Part Eight

Major Scales - III

Concept - Major Keys with Sharps

We've already introduced the key of G, which has one sharp. Let's look at D, A, E, and B. You don’t have to memorize them all at once, but you might want to look at them to see the patterns.

The D Major Scale

D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
The sharps are at positions 3 and 7.


The A Major Scale

A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
The sharps are at positions 3, 6, and 7.


The E Major Scale

E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E
The sharps are at positions 2, 3, 6, and 7.


The B Major Scale

B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B
The sharps are at positions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.


Are All These Keys Used Equally?

Actually, no. Beginning keyboard players usually start out in the key of C (no sharps or flats). Then, after getting familiar with C, they move on to keys with one sharp or one flat, then two, and so on. Even after playing the piano for years, it's rare to find a piece written with more than five flats (the key of Db), or more than four sharps (the key of E). The key of B, the last one pictured above, is very rarely used.

Guitarists tend to favor C, G, D, A, and E. The reason is because the "open" chords (chords where some of the guitar strings don't have to be pressed down) work well in these keys. Guitar players usually learn the open chords first and the "movable" (or "barre") chords later. The movable chords work in any key, but because of the sound of the open chords, acoustic players still tend to favor the keys of C, G, D, A, and E.

Guitarists also have the option of using a "capo," which clamps all the strings down at whichever fret is chosen, effectively shortening the guitar, which means you can play open chords just like you would in the keys of C, G, D, A, and E, while the guitar gives off a sound in a different key, depending on where the capo is placed.

(Side note: it grows even more complicated when adding brass (or woodwinds) into the picture, because many of these instruments don't sound in the key that's written. A Bb trumpet, for example, when reading the note C on paper, actually sounds the note Bb. This isn't the place to explain it, but it's a good idea to be aware of the challenge, because if you decide to add brass players to a group, the writing of the parts will require some extra understanding.)

Major Keys with Flats

The flat keys are illustrated to the right.

The F Major Scale

F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F
The flat is at position 4.


The Bb Major Scale

Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
The flats are at positions 1 and 4.


The Eb Major Scale

Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb
The flats are at positions 1, 4, and 5.


The Ab Major Scale

Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab
The flats are at positions 1, 2, 4, and 5.


The Db Major Scale

Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db
The flats are at positions 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.


The Gb Major Scale

Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, F, Gb
The flats are at positions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
(Notice that the white note at position 4 is named Cb.)

Side note: to be complete, I should also add that three of these major scales can be written in another way.

Db (five flats - Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db)
can be rewritten as...
C# (seven sharps - C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#, C#)
Of these two, Db is preferred. Five flats is
easier to read than seven sharps.

Gb (six flats - Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, F, Gb)
can be rewritten as...
F# (six sharps - F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#, F#)
These keys are seldom used.

B (five sharps - B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B)
can be rewritten as...
Cb (seven flats - Cb, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb)
B is preferred, but not seen very often.


Let’s Review

In this section we looked at the remaining major key "shape pictures," giving us a total of 12 major keys (plus three more if you count the ones that can be rewritten as different names). So, in the written sense, there are actually 15: one key with no sharps or flats (C), seven sharp keys (G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C#), and seven flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb).

Of these keys, some are seen more often than others. C is used a lot, especially by beginners. On the flat side, it's common to see music written in keys all the way up to five flats, specifically the keys of F, Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db. On the sharp side, it's very common to see keyboard music in G (one sharp) and D (two sharps). Songs using three or more sharps can be found, but they are not seen as often.

Guitarists, however, often play in the sharp keys: C, G, D, A, E.

The challenge is to eventually play easily in all the keys, and to explore them over time. Enjoy the process.

When finished with this page, here’s Part Nine.

Copyright 1998 - 2018 Stephen Mugglin

Permission is given to make not-for-profit copies of this material.

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