What To Do If Key Signatures Are Scary For Your Music Students

Hi guys,

Working towards exams with students can be a stressful time for the students. Key signatures and scales always seem to be the area that everyone goes down on. Take a read of the below for some helpful tips 🙂

Do your students cringe at pieces that have more than one or two sharps or flats in the key signature? Do you find yourself marking up your students’ music to remind them of forgotten sharps or flats? Do you avoid giving certain students repertoire with too many sharps or flats because you know it will cause confusion and frustration?

That’s all about to change… because today’s post is written by a “Recovering Victim of Key Signature Fear”… namely… me! Read on and I’ll show you how I got over my own troubles with key signatures as a young player and how I prevent key signature confusion in the minds of my students!


1. Create a Keyboard Map

A Keyboard Map is a visual representation of all of the notes used within a piece. Link attached for a helpful handout. https://www.musicavenue.ie/key-signatures-hand-out/. To increase understanding and visual awareness of a key signature, before you begin a piece first discuss the following with your students:

  1. Which keys on the piano are affected by the key signature?
  2. Which keys on the piano are affected by other accidentals within the piece (naturals and sharps and flats outside of the key signature)?
  3. Which is the “range” of the piece (the lowest note used and the highest note used)?
  4. Where on the keyboard are the sharps and flats used most often?

Once you have discussed the information above it’s time to map it out. Use yellow to color in the keys that are affected by the key signature (on the entire keyboard picture). Use red to color in keys that are affected by other accidentals (sometimes I have them write the measure number above to indicate where this occurs). Use blue to mark the range of the piece (color the highest key used and the lowest key used). Draw a bracket around the area on the keyboard where the sharps and flats are used most often.

You’re now left with a mini “map” of the piece. Your students will have a very clear visual image of exactly what keys they’ll be using in the piece. Discuss any patterns that you see (ie. “Look! This key signature uses the bottom key of the group of two black keys and the bottom key of the group of three black keys!”).

2. “Chunk Out” The Key’s Scale and Measures

We discussed the technique of “chunking scales” in the past. It’s a great way to get your students’ fingers finding the correct black keys more often.

You can take this one step further and “chunk out” certain measures of the piece that are affected most frequently by the key signature. Isolate the measure, discuss the sharps and flats that are found within it and then play all of the notes together in one big “messy chord”.

In the example measure below, you’d play E, F#, G# and B all at once. This helps with muscle memory in terms of how your students’ fingers should “feel” when they reach those measures.

3. Discover the “Why” With a Circle of 5ths Chart

Having a Circle of 5ths Chart on hand is another great way to strengthen your students’ understanding of “why” the key signature affects certain notes within their pieces.

Understanding how the sharps and flats are related to other familiar key signatures builds a “mental scaffold” that your piano students can keep in mind as they play. Link attached to a Circle of Fifths Handout. https://www.musicavenue.ie/circle-of-fifths-handout/

I’ve left the treble staffs blank so your students can fill in the sharps and flats for each as they learn about the circle of 5ths. 


Using visual teaching techniques to learn key signatures are important… but it’s also useful to include ear training to “double up” on the learning. You can do the following to tune your students’ ears into the key of the piece as well:

  1. Play the tonic and have your students hum the first five notes in the key. Once they can hum the 5 finger scale, discuss which of the 5 notes are affected by a key signature. Next, play the tonic again and have your students hum the first five notes again. This time, however, instruct them to raise a hand or finger for each note affected by a key signature (and put down the hand or finger for the notes that aren’t affected). For example, in the key of F major, a student would hum and raise her finger when she hums the 4th note of the 5 finger scale (Bb). For higher level students you can do this with the entire scale.
  2. Play the I, IV, and V chords within the chosen key one at a time and in random order. Name the chord before you play, and then have your students tell you… a) whether it was a major or a minor version of that chord and b) what accidental(s) is found within that chord in the given key. For example, if you are working on the key of E major and you played a major I chord, your student would say “Major” and then “G#”.


Eliminating a fear of key signatures begins by arming your students with all of the tools they need before they ever even touch the keys. Employed correctly, the strategies above will help your students learn their pieces more quickly and with more success.

Stay tuned for many more helpful hints. If there is anything you would like me to discuss please get in touch on info@musicavenue.ie



0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *