How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part I

How do you get better at sight-reading pieces with many sharps or flats in the key signature? Is there a trick to remembering the key signatures? Read this three-part article to find out how to master all the keys so that you’ll be able to sight-read in ANY key. 

 

Sight-reading piano pieces with one or two sharps or flats in the key signature is doable but what about when you have five, six or seven sharps or flats to deal with!? What are you meant to do then? How can you possibly remember ALL the sharps and flats!?

 

This is what I’m going to teach you in this three-part article.

 

In How to Sight-Read in Any Key Part I, I’m going to show you exactly HOW to identify the key of a piece, including some tricks to help you name any key quickly.

 

In How to Sight-Read in Any Key Part II, I’ll be showing you how to apply what we learned in Part I to construct major and minor scales, arpeggios and chords.

 

And in How to Sight-Read in Any Key Part III, I’ll give you specific exercises that you can practise in all keys so that you can master them. In this way, when you do see a piece of music with any number of sharps or flats, you can just think: “Okay, I know what to do here. Let’s do it!” as opposed to running a mile the other way!

 

It is my hope that by the end of this three-part article, you’ll feel more confident in sight-reading music in ANY key.

 

Let’s begin!

 

PART 1: How to identify the key signatures

 

The first thing you need to be able to do is to figure out the key signature. There are two ways you can go about this:

 

One way is to look at what the sharps or flats are in the key signature and to try to remember them as you play the piece. If you have three sharps in the key signature, like in the example below, you could look at each one and work out that the first one is F, the second is C and the third is G. Then as you’re sight-reading, you’d have to constantly remind yourself to play F-sharp, C-sharp and G-sharp.

 

working out the key signature the slow way

 

If you’ve tried this before, you’ve probably realised that this method is not ideal because you’ll tend to forget these sharps or flats halfway through the piece. And trying to remember these three sharps will load your brain with extra information that you can do without!

 

Another way is to learn all the major and minor keys with a really handy tool called the “Circle of fifths”. This tool is powerful because it gives you at a glance all the major and minor keys. It allows you to:

 

  • Work out the number of sharps or flats of any key
  • Work out any key based on the number of sharps or flats
  • Work out the relative minor or major of any key
  • Work out the order of sharps or flats

 

The Circle of fifths (or the Clock of fifths)

 

Here’s what it looks like:

 

circle of fifths diagram

 

 

It’s a circle around which all the major keys are found. Interestingly, it looks a bit like a clock, where the keys are arranged like the numbers of the clock. If you take any two adjacent keys, such as C and G (or 12 o’clock and 1 o’clock if you think of a clock), you’ll see that there are 5 notes apart (or 5 minutes apart like on a clock!), that is, a fifth apart. Hence “the circle of fifths” (or the Clock of fifths, if you prefer!).

 

N.B.: The interval between each key is a PERFECT fifth, which means it is made up of 3 and a half tones. For example, C to D is a tone (T), D to E is a tone, E to F is a semitone (S, or halftone) and F to G is a tone:

 

example of a perfect fifth

 

The keys with sharps

 

how to use the Circle of Fifths

 

At the top of the circle is C major, with no sharps or flats. If you count UP 5 notes (C, D, E, F, G) from C you get G major with one sharp, which is to the RIGHT of C.

 

Now if you count up a fifth from G, you get D major, with two sharps. As you can see, the number of sharps increases each time you go up a fifth, or each time you move clockwise to the next key around the circle. You can repeat this process until you reach the key of C-sharp major with 7 sharps – which incidentally, is the same as D-flat with 5 flats, which is why they overlap in the diagram.

 

The keys with flats

If you count DOWN a fifth from C and move anticlockwise, you get F major with one flat. If you count another fifth down from F you get B-flat (and not B because B to F is not a perfect fifth) with two flats, and so on.

 

In short, count UP 5 notes for the sharps but count DOWN 5 notes for the flats.

 

What about the minor keys?

The minor keys are included inside the circle and are each paired with a major key. Each of these pairs shares the same key signature. These are called the relative keys. For example, G major and E minor are relative keys and both have one sharp in the key signature. So we would say that G major is the relative major key of E minor, and E minor is the relative minor key of G major.

