When it comes to learning and remembering certain concepts in music, a lot of input and repetition is required to allow the information to sink in and begin to make sense. Key signatures are a good example of this – with twelve major and twelve minor keys, it can seem like a daunting task to memorise the correct sharps and flats needed for each scale. A lot of my students like using flash cards for learning this kind of information and testing themselves on their retention.
Recently I made some printable key signature flash cards for my students, which you can download for free by clicking the link at the bottom of the page (these cards all use treble clef). Here are five different ways you can use these flash cards in your practice.
Shuffle the cards for randomised scale practice. This is simple but effective, as you’ll be tested on your ability to recall or identify key signatures out of any logical order. I recommend playing the scale on your instrument if it’s available so that you’re training your fingers as well as your brain.
Time yourself arranging the cards in a Circle of Fifths on a table or surface. The Circle of Fifths is like a map of all the keys, and it’s a really useful skill to have as a musician to be able to instantly visualise it. If you are familiar with the geographical layout of a town you can move from place to place more easily and confidently; if you know the map of the key signatures you can move from key to key more easily too. (Try this exercise twice with the cards facing both ways.)
Test yourself writing out key signatures on a blank stave. For this you’ll need some manuscript paper (you can find printable music manuscript online, or sold in notepad format, or you can just draw out your staves by hand on plain paper). With the key name sides face up, draw a random card and try writing out the key signature (don’t forget to draw your clef first).
This is a good exercise to practise as there is a specific order that you need to write your sharps and flats in, and they need to go on particular lines or spaces on the stave. The order for sharps to be added to your key signature can be remembered with this mnemonic: ‘Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket’. The flats are added in the opposite order and can be remembered with ‘Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet’ (some of my students also like to use ‘BEAD Grumpy Cat Fish’ for flats too).
Test yourself writing out the scale for each key. This is similar to the exercise above in that you’ll need music manuscript paper. Pick your clef of choice, draw a random flash card and try writing out the major or minor scale of that key, either with the key signature at the start or alternatively with the accidentals (the sharp and flat signs) next to the notes that need them. This is another great way to also practise your musical handwriting.
Try playing a simple melody in each key. This tests your brain a little bit more! Pick a really simple tune at first (Twinkle Twinkle or Frere Jacques are good ones to start with as they start on the tonic, which is the first note of the scale). Draw a flash card at random, then try to play the tune in that key. Don’t forget that you’ll need to play certain notes as sharps or flats according to the key signature. This is a brilliant exercise for developing transposition skills (changing from one key to another) and listening skills. You should be able to tell quite easily if a certain note is not quite right, and then fix it by trying another note in the scale.
Here’s a tip: think about the intervals (the distances between the notes) in your melody. For Twinkle Twinkle, you start by playing the first note of the scale twice, then the fifth note of the scale twice. This will be the same whichever key you’re in. The notes will change but the intervals will stay the same.
There you go! Next time you practise, try out one of these ideas to add some interest and variety to your scales and theory work. The exercises get progressively harder, so if you’re new to key signatures you can start with the first method and move on when you’re ready.
Can you think of any more ways you could use key signature flash cards? Which ideas do you like the best?
Instructions for Printing the Flash Cards
Print the first two pages only. These pages have the key names on them. I recommend using paper that is 120gsm or heavier so that the ink doesn’t show through the other side.
Print the third page on the reverse of the first page. (Make sure the paper is the right way up in the printer!)
Print the fourth page on the reverse of the second page.
Cut along the blue borderlines (a great excuse to use a guillotine if you have one!) to produce twelve individual cards. The cards should have the major and minor key names on one side, and the corresponding key signature on the other. (To store them, I made a basic origami envelope, but any envelope or container will do for storage.)