Piano Q&A: How to remember the sharps and flats

Hi and welcome to today’s Q&A session on PianoTV! Today’s question will be a short and sweet one, but I really like this question and have seen it in my studio a fair amount.

So without further ado, let’s get into it!



Key signatures

So what Donald is talking about are key signatures. Key signatures show us what sharps or flats are going to be in a piece – they’re written once at the beginning, and then it’s up to you to remember they’re there as you play.

For example, if you have a piece in the key of D, you’ll have to remember that there are C#s and F#s as you play – any time you come across a C and an F, it’ll look unmarked.

This is usually a bit of a learning curve for my students – a lot of them forget about the sharps initially, since they’re not used to remembering them. Most of my students will be able to tell something is “off” if they miss a sharp, if they have a decent ear.

I find it usually takes a couple of months for them to “get used” to reading key signatures, and even then, we always start with the absolute simplest ones (like the key of G and F).

How to remember sharps/flats in a piece:

So this is what I find usually works for remembering the sharps and flats (accidentals) in a piece:

  1. Start with simple key signatures

  2. Learn the corresponding scale inside out

  3. Experiment with learning multiple pieces in a key, before moving on to pieces in another key

Start with simple key signatures

Starting with simple key signatures is one of the best things you can do. It gives you a chance to “acclimate” to various keys. If you jump right into a piece with 5 sharps, you’re not really giving yourself a chance to test the waters.

That’s why you’ll see most method books start with the key of C (no sharps and flats), then move to the key of G (one sharp), the key of F (one flat), and so on.

In the first year or two of teaching adults piano, we pretty much never do any key signature that goes beyond one flat, or three sharps. Key signatures with sharps tend to be easier to adapt to, and the scales are easier to play.

Learn the corresponding scale inside out

Another thing I’m pretty diligent about with my students is getting them familiar with the scales their pieces are based on. So if we’re learning a piece in the key of G, I want them to be able to play a G scale easily, from memory.

It doesn’t have to be a complicated hands-together four-octave scale – being able to play a one-octave scale is enough.

This is especially useful once you start getting into more complicated key signatures, with 4+ sharps or flats. You want to be able to play that scale in your sleep. You should know it so well that you can visualize playing it in your head easily, without being near a piano.

So if you’re playing a piece in the key of Ab, which has 4 flats, you want to be a pro at an Ab major scale. It helps some people to remember the individual notes that are flat (“BEAD”), but I think it ultimately works better to have a strong intuitive grasp of the key instead of trying to memorize a formula.

Experiment with learning multiple pieces in a key, before moving on to pieces in another key

Finally, when you’re getting comfortable with new key signatures, I think it’s a good idea to batch pieces together in the same key.

So if you are learning a piece in the key of D, learn another few pieces in the key of D. If you follow any methods or do etudes/studies, batch them by key.

This is an immersion technique – the more you play pieces in the key of D, the better you’ll get at remembering the sharps.

You’ll notice that most methods, including old methods by guys like Clementi and Czerny, tend to follow this approach. In fact, Clementi’s Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte is built entirely on the different key signatures. You’ll do a few pieces in one key (each progressing dramatically in difficulty) before moving on to pieces in a new key.

Start with the easier key signatures and build up to the most complicated. If you take nothing else away from this video, I think this immersion technique is the most important.