Teaching About Key Signatures

Hello, bloggers! I’m writing to ask for help and share my own little thoughts on how to teach students about key signatures.

"Three sharps! Ford Cars Go. F#, C#, G#. See?!?"

My school district has a long history of prioritizing elementary full orchestra. Playing in this setting requires students to quickly learn to play in new and unfamiliar key signatures, often using notes and fingerings not typically taught in beginning band or beginning strings.

Directing elementary full orchestras has forced me to improve my skills on teaching students how to read key signatures. I’m getting better at it, but so far, I’d still only give myself a B- in terms of being creative or explaining the concept in clear, consise terms that connect with 5th and 6th graders.

The best idea I’ve come up with so far is “Simon Says.” The key signature is Simon. Did Simon say to play F#s? Or Bbs? What did Simon say to the alto saxophones? What did Simon say to the clarinets and trumpets? The strings, flutes and low brass?

The key of C is a challenge for flutists and trombonists who are used to playing Bbs and Ebs. Since key signatures only use sharps and flats and not naturals, it’s a bit of an abstract concept for those players.

A colleague one taught me to teach the order of sharps as “Ford Cars Go Dead At Every Bump” (F C G D E A B). If a student sees 3 sharps in their key signature, they say “Ford Cars Go; F Sharp, C Charp, G Sharp.”

No brilliant thoughts yet on the order of flats. Any great ideas?

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12 thoughts on “Teaching About Key Signatures

  1. I always teach my kids the flats using the same sort of technique… I use the sentence “Betty Eats Apples During Gym Class Fridays”. Of course I always have a little bit of fun when first introducing this to them. I build up the anticipation and tell them “the story”! Which gets them thinking and hopefully remembering this sentence. We talk about Betty all the time then!

  2. I always question the utility of mnemonic devices at the elementary level – to my mind, the kids need to have experience first playing melodies in the keys before really being able to internalize or understand the cycle of fourths/fifths progression behind the key signature. Once they’ve already played several familiar melodies in that key, then I like to question them on how many sharps or flats they see at the beginning of the line – which notes are flat, what fingering must one use to play that note. It’s a longer process, but I think the connection needs to be made between what their ear naturally hears and what they “understand” cognitively for the information to be of any use. Of course, I’ve never been able to run a symphonic or mixed orchestra, so I don’t have experience getting them on the fast track to playing in unfamiliar key areas – that’s a tough job!
    As a side note, I’ve been running into a lot of information lately on how common “mixed” orchestras were in the school setting right up until the 1960s – they used to be standard. Personally, I’ve never seen a group below the high school level, and they are usually reserved for “select” players with very strong playing abilities and lots of previous experience. YOu’re lucky to be able to run a program like the one you have!

  3. Mr. S: Thanks for that! I’ll definitely use it.

    Stan: I hear what you’re saying. I don’t discuss the theory behind key signatures, just the basics of what they need to know to play the right notes. Just curious: What had you been reading about the mixed orchestras? I’ve pretty much just come to accept the fact that my district’s music department uses this format, but I’m really not up on the history of its evolution and, well, demise.

  4. I have just been teaching my more advanced (3rd grade piano) students this this week. Rather than use a mnemonic I just teach BEAD – GCF – much easier to remember and reverse. They already have enough corny sentences to remember! Will think more about this but am just on my way out now.

  5. Fiona: Good point. In my experience, beginning band and string students don’t really have to worry about key signatures during their first year. It’s not really until after they’ve got a solid grasp on reading notation that they learn music in unfamiliar keys. So I’m not too worried about too many corny sentences in one year.

    …But I might have to worry about BEING too corny throughout the year!

  6. Here’s kind of a silly one: “Furry, cuddly good dogs always eat beans (or bones). For flats, I just have students think through it backward.

  7. Hopefully your kids are familiar with solfege. If that ‘s the case, they can figure out the flats by calling the last flat fa and working their way down to do.

  8. The most common phrase for sharps is Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle; flats is the reverse. It also helps for the students to understand the concept of the leading tone and scale patterns.

    • I mostly have high school students (many of which had very little training before they reach me) and they memorize the b-e-a-d-g-c-f and know the sharps are backwards, but, I always ask them to check “What the rules of the game are”, that is, in this song, what are the rules? B’s are flat, F’s are sharp, etc. Getting them to look and think about it before they begin to play is what I emphasize with all my students, regardless of age.

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