I'm currently taking the ABRSM piano test, grade 6, this year. So far, everything is looking good (songs, sightreading, etc.). However, I noticed that when it comes to the scales, I tend to take a long time to remember the key signature for minor scales. I already memorized all of the major scale key signatures.

For example, if I have to play a harder minor scale, like C sharp minor melodic, it definitely takes me more than 5 seconds to get ready to play. My process is: I go up a minor third, use that key signature (in this case, it would be E major), count up to the sixth and seventh notes, raise those notes, and by the time I'm ready to play, I totally forget which notes to raise and what the key signature is, especially if it's a melodic minor and I have a different key signature for ascending and descending.

Do you have any tips on how to speed up my process when it comes to minor scales? Should I just have an entirely different process?

Also, the reason it is so easy for me to memorize the major scale key signatures is because I remember the "design." I remember how the scale "looks," almost. For example, for F sharp major scale, I can visually see all of the black keys, the F key, and the B key. Each major scale almost has a little "rhyme," almost. I'm a visual person, so this method really works for me when it comes to major scale key signatures. Could I possibly incorporate something visual into my minor scale process, like a jingle or rhyme?

  • 1
    I know some people think in terms of "which notes shall I raise" when playing in certain keys, but I never know how they manage it - it seems an enormous amount of mental overhead. I start on a given note and... just play the scale (i.e. the interval pattern) required. All this key signature stuff would just get in the way, for me. Sep 8, 2016 at 11:41
  • 1
    What @topomorto said. This seems a very convoluted method, if you are really ready for Grade 6. You should be at the stage where you know what notes are in every scale, without having to work it out from first principles every time you play. There are only 36 scales that you need to know (major, melodic and harmonic minor for each of 12 keys) so just learn them! If somebody asked you "what is 4 times 3", would you work that out every time by counting on your fingers, as well?
    – user19146
    Sep 8, 2016 at 14:07

4 Answers 4


When doing exams on piano, I just learnt each for its own pattern. When I started teaching them, the relative major helped a lot, as you find. With the melodic minor as used by ABRSM, I tend now to think minor notes (as in relative major key) for the first five, followed by major instead of that minor key (parallel) for the others, on the way up. Down is easier, using purely the natural minor notes from the original key.

To elucidate: "A melodic" = C major notes for 1st 5, then A major for the others going up. Going down, all as in C major.

A lot of us use the cycle of 5ths to determine sharps and flats, sometimes with a mnemonic. Others just 'know' them - not a bad state to be in.

Your pattern idea works for you, being visual, but some keys just don't lend themselves to being patternistic. Think I just invented the word.


You shouldn't be "reading" your scales, internally or otherwise, at grade 6 (or at any grade, for that matter). Practice until your hands know them. Then practice some more. I hate to hear a student stumble through half-known scales. Get them fast and fluent, so they can do their job of decorating real music with flashy runs!

  • You can practice all scales fast and fluent to muscle memory, but how can hands know which one of them to play when you hear "C sharp minor"?
    – JiK
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:10
  • If you hear or see that it's a minor, wouldn't you immediately think "minor scale pattern" and in this case start on C# right? If you practice your minor scale in every key, then you should be able to go through without hesitation.
    – shaunxer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:22
  • @shaunxer When I start at C# and go C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A-, my hands might recognize the pattern from E major (identical fingerings, the only difference being B vs C) and go on with B. How do my hands know that I should instead play C next if I have both C# minor and E major in my muscle memory?
    – JiK
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:35
  • Mainly, keep practicing your scales. they may be in muscle memory but if you're struggling at all then you still need to strengthen the memory. Also it helps to always keep the differences in mind, and be thinking of them in terms of sharp or flat. When you go through minor, be thinking "major scale, but the difference is a flat 3rd". Eventually you won't have to think about it much or at all.
    – shaunxer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:57
  • @JiK - like it or not - knowing , as in being able to play ALL scales like you say your 2x table is absolutely imperative to being a good musician. Honestly - just do them to death. Your playing will thank you later. Wish someone had bludgened that into me before I had to find out myself!
    – Tim
    Sep 8, 2016 at 18:11

Since you memorized all of the major scales already, I can suggest an easy way to help yourself on the piano with the minor scales. I'm not sure how much you can help yourself from this to actually theoretically remember the stuff, but I can make sure your fingers won't slip on the keys. And with practice, you can get very well acquainted with the key signatures.

While learning major scales, I'm sure you learned something called relative minor chords for each major scale. See this table:

   C                     Am
   D                     Bm
   E                     C#m
   F                     Dm
   G                     Em
   A                     F#m
   B                     G#m

Just remember this table and note the secret: The minor chords on the right have the same key signatures in their scales as the corresponding major scales on the left. So, C maj and A min have the same key signature pattern: they don't have any key signature! Likewise, D maj and B min scales have same key signatures and so on. This helped me a lot and I'm sure it'll help you too.

  • The OP already knows this - and where are the other 5 keys? And with melodic minor there are other things to be addressed. And key sigs are not particularly helpful for the notes of minor scales - apart from natural minor (mel.min. descending).
    – Tim
    Sep 9, 2016 at 12:00
  • @Tim The OP may know the contents of the answer but he/she may not know this trick that I find useful. Plus, for the other 5 # keys, they can just go up by 1 semi tone for the relative minor chords. And if I'm not wrong, melodic minor is a whole new scale with a different key sign pattern. I learned minor and melodic minor separately so it didn't come into my mind to address it here.
    – user32717
    Sep 9, 2016 at 13:27
  • A Major made some money in the army (don't ask). So when he retired he bought a mine. And, naturally, had to employ a Miner. To visit his Miner, the Major had to go down of course. It was only a shallow mine, so he only had to go down three steps. And three letter names are involved. And it's called a Miner Third (almost). Or just remember C major goes with A minor and follow the pattern. But all this is useless when PLAYING scales. By the time you've worked it out, the scale should have been long finished!
    – Laurence
    Sep 9, 2016 at 17:30

The correct way to get from a minor to the relative Major is to go up a whole tone from the name of the minor and then another half tone to another letter name.

So for instance c minor, up a whole tone (D) and then up another halftone TO ANOTHER LETTER NAME --> Eb Major

Going up the halftone to another letter name is the important part.

  • Is it always like that? Whole step then half step?
    – shaunxer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:16
  • Yes but as I say the half step up to another letter name,
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:18
  • It's not technically necessary though, right? It's the same note, but we're calling it something so it's more organized right?
    – shaunxer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:32
  • It is completely necessary, Eb major does not have a D sharp in the key signature.
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:52
  • 2
    How could Eb have D# in the key sig? it's the same note with a different name! I'm intrigued to find out how this answers the question.
    – Tim
    Sep 8, 2016 at 19:48

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