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I have been learning piano for almost two years now, making good progress. I have good knowledge of the different scales and their corresponding key signatures. When I learn a new piece, I usually find it easier to add with a pencil accidentals that are present in the key signature in some confusion-prone places.

For example, in the key of A major, I sometimes add a sharp to a C note.

My question is, how detrimental is it to my ability to learn how to play pieces of different keys? The up side of what I'm doing is that it's easier for me to learn the piece and read its notes.

However, I'm wondering how bad of a habit it is, and whether I should lose it completely and focus on mastering the different keys before I move on.

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

As long as you're limiting it to trouble spots, you'll be fine. When I forget accidentals, I like to simply circle the note first; if that's not enough of a reminder, then I'll add the accidental. If you're not systematically pencilling in every single C#, your approach won't be detrimental. I'd even argue that NOT pencilling it in is far worse because of the potential to continue to play the wrong note and eventually learn the piece wrong.

On a more general note, I would recommend against using musical pieces to teach yourself keys (which is essentially what you would be doing by not marking your music up). Use things like scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and Hanon exercises for that purpose. Don't forget that your end goal is to make music, not to learn keys. Knowing your key signatures makes learning music MUCH faster and therefore should be worked on every time you practice. I would learn your keys and music together; don't hold off on making music to learn keys.

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+1 To add a note, scales and arpeggios can make good warm-ups before practicing. In addition to teaching the keys, they help immensely with improvisation. –  American Luke Apr 7 '12 at 22:22
    
oh, one note that I neglected to make; if you ever look at the hanon exercises, they're all written in C major; you'll have to transpose them yourself. To transpose to the key of A, for example, you'll need to start on an A, and remember to play your F, C, and G sharps. –  Babu Apr 9 '12 at 15:43
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I play Tuba in an orchestra, and I do this all the time. I usually do it after a while on places where I tend to forget the sharp/flat.

Actually our conductor often tell us to do this if he hears errors related to this when it gets close to a concert.

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This is perfectly fine; you're simply reminding yourself the note is sharp.

In fact, editors and printers of music scores will sometimes do this for you. When this happens, you usually see the accidental in parenthesis to indicate they're not trying to double-sharp or double-flat the note, but that they're just reminding you. This is called a "courtesy accidental". The most common situation is that the note with the courtesy accidental shows up in the next measure after a measure that had had the same note modified by an accidental. By standard music notation conventions, in the measure that has the accidental, the note only has to be decorated with the accidental the first time it's modified in the measure, and then it's played the same way for the rest of the measure unless explicitly cancelled with another accidental. BUT, in any case the accidental only lasts one measure, and reverts to the default based on the key signature in the next measure without any notation required. If the note with the accidental was early on in a measure containing that note many times, its very easy to make the mistake of not reverting to the normal pitch for the key.

This is usually based on the results of "playtesting"; as part of the publishing process they'll put an intermediate draft in front of musicians and have them sightread it. They'll look or listen for mistakes, and if a musician makes a mistake based on something like carrying an accidental too far, they'll look at ways to mark that clearly. As a rule, unless a piece is an etude or other exercise meant to increase your proficiency in music reading, sheet music reading should be as easy as possible given the inherent complexity of the music it represents.

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