
Step 3 – 4: semitone
Step 4 – 5: whole tone
Step 5 – 6: whole tone
Step 6 – 7: whole tone
Step 7 – 8: semitone
If we observe how the scale of C major is played on the piano, and then on the cello, we can actually see the difference between the whole tones and semitones. Let’s look at C major on the piano first:
The red notes indicate the notes played in the scale. Notice that no black notes are played (C major has no sharps or flats), and the whole tones are always between the white notes which have a black note between them. The semitones are between the white notes which do not have a black note between them.
Since the cello does not have a logical linear map of the notes like the piano keyboard has, a video is a better way to demonstrate how the scale of C major “looks” as well as sounds on the instrument. Pay attention to the semitones, which sound closer together and are physically closer together on the cello (in this scale played between the third and fourth fingers on both strings).
Because the sequence of intervals must always remain the same, no two major scales will ever have an identical set of notes. All major scales except C major have one or more sharps or flats. These are shown in the key signature, which is found at the beginning of each stave. We use key signatures to show what sharps or flats will be present in the score without having to clutter the score itself with an accidental sign in front of each relevant note. For example, if a piece of music is in the key of D major, it will have an F-sharp and a C-sharp in the key signature. This means that whenever you encounter F or C in the score, you must remember that they are actually F-sharp or C-sharp. Why not just write the accidentals into the score? There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, a score with lots of accidentals in it is messy and harder to read. The more accidentals there are in the key, the messier the score would get. Secondly, it would make it much harder to recognise accidentals that don’t belong in the key. When the key signature is used, we recognise notes that don’t belong to the key straight away since they have accidentals in front of them while notes that belong to the key do not.
Key signatures never contain a combination of sharps and flats – only one or the other. With C major as a starting point, if we go a perfect fifth up (tone, tone, semitone, tone or seven semitones up), we find G. The key of G Major has one sharp in its key signature: F-sharp. From here, we go a perfect fifth up to find D. D major has two sharps: F-sharp (retained from the previous key) and C-sharp. A perfect fifth up from D takes us to A. The key of A major has three sharps: F-sharp, C-sharp and G-sharp. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? It’s called the circle of fifths. Not only do we find each new “sharp” key by going up a perfect fifth; the new sharp in each key signature is always a perfect fifth up from the previous new sharp. It is also worth noting that the new sharp in each key is always the seventh step of the scale. For “flat” keys, we return to C as our starting point and go down by a perfect fifth each time. Easy to remember: sharp=up, flat=down.
The following graphic shows keys and their key signatures, and should make sense if the above two paragraphs made sense.
Each major key has a related minor key which shares its key signature. But minor keys are a little more complex than major keys, and need to be covered in a post of their own.