I'm always having the same problem over and over. I can't remember
which keys have flats and which have sharps. How to remember all this?
Is it really necessary to distinguish them straightforward?
I mean if we have key signature F then we get F,G,A,A#,C,D,E whereas
if we have Ab we get Ab,Bb,C,Db,EB,F,Gb. Right?
Much confusion here - Let's try and take it from the top:
Before anything else, this must be said:
Learn the Circle of 5ths, understand how it works and commit it to memory: It is the most important tool we have for understanding keys, scales and chords. ( Here is a nice little publication to help you: The Chord Wheel: The Ultimate Tool for All Musicians - Circle of 5ths )
Circle of 5ths
Here are a few simple, general rules to follow. Hopefully, they will alleviate your doubts about when to use a sharp and when to use a flat. They work for all the keys/key signatures in the traditional Circle of 5ths, which comprise all 7 modes of the Major scale. (There are other keys and scales that don't follow these rules, but that's for "Level 2". @BadJohn alluded to some of this in his answer.)
Every scale we will discuss - all derived from the Circle of 5ths,
and representing all the modes of the major scale - all of them must
be spelled using 7 distinct note names: A-B-C-D-E-F-G. There must be no
duplicate letter names. A
scale in this context means a graduated,
orderly series of those 7 distinct notes in succession, starting from
any given point in the series.
A Flat key -
Eb for example, contains only naturals or flats - it
does not contain any sharps.
A Sharp key -
F# for example, contains only naturals or sharps - it
does not contain any flats.
So, neither sharp keys nor flat keys require any work at all: No duplicate notes (letters), and it's always either naturals and sharps, or naturals and flats - never sharps and flats together.
- For a "Natural" Major key - for example, E Major or F Major - use the scale
algorithm and spell out the scale, using one letter only for each
scale degree. In the same manner as above, you will invariably end up with either all sharps or all
E Major: Applying the algorithm for the major scale building on the
E and using only one letter for each scale degree, we get the following:
E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E : No flats - E major will contain only
sharps - 4 of them.
- F Major: Applying the algorithm for the major scale building on the
F and using only one letter for each scale degree, we get the following:
F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F: No sharps - F major will contain only flats - 1 of them.
To correctly visualize and grasp this in an organized and coherent way - as opposed to just a jumble of random rules and numbers - you must learn to understand and use the Circle of 5ths! It is as important as a
for loop in
C++ - fundamental: You cannot work without it.
For minor scales, I believe the rule is the same, but you can also just use the key signature of the relative major and apply the rule for major.
Every minor scale and its relative major scale have the same key signature - they are comprised of the same notes, just starting at a different point. Every (natural) minor scale starts on the note which is the M6th of its relative major and has the same key signature as that major scale. That is why they are "relatives" - same notes/key signature - they are only called
minor because of the relative starting point with respect to the 7 notes -
A-B-C-D-E-F-G - you use to build the scale. Changing the starting point changes the structure and sonority of that sequence of notes, making them either
- C Minor:
C is the M6th of what major scale? Eb Major. Here is the
Eb Major scale, following the above stated rule for building major scales:
Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb - the M6th is C, followed by the M7th,
and the octave,
Now: Eb, is clearly a flat key, and when you build a major scale with Eb as the root, all of its notes are either flat or natural, as explained - in this case 3 flats: Eb,Ab and Bb. That is also your key signature for C Minor, the relative minor to Eb Major - 3 Flats - NO SHARPS. The notes for C Minor are the same as the note for Eb Major, just arranged to start from C instead of Eb - but all the flats are on the same notes - and ONLY FLATS - no Sharps. C Minor: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C - same notes, same 3 flats Eb,Ab, Bb. NO SHARPS.
- The same applies when you start at any of the 7 notes in a scale -
the same notes take on a new structure with a new sonority because of
the new and unique sequence. (When you start the same scale on
different degrees from your acknowledged root - the Major Scale, or any other scale for that matter -
those different sequences are called the
modes of a scale.)
How to remember all this?
Learn your scale algorithms - commit them to memory, and study the Circle of 5ths, the Rosetta Stone of music theory. Play through all the keys, following the Circle of 5ths, and take note of the logical, gradual progression of sharps and flats it teaches you - from 0 sharps - C Major - to 6 sharps, and then from 6 flats back to 0 flats - again at C Major after completing the full circle.
