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Beginner's Corner I

Key signatures and Scales
by Paul R. Coats

Note from Paul: We seem to forget the real basics that the young students need to know, things we older players all take as common knowledge. I receive a number of excellent questions from the younger players, and I think these should be shared with others. Thanks to Vic N. for suggesting this new series.

Read also Beginner's Corner 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Jonathan wrote:


Hello, My name is Jonathan and I'm in the 8th grade. I've been playing alto sax for almost 3 years ;O) I'm first chair, and I march, etc.

I have a question regarding key signatures and scales. My teacher is a brass player and he doesn't really know anything about Eb instruments. He doesn't know how to explain key signatures, and scales for the Alto Saxes.

He is always shouting out the concert scales, and expecting us to play them on the spot, but how are we supposed to if he won't teach us the difference between Eb and concert pitch.

This is a skill you MUST learn. A director does not have the time to give each section's pitches. He needs to communicate with the band or orchestra in concert pitch. Each player must transpose to his own pitch. But, you are correct, you must be taught how. A teacher cannot assume the students know this. It is not something you simply memorize. There is a method.

For Eb instruments, that is, Eb soprano clarinet, Eb alto clarinet, Eb alto saxophone, Eb baritone saxophone, Eb contrabass clarinet... Simply count DOWN 3 semitones (half steps) from the concert pitch. So if your director says "Concert F", you calculate in your head quickly "starting on F, three down, E is one semitone down, Eb is two semitones down, D is three semitones... " you now know the pitch for Eb instruments is D.


Let's do it again. The director says, "Concert A", you count down three semitones below A, which is G#, G, F#... your pitch is F#. Got it?


I will also go over the method for Bb instruments because you are the section leader and must help out or guide your section, and/or may someday play soprano or tenor saxophone. For all Bb instruments, including soprano and tenor saxophones, count UP two semitones. So, Concert F is (up one semitone, F#, two semitones to G) G on tenor sax. Concert D is E on tenor sax, etc.


2Can you explain the key signatures to scales, and how on earth can can I remember them all?

OK, here goes... for no sharps/no flats, the key is C major. I will not explain minor keys at this time. For now, let us concentrate on major keys.

Flats are added in this order: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb. You just have to memorize BEADGCF (BE A Darn Good Country Fiddler). Walk to school saying to yourself, "B E A D G C F... B E A D G C F... B E A D G C F..."


For Flat keys... remember, "one flat only is F" (memory aid: think "Flat" starts with "F"). And the key signature has one flat, which is the note Bb. The F scale is F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, and back to F.


A key signature with two flats has Bb and Eb. Key of three flats is Bb, Eb, Ab. Key of four flats is Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. as per above. OK, now notice... after the key of F, the name of the key signature is the same as the NEXT to last flat.

One flat, ("Flat" starts with "F") the key is F.

Two flats, Bb and Eb... the key is Bb.

Three flats, Bb, Eb, Ab... the key is Eb.

Four flats, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db... the key is Ab.

Five flats, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, the key is Db.

Six flats, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, the key is Gb.

Seven flats is Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb, the key is Cb.

("B E A D G C F... B E A D G C F... B E A D G C F...")


You have to memorize a little, just as you did to learn addition, multiplication, spelling, etc.

For sharps BEADGCF is reversed... FCGDAE (Four City Girls Dance An Excellent Ballet)--I suppose they are dancing to the country fiddle playing--LOL!

Sharps are added F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#.


To find the key, just remember that the last sharp in the key signature is the next to last NOTE of the scale. So, simply go UP one semitone, or half step, from the last sharp.

One sharp is F#... UP one semitone to G, the key is G.

Two sharps is F#, C#... Up from C# one semitone to D, the key is D.

Three sharps is F#, C#, G#, so the key is A.



You must remember these rules, and practice all of this.


.. ©2000-2006 Harri Rautiainen
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Created: November 21, 2000.
Updated: August 8, 2006.
Information: Harri Rautiainen

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