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I posted a similar question a long time ago, and think it was thrown out. However, still looking for an answer.

When busking at a gig, it's often impossible to communicate the key of a piece, due to positioning of players, noise, etc. So, a universal signing system (which I've personally used in various bands for 50+ yrs) is for, say, the vocalist, to show a number of fingers. For example, next number's in E, 4 fingers upwards, next one's in Bb, 2 down. It signifies the number of sharps or flats in the key sig. Simple, and better than shouting across the stage 'it's in G', only for someone to hear'D'.

Now, if we don't know what the song's actually going to be, it doesn't matter, as we can do a 4 bar intro to get into that particular key. This used to happen a lot of the time at gigs, particularly with big bands, during a busking set, with 3 singers, and other musos taking songs segued. So, we'd do, say, a 4 bar turn around, and the last bar would be the dominant of the signed key, bringing the vocals in on time and in key.

Problem is, we never found a foolproof way to signify minor keys. Think about it, if a song's in A minor, we need to know it's not A major, or C (relative major of Am). The last bar of the intro would either be G, if the 'C' key was signed (a zero with thumb and finger), then that wouldn't work well for the singer to pitch, and if the sign was 3 fingers up, then we'd be playing an intro into A major, and the vocals would sound strange after that!

What way round this have any working musos found? It's a very common occurrence in jazz, too - you all know the song, but not necessarily the key someone wants to play it in at the gig.

For those who've not encountered the system, it stems from the Nashville Numbering System, as used by the Jordanaires (Elvis) in thelate '50s. It's an extension of that idea, and is in use by bandleaders.

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    Right hand major, left hand minor?
    – Tetsujin
    May 12, 2016 at 12:12
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    I read Sting's autobiography and he talked about fingers up for flats and down for sharps, which didn't make sense to me. Maybe it slipped through the editorial process? Anyway, I think your system of fingers up for sharps and down for flats makes much more sense. To suggest a couple of answers to your question - could you have palm facing outward for major, facing inward for minor? Or use hand position (above/below chin line) for major/minor. So finger+thumb zero sign above your head means C major, and below your chin means A minor? May 12, 2016 at 12:24
  • Both nice ideas. It's just that I've never seen a way actually used on stage, or anywhere else, so far. Keep the ideas coming! Thanks.
    – Tim
    May 12, 2016 at 12:40
  • @Tetsujin - fine, depending what instrument you are playing at the time. Remember that a lot of this occurs while actually playing the song, so if I'm on guitar/bass, my right hand may be freer than my left.
    – Tim
    May 12, 2016 at 12:42
  • @BrianTHOMAS - in one band it was the drummer, who often was sitting quite low when there was no drum riser, so minors may well not be spotted. Yes, some drummers actually know keys!
    – Tim
    May 12, 2016 at 12:44

3 Answers 3

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I have had a lot of experience using hand signals over the years. It started for me in the 80’s early in my career in New York then in LA after I moved there. The signals you described are basically what I have used, sharps up and flats down except for one thing, Like Ed Finn said, in New York and some other eastern cities flats are up and sharps are down. I believe it is because this system is used almost exclusively on gigs where mostly standards are played and the majority of standards are in flat keys. The key of C was a “C” made with your thumb and fingers. Minor keys were indicated by making a dash with your other hand or if you don’t have both hands free indícate the key letter then draw a dash in the air afterwards. An example would be D minor is two fingers up for D (down if you’re in NY) and a dash with your other hand or a horizontal line drawn with the same hand after the number sign.

This system is good when verbal communication is problematic but it is not without its faults. One problem is if a tune does not start on the tonic. Say someone wants to play “Just Friends” in F and they signal 1 flat. Great except for the fact that the band will do a 1-6-2-5 intro in F but the tune starts on Bb, the 4 chord. In cases like that further communication is required. One solution is to sign the key then say “starts on the 4 chord”. Another is to name the tune and then sign the key it will be in. Some might say “why not just call out the key?” The problem with that is B, C, D, E and G can all sound the same on a bandstand in the middle of a song and with crowd noise mixed in.

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  • Super answer. Thanks. I was beginning to think no-one else used this system, which has worked for me for 40+yrs - in some bands. In others, they just relied on shouting, which often meant hearing 'It's in B' when it should be 'It's in D'. Chinese whispers! Yes, problems with numbers like Sweet Georgia Brown - so avoid those sort ! +1.
    – Tim
    Oct 20, 2020 at 12:11
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    Yep, I’ve used it on well over a hundred gigs over the years. Another option for songs that don’t start on the tonic is to sign the key then the opening chord. As you know shouting out the key doesn’t work, 5 out of 7 letters end in a “ee” sound! Oct 20, 2020 at 15:49
  • The band members must agree a system, but, once agreed, there's no need to indicate minor. One idea: indicate the tonic (regardless of mode). Another: indicate key sig. If you prefer to indicate which chord falls on the first downbeat, then again, you need only signal its root, not whether major or minor.
    – Rosie F
    Oct 20, 2020 at 16:41
  • @RosieF I disagree that there is no need to indicate minor, it is necessary. For example if you don’t then on a song in a minor key like “Summertime” you will likely get a tonic major as the first chord. Oct 20, 2020 at 17:30
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    @RosieF True but from my experience using this method more often than not all you get is the key, you actually don’t know what song will be played! This particular system is used almost exclusively in situations where continuous music is required and the musicians don’t necessarily have much experience playing with each other but know the same general tunes and styles. It allows for quick transitions from one song into another with little or no verbal communication. Oct 20, 2020 at 19:55
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Ive been a sound guy for a lot of gigs, one particular band used hand signals, it was number of fingers 1 for A 2 for B etc, then a thumbs up for sharp, and thumbs down for flat, and if you wanted a minor key, they would make a gesture with hand flat palm side down about halfway up the chest , like you would describe a short person. aka a minor.

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  • I like the idea of using up-facing or down-facing thumb to denote sharp or flat, but are you sure about the part of the answer that says 1 for A, 2 for B? If you're using one hand, you could only sign up to letter D because you're using your thumb to denote flat or sharp. Maybe you mean number of fingers = number of accidentals in key signature? (And what would you do about B major?) Jun 17, 2019 at 11:47
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I learned that fingers pointed up mean sharps and fingers pointed down mean flats. That seems very logical to me. I never learned a delineation for indicating whether the signing means major or the relative minor. I have worked with musicians from the northeastern United States that use the opposite with sharps pointing down and flats pointing up. Just have to keep your ears open!

Edf

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