When going through the Circle, switch directions from time to time - say 3 times from the sharp side - clockwise - and then 3 times from the flat side - counterclockwise. That will help you to grasp the gradations from sharps to flats, and vice-versa. Note that when you start from the flat side you move in 4th's - so some call it the Circle of 4ths - but when you start from the sharp side, you move in 5th's. (That alone should give you something to think about...)
If you practice and work at it every day without fail for half an hour, it should not take long to master the basics - a couple of months at most.
It is not a lot to remember if you abide by the Circle. You only have 12 keys - take away C major, which has no sharps or flats, and you've got only 11 - 5 on the sharp side and 5 on the flat side, plus 1 - Gb/F# - which can go either way: An inconvenient 6 flats or an inconvenient 6 sharps. The rest are awkward enharmonic equivalents, such as the D# or Fb, which you'll rarely encounter and should not use, unless you have some compelling reason to do so. (Prove it by looking at the key signatures in a few fake books.)
The Circle follows a very logical pattern through the chromatic scale:
From the sharp side you move up a P5th as you go - each time adding one sharp, which will be the Major 7th of the new key. You retain the previous sharps, drop them down proportionately, making the new one the Major 7th of the new key. This continues until you hit F# - 6 sharps (a Tritone from C, the starting point) , at which point we move to the flat side, which is more intuitive and convenient at that point, as explained above.
From the flat side you move up a P4th as you go - each time adding one flat, which will be the P4th of the new key. You retain the previous flats, drop them down proportionately, and making the new one the P4th of the new key. This continues until you hit Gb (the enharmonic equivalent of F#) - 6 flats and a Tritone from C, the starting point - at which point we move to the sharp side, which is more intuitive and convenient at that point, as explained above.
Turns out, we have a circle divided into 12 parts, just like hours of a clock: Midnight is C;
Move through clockwise, adding one sharp for each hour until you get to 6 AM: F#/Gb - 6 hours/6 chromatic notes/one tritone from C/midnight.
Move through counter-clockwise, adding one flat for each hour until you get to 6 AM: Gb/F# - 6 hours/6 chromatic notes/one tritone from C/midnight.
The same applies if you move all the way through from the flat or sharp side, except that when going from the sharp side, once you get past F#, instead of adding a sharp, you removed a flat - and vice versa.
Once you understand the rules for spelling scales and the Circle of 5ths, you really don't have to memorize anything except a few scale algorithms - everything else falls into place logically just by following movement of sharps and flats through the Circle - no need to memorize.
Is it really necessary to distinguish them straightforward?
Absolutely yes! Unless you use the correct musical vocabulary, you will not be well understood by other musicians when you speak or write about music, nor will you be able to notate music correctly. It's no different than if you used incorrect words to express yourself on any subject: If you don't have an adequate and correct vocabulary of words to use in writing and speaking, you will not be able to express yourself well and be understood in your reading and writing.
Unless you learn the correct vocabulary, your thinking about music will also be skewed - you will never grasp the fundamentals of our theoretical system of music unless you learn how name the notes, scales and chords correctly, and refer to them that way. Nothing will make sense otherwise - not in your mind, and not when you try to read or comprehend something about music from someone else.
Example: You read a discussion about Dominant 7th chords - say C7 in the key of F:
C-E-G-Bb. The all important Dominant 7th is
B being the 7th in scales and chords based whose root is
C. How will you understand this discussion if you spell the chord
C-E-G-A#? You have no Dominant 7th - only an augmented 6th. You'll either be completely confused, start messing around with counting steps and half steps, or transpose in your mind to Bb - which is how you should have spelled the chord in the first place...
Then again if we are playing in Fmaj, is it the chord A# major in it
or Bb major?
Based on what we have explained, the answer is clear. The F major scale is spelled
F->G-A-Bb-C-D-E->F , making
A the M3rd in the key of F Major - and so the 4th must be
B - in this case
Bb, according to the major scale algorithm.
There were/are many musicians who play by ear with no formal knowledge of theory and terminology, including some very great ones. But don't let that fool you: They all had their private systems and vocabularies that were consistent and logical for themselves. However, when expressing their music to others, they either had to play it out, or resort to transcribers and arrangers, etc - people with formal training and knowledge - to promulgate their music. (Provided it was good enough for anyone else to be interested in it...)