 

circle of fifths diagram with major and minor keys

 

The simple method to work out the relative minor of a major key is by counting DOWN 3 semitones from the major key. For example, for C major you would count down 3 semitones from C, which would give you A as the diagram illustrates. So the relative minor of C major is A minor.

how to work out the relative minor

 

So to work out a relative major, you would count UP 3 semitones.

 

Order of the sharps and flats

The Circle of fifths can also tell you the order of the sharps and flats.

 

Let’s say you want to know the 4 sharps of E major. To know the sharps and the order of the sharps, start with F, then move clockwise to C, G and D, just like the order of the keys! The order of all the sharps is F, C, G, D, A, E, and B.

 

order of the sharps with the circle of fifths

 

To know the order of the flats, you need to start with B-flat and go anti-clockwise around the Circle of fifths. For example, B-flat major, which we know has two flats in the key signature, has B-flat and E-flat, The order of all the flats is B, E, A, D, G, C and F.

 

order of the flats with the circle of fifths

 

 

How to know if the key is major or minor

Now you know that any key signature can either belong to a major or a minor key. So how do you know if the key is major or minor and why do you need to know?

 

You might think that simply knowing the sharps or flats of the piece is enough but knowing whether the key is major or minor can help you know what to expect in the piece and thus make the sight-reading process a little easier. You’ll know what chords to expect, what arpeggios to expect and what accidentals to expect (if any).

 

So it is important that you determine whether the key is major or minor. Luckily, there are several tricks to help you.

 

In 95% of cases, you can simply look at:

  • the first chord
  • the last chord, or;
  • the accidentals that are typically found in a minor scale (read Part II to learn more about minor scales)

 

I say 95% of cases here because occasionally – in modern pieces especially – the first and/or last chord won’t be in the key of the piece.

 

In this next example, the key signature has 2 flats so the piece will either be in B-flat major or G minor. If we look at the first chord (in the red rectangle), we can see that the bass note is a G and is played with a B-flat, both of which are found in a G minor chord (G, B-flat, D), therefore the key here is G minor.

 

example of a piece in a minor key

 

At the end of this same piece, there are further clues that tell us that this piece is indeed in G minor. We have F-sharp and E natural on repeated occasions (in the first four red rectangles), which are both found in the G melodic minor scale (refer to Part II for more information on melodic minor scales). And in case that’s not enough evidence, the last chord is a G minor chord (last rectangle).

 

example of a piece in a minor key with accidentals

 

And in this last example, looking at the key signature, we know that the key will either be G major or E minor. The first chord indicates that this piece is in G major (G, B and D).

 

example of a piece in a major key

 

Tricks to quickly identify the key signature

Besides using the Circle of fifths, you can use the following tricks to quickly identify a key signature.

 

For major keys with SHARPS: take the last sharp of the key signature and go up one semitone.

 

For example, if you have three sharps in the key signature (F, C and G), this means that the last sharp is G-sharp. Go up one semitone from G-sharp and you get A. So, the key with three sharps is A major. Easy!

 

Now, this trick won’t work with C major for obvious reasons, so you just have to remember that C major has no sharps or flats.

 

For major keys with FLATS: count up a fifth from the last flat, i.e. move clockwise around the Circle of fifths to the next key.

 

For example, if you have two flats in the key signature (B and E), then E-flat is the last one. Count up a fifth and you get B-flat. Or if you use the Circle of fifths, move clockwise around the circle to the next key which is B-flat.

 

Final words

Alright, guys, that’s it for this week! I hope it’s been useful and not too confusing! Like always, if you have any questions, just add them in the comments below and I’ll reply as soon as I can.

 

>> Want to check how much you’ve understood? Download these free Circle of fifths worksheets and have a go at filling out the diagrams.

 

Next week in Part II, we’ll use what we’ve learned here to learn more about major and minor scales, chords and arpeggios. Don’t skip this step because this will form the basis of the exercises I’ll be giving you in Part III! And if you want to be notified as soon as Parts II and III are published, subscribe to the newsletter.

 

Until then, happy sight-reading!

 

READ MORE >> The Best Sight-Reading Books for Piano (Review & Buying Guide)

 

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Stay up to date with all the latest content.

    We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Share on facebook
    Share on twitter
    Share on linkedin
    Share on pinterest
    Emmanuelle Fonsny
    >