Monthly Archives: November 2011

Teaching Key Signatures

So, in one of my many parts of life, I teach sight singing and music theory. Yeah, that’s a little odd, but it’s fun, and I get to hang with a handful of 10-13 year olds who all sing. It’s like me, but 20-odd years ago.

Key signatures.

This week, I decided it was time to really broach key signatures with my class. Up till now, we’ve spent a lot of time singing on numbers, on do-re-mi, and looking at music. But we’ve been stuck in C major, and that’s gotten…limiting.

I’ve taught key signatures before, and every time I’ve taken a step-by-step approach, doing maybe F major and then MAYBE G major, and calling it a day till next time. This round, with most of my group NOT having a firm grasp on key signatures (or really, sharps and flats), I thought I’d go all out. The lesson plan worked pretty well – My objectives were for them to be aware that there are a bunch of keys, and that there’s a logical order behind them.


  • Big notecards with key signatures on them.
  • Paper.
  • Table.
  • Patience.

I had the first student to show up shuffle the key signature cards. I made them out to 6 sharps and 6 flats – I could have done 7, but I didn’t.

When we had a quorum, I told them to put the cards in order (ONE order, not two), and that I would answer any other questions they had about the task, but only if they were yes-no answers. First round, they grouped all the sharps and all the flats and lined them up in order by number of accidentals. Second round they lined them all up alternating from sharps to flat, and ranging from 1 sharp/1flat to 6. Finally, they started with 6 sharps, worked down to none, then up to 6 flats. Well done!

Next, I asked them about why this was the order. Several observed that each key signature added one new sharp or flat to a set that stayed the same. YAY! Next week, talking about how it’s always the same order of flats and sharps will be much easier. Then I had them write down the order of sharps, the order of sharps.

Then we talked about the key signatures. I talked them through the cheat method of sharp keys: look at the last sharp and go up a half step/flat keys: look at the second-to-last flat, and say the note and the “flat”. Then we started with C, and worked our way through this sharp keys, making a note of their order. Then we started through the flat keys.

Of course we ran out of time (it’s only 25 minutes of lesson) and I had to kick them out to go to choir rehearsal.