(originally posted elsewhere on 7th February, 2011)

Teaching how to decode a key signature is always a tricky one when students’ reading skill is still very elementary.  When they are still struggling to read music, I’d rather not waste time in explaining about key signature.  But I’d rather they “see” the key in the score as they see the time on the clock.  Through various games I do with my students to make the learning process as tangible as possible, I came up with this simple trick to decode a key signature.  And surprise, surprise, I use the circle of 5th!  I always thought it was such a clever ordering system and wondered whether I could use it in a simpler way so that even young children can make sense out of it.  So, how do I use the circle of 5th?  Well, what does it look like?  A clock, of course!  If you can read it like you read a clock, all you need to understand is number!  So, I reworded “the circle of 5th” as “the musical clock”.  Unlike a normal clock, you read the musical clock 0 – 6, which means the right half circle and the left hand circle are read as a mirror image.  So, the musical clock looks like this:

To start with, it’s best to keep the clock looking simple and clear, so I avoid adding minor keys at this stage.  The aim is to get a hang of reading the musical clock to identify major keys.  All you need to find out is how many sharps, or flats, or none you see in a time signature in the score.  Suppose you see 2 sharps in a key signature:

1. You look at the right half of the musical clock at 2.
2. The letter says D, which means D major.

At this point, I tell which 2 sharps need to be remembered and write them out in letters on the music (F# and C#), so it stays as a reminder!  Introducing how to find which notes are sharps comes much later.  At this stage, the focus is that a student is aware of the tonic note (of major key) and that the music s/he will play has 2 “preset” sharps!  If student’s aural is good, then s/he can work out these preset sharps by trying a major scale on the instrument by ear.  I’m a strong believer that students only need to know a limited amount of information at a time so that they are not overwhelmed by what they need to absorb.

Likewise, if you see 3 flats in a key signature:

1. You look at the opposite side of 3 O’clock, which is 9 in a normal clock.
2. The letter says Eb, which means Eb major.

When students get used to decoding this way from the musical clock, I usually give them some worksheets to practise decoding keys with more flat and sharps which they don’t usually see in the music they learn at the elementary level.  So that they see some music has more than just 1 or 2 sharps or flats!

Another thing worth pointing out is that with piano score, you usually see a great stave (staff) where a treble stave and a bass stave are joined together with a brace.  Suppose the music is in G major.  Often when I ask my students to tell me how many sharps they see, some say “2” by counting one each from each stave.  It’s important then to remind them how they actually read a great stave; top stave and bottom stave simultaneously.  So should they when they read key signature.  This explanation is usually enough for them to get it.

Happy decoding key signatures!

Due to the frequent use of this decoding game in my teaching practice, I’ve decided to make a professionally printed version similar to the one shown above, so my students can take home and review it when necessary.  It’s also useful to have it on the music stand whilst I’m teaching.  A quick visual reference to find the key of the music saves quite a bit of already very short piano lesson time!  It’s available from my website shop