Understanding Scales and Key Signatures

Scales and key signatures are just one part of understanding music. If you are learning to play an instrument or if you are working on improving your singing voice, you will need to have a firm understanding of scales and key signatures. These are some of the most basic aspects of music, and you will find that they affect an aspect of every piece that you play. When you first take music, you will be exposed to music theory as well. Once you understand these basic concepts it will help you in playing and composing music in the future.


Scales are the set progressions of notes. One of the first things you will learn when you play an instrument is the scales. The scales allow you to practice playing the notes, and it makes it easier to hear if you miss a note because the progression of the notes will sound wrong to the ear. You may learn a different set of scales for each key signature that you learn. There are a variety of scales available and in western music tradition most scales have eight notes. The common scales that you will hear about are major and minor scales.


Transposition is when you take one scale and rewrite it so it begins at a different pitch. This means that the notes will follow the same progression up the scale, but the notes sound different because the scales started at a different place. If you are adapting a violin piece to a piano piece you may need to transpose the music so that it will work correctly. It takes talent to transpose the music, and there are some computer programs that will do the work for you.

Key Signatures

A key signature lets you know what scales are going to be used in the piece. The key signature also tells you the sharps or flats for each note in the scale. You may be required to memorize the scales in different key signatures. This will help you because as you learn to play pieces you will need to learn to play certain notes as sharp or flat. The same will apply to any singing that you do. There are both major and minor key signatures.


Modes were used primarily before the 1700s in music. Scales have taken the place of the modes. Traditionally there are six different types of modes. The modes have the same step patterns, but can start at different tones. This was a common way to teach music when not everyone had access to the written score. It is still used in church music.


Solfeggio allows you to teach music to people who cannot read music yet. Part of solfeggio is that each note in a scale is assigned a name. These are Do, Re, Mi, Fa Sol, La Ti and Do. There are hand symbols you can use to help people learn where they need to go on the current scale. This can be used to teach large groups or young children to sing.