Sharps, flats and key signatures

As we explored in the article Playing the ocarina with sheet music, it notates the 7 natural notes of the octave, called:

A, B, C, D, E, F and G

But if you've also read Octaves and scale formation, you will know that we actually have 12 notes per octave, so what's going on?

Sheet music was designed in this way as most music only uses 7 distinct notes at a time, and thinking about the 'gaps' would be cumbersome. When we notate music in other keys, we alter the pitch of the 7 notes using symbols called accidentals.

Accidentals (sharps, flats and naturals)

A sharp sign (♯) simply means to play the note 1 semitone higher within the chromatic scale. It is placed before a note, and remains in effect until the next bar line.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
 "C" C4 "C♯" ^C4 | "F" F4 "F♯" ^F4 |  "G" G4 "G♯" ^G4 | "B" B4 "B♯" ^B4 | "D" d4 "D♯" ^d4 |  "E" e4 "E♯" ^e4 |

Likewise, a flat sign (♭) does the opposite, telling you to play the note 1 semitone lower:

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"C" c4 "C♭" _c4 |  "B"  B4 "B♭" _B4 |   "G" G4 "G♭" _G4 | "F" F4 "F♭" _F4 | "E" E4 "E♭" _E4 | "D" D4 "D♭" _D4 |

Finally there is the natural, which undoes the effect of any previous sharp or flat, putting the note back to its 'natural' state.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"D" D "D flat" _D "D" =D

These correspond directly to notes on your ocarina, and you can find out how to play them by looking at your fingering chart.

Note that multiple sharp or flat signs on the same staff position are not additive, If two C notes are marked sharp within one bar, the second still refers to the same C sharp on your instrument as the first.

Accidentals used within the body of a piece of music:

  • Remain in effect until the next bar line.
  • Only affect the pitch of the line or space it is on. For instance, sharpening low D does not affect the D an octave higher.
  • Can be cancelled within the bar using a natural sign before a note.

Using accidentals, we can notate music in any key. We can notate music in D like this:

X: 1
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: C

But do you notice that it's visually cluttered? That's why key signatures exist.

What is a key signature?

Key signatures allow us to specify the notes that will be sharp or flat within an entire piece of music (or until the key signature is changed). They are written by placing one or more sharp or flat signs at the start of each line, like this:

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: D

The accidentals in a key signature affect all notes of the same name in all octaves. While only the top line F has a sharp sign, all F notes should be played as F sharp.

This notation also means we know what key the music is in at a glance. Key signatures are standardised, and D major will always look like this.

We can notate the tune from before like this. Notice how much cleaner it looks:

X: 1
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: D

How to play music with a key signature

Playing sheet music with a key signature on the ocarina is just a matter of substituting the marked notes for their sharp or flat equivalent as required.

You can do this consciously, reading the key signature, noticing which notes are marked as sharp or flat, and substituting them. However it's a much better idea to make this process subconscious. Thinking about fingerings is slow, and will tend to cause you to stall.

We can do that by learning one key signature at a time:

1: Learn how to finger all of the notes in the key

Say that you wanted to learn to play music in the key of B flat / G minor on an alto C ocarina. The first step is to learn how to finger the notes of the key on your instrument.

And we do that by learning to play the scale ascending and descending the instrument's range. Feel free to break it down into chunks if you need to.

X: 1
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/4
K: Bb
Bcde   | fedc   | BAGF |

After practising the scale for a few days the finger transitions will become automatic. You may also want to practice the intervals and arpeggios, as they help you move around the scale in leaps.

2: Practice reading sheet music in this key signature

Secondly, you just need to practice reading a lot of sheet music using this key signature until you can do it without thinking about it. Such as:

T:En Avant Blonde (waltz) in G minor
G2 B2 c2|d4    d2|F2 A2 B2|c4    c2|c2 B2 A2|G4    B2|A4    F2|G6:|
d2 dc Bc|d2 B2 G2|c2 cB AB|c2 A2 F2|d2 dc Bc|d2 B2 G2|c2 A2 F2|G6:|

The common key signatures

You can see all of the common key signatures below, organised into increasing number of sharps and flats. This diagram is called the circle of fifths. There's no need to learn all of these at once, however it is important to be aware that they exist.

The circle of fifths organises the keys in music by the number of sharps or flats they use.

Key signatures are standardised, and the sharp or flat symbols for a given key are always placed in the same position. Notice how the key signatures descending from the top progressively add one more accidental in the following order:


The order of learning key signatures

Depending on what you're looking to achieve, there are two ways that you could order your learning of the key signatures:

  • Learn the ones that you need to play the music you want to play.
  • Learn to play them in order of increasing sharps and flats.

The first option works well if you only ever intend to play a hand full of tunes / songs alone, but it could pose problems if you ever need to play music in a key that you have not practised on short notice.

In the case of the second option, you'd be learning them in an order similar to this:

  • C
  • F
  • G
  • D
  • Bb
  • Eb
  • A
  • Ab
  • E
  • Db/C#
  • B/Cb
  • Gb/F#

Learning them in this order means that each scale adds one additional accidental, and thus it feels very approachable.

Keys with more accidentals are not objectively any more complex. The patterns of fingerings are somewhat less logical, but getting the hang of them is mostly a matter of practising them.

This is also how music curriculums are generally structured. Someone following such a syllabus would learn the keys over a period of multiple years, playing a great deal of music in each key over that time. That volume of music helps it become automatic.

However, following that model does mean playing a huge volume of music, and there is a good chance that much of it won't appeal to you. Even just the task of finding a large enough volume of music can be a notable burden in itself:

  • I have a collection of links to ocarina friendly sheet music in music for the ocarina.
  • Music collections for similar instruments may also be adaptable, although finding things that fit in range can be a challenge.

Due to the range of single chambered ocarinas, music in sharper / flatter keys tends to be modal in nature, or in a major scale with the tonic in the middle of the range.

Finally, its also worth mentioning that there's nothing wrong with just setting aside a few weeks or months, and learning all of the scales, intervals and arpeggios in one go.

Audiating sheet music in different keys

Audiation is the ability to hear music in your head, and it can be used to read sheet music 'in your mind's ear', much like you would read English without speaking.

The process of learning to audiate music in different key signatures is much the same as learning to play those keys on an instrument, and can be done simultaneously:

  • Choose one key signature to start with.
  • Play music in that key signature on an instrument in a loop.
  • Periodically stop playing, and continue hearing the melody in your mind, working towards hearing the whole melody.
  • Read the whole melody in your head, without playing it on an instrument.
  • Try reading some new sheet music in the same key using similar rhythmic and melodic figures. Audiate it in your head, then try playing it. Did they sound the same?
  • You may find that singing the music also helps with this process.

Then once you can do this for music in one key, introduce another key signature and repeat the process. Notice how the two differ.

This skill will naturally develop over time, and it doesn't matter how well you can do it at the start.

Closing notes

Learning to read sheet music with a key signature is a matter of starting slowly and building up your familiarity with the key signatures and their corresponding scale patterns over time.

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