Major & Minor Keys

Widen your musical range by learning how to apply intervals and scales to all the major and minor keys.

In This Lesson:

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Key Signatures

A key is the ‘home’ of a piece of music. It tells you which notes and chords sound good together and how they relate back to the tonic (or ‘tonal centre’). This provides a strong sense resolution for the music when it returns to the tonic.

A ‘key signature’ is the number of flats or sharps in the key. These are written on a musical staff to identify the key.

Key Signature Staff
This key signature has 3 sharps (C♯ F♯ G♯), making it either A Major or F♯ Minor

There are 15 Major Keys based off the Major Scale, and 15 Minor Keys based off the Natural Minor Scale.

A few of these keys are ‘enharmonic,’ meaning that they contain the same pitches but use different note names.

Enharmonic keys and can be useful to composers that want to emphasize either sharp or flat notes in their
notation. Typically, the key with the least number of sharps (♯) or flats (♭) will be chosen for easier readability.

Below you’ll find a list of all 30 keys. Notice the enharmonic keys with two names (such as D♭ Major & C♯ Major). D♭ Major is more likely to be used than C♯ Major because it has 5 flats compared to the 7 sharps in C♯ Major .

The Circle of Fifths

A way to remember these key signatures is by using the Circle of Fifths (also known as the Cycle of Fourths).

Moving clockwise around the circle, each key is separated by a Perfect 5th interval (i.e C Major & G Major).

Moving counterclockwise, each key is separated by a Perfect 4th interval (i.e. C Major & F Major).

This arrangement allows you to quickly identify the fifth and fourth scale degrees of your key. These scale degrees create the most tension back to the tonic and are very useful to know (and memorize!) at a glance.

You’ll also notice that the number of sharps (♯) or flats (♭) increase or decrease as you move around the circle. This shows the different ‘key signatures.’

For example, C Major has zero sharps or flats (C D E F G A B); G Major has 1 sharp (A B C D E F♯ G), and D Major has 2 sharps (D E F♯ G A B C♯).

To memorize the order of sharps and flats, you can use a mnemonic where the first letter of each word is the note that is added as a sharp or flat depending on the direction you’re going around the circle.

  • Clockwise Direction from C: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯ E♯ B♯)
  • Counterclockwise Direction from C: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father (B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ C♭ F♭)

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Relative Keys

Relative keys have the same notes and key signature, but a different tonic. This creates different tonalities because even though the notes stay the same, the intervals between them change.

You can use this relationship to seamlessly change the mood of your song from a ‘happy’ Major to a ‘sad’ Minor or vise-versa, by using the same notes, but emphasizing a different tonic.

Let’s look at the keys of C Major and A Minor.

C Major

A Minor

Parallel Keys

Major and Minor keys that have the same tonic note are known as Parallel Keys. Unlike Relative Keys, Parallel Keys have different notes and key signatures.

To transform a Major Key into its Parallel Minor Key, flatten the 3rd, 6th, & 7th degrees in the key.

To transform a Minor Key into its Parallel Major Key, sharpen (or ‘raise’) the 3rd, 6th, & 7th degrees in the key.

Parallel Keys

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