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.

  • 3
    Right hand major, left hand minor? – Tetsujin May 12 '16 at 12:12
  • 2
    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? – Brian THOMAS May 12 '16 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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 at 12:44

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.

  • 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?) – Brian THOMAS Jun 17 '19 at 11:47

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!


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.