Contents Circle of 5ths "Music begins at C" Sharps and flats Chromatic Diatonic Key of C
Key of G Key of D Key of C Key of A Key of F key of B♭
minor keys Em Am Dm Modes Vocal range

             

Keys

For as fundamental a thing as it is, defining "key," as the term is used in music, is a bit elusive for mere text. Fortunately, augmenting the text explanation with images and audio is immensely helpful.

The reasons there are different keys differ slightly for vocal and fiddle music. For singers, vocal range is the reason. If the written music for a song has notes either too high or too low for a singer, it can be sung in a different key that makes it fit the singer's vocal range. For the fiddle, some pieces lay better in certain keys than in others. Changing the key changes both the fingering and bowing, maybe favorably, maybe not. Some pieces are adaptable to a number of keys; others are most sensible in only one.

Getting to the matter of what these different keys are, we'll begin with a look at a complicated-looking chart that shows "the circle of fifths." You needn't more than glance at it for now, as all below it provides explanations of it and references to it. Also, only a part of it applies to the music of Dear Old Illinois, and it is the least complicated part.

The circle of fifths

"Music begins at C."

As you can see, the key of C at the top of the chart is the least complicated in terms of sharps and flats. The key of C has none. Moving away from C in either direction, the first different key has one sharp or one flat, the next one has two, and so on.

Here is a better look at the sharp (#) and flat (♭) symbols:

  

The purpose of a sharp or flat is to instruct the altering of a note's pitch. Pitch describes the sounds of various notes in terms of where they fall on the spectrum of low, medium, or high.

The piano provides a good means of illustrating pitch, as well as sharps and flats. As you move from left to right on the keyboard, you are playing notes of increasingly higher pitch. Likewise, the notes get lower in pitch as you move right to left.

The word pitch is also used as a specific unit of measure. The increments into which the piano keyboard is divided measure one half-pitch each. Also, the frets of the guitar are spaced to divide the pitches of the strings into half-pitch increments. And as you might imagine, two half-pitches equal one full-pitch.

Sharps and flats alter the notes to whose letter names they are attached by one half-pitch; a sharp makes the note one half-pitch higher; a flat makes it one half-pitch lower. So, for example, a G# note is one half-pitch higher than the G note it sharps; a B♭ note is a half-pitch lower than the B note it flats. Let's see and hear these very two examples. Note that there is no significance to the G and B notes themselves; they were picked at random.



As you can see and hear, there's not much to sharping or flatting a note. On the piano, it just means moving to the next key (whether it's black or white.) On the guitar, it just means moving one fret either direction. Also note that the words sharp and flat are used to mean the act of applying sharps and flats, as in sharping or flatting a note.

Sharps and flats are sometimes referred to by the generic term, accidentals. It's a "close enough" use of the term and isn't absolutely accurate, technically, but it's sometimes handy. The term accidentals also has a specific functional meaning, as you will see below.

The sharps or flats shown on the staff (the 5 lines) at the beginning of a piece of music are called the key signature. The instruction of the key signature is, as we would say today, "global." It means you are supposed to sing or play the notes as it directs, all the way through the piece, unless otherwise instructed.

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Sharps, flats, keys, and scales

As you will see and hear below, what the key signature at the beginning of a piece tells you is what scale you will need to use to perform the piece. A scale is simply a specific set of notes. Most commonly (for our purposes, always) it is a set of seven notes. Note in the circle of fifths that going either direction the number of sharps and flats ends at seven. This is because there are only seven notes in a scale to which sharps or flats can be added.

Let's imagine that every job in a particular line of work normally requires a set of seven tools. One set might be a hammer, drill, saw, shovel, rake, axe, and hoe. Another might be a hammer, drill, saw, shovel, rake, axe, and wrench. There are a total of twelve different tools and 15 different sets.

Each tool is a note, each set of tools is a scale or key, and you will see that there are 15 different keys in the circle of fifths. The total contents of the tool shed, all twelve notes, is the chromatic scale.

Sometimes it is discovered that another tool is needed for a job. This is not a bother. You just call the shop and they cheerfully run an accidental out to you at the jobsite. This is the specific meaning of this term, as referred to above. When a note is needed that is not part of the scale the key signature calls for, that note is called an accidental.

Accidentals are often enough sharps or flats that, as mentioned above, sharps and flats have earned the generic term, accidentals. But accidentals are by no means always sharps or flats. For example, if the key signature calls for an F# note and the piece calls for an F, there is another symbol which means to remove the sharp or flat. It is called a natural. Notes with no sharp or flat symbol (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) are called naturals. They normally have no symbol attached. As mentioned above, when they do, it is instructional. The natural symbol is shown below.

It might also be helpful to know that the white keys of the piano represent the naturals, and the black keys the sharps and flats.

So yes, it is possible for a job to keep calling for more accidentals and to end up requiring the full shed of twelve tools, the entire chromatic scale. But that would be very unusual in traditional music; an occasional accidental is about all you will encounter throughout the music from Dear Old Illinois. Also, the original work orders (key signatures) for the music in the book never call for a set of tools that includes more than four sharps or flats.

Let's get to the business of viewing and listening to some examples of all this.

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The chromatic scale

First we'll have a look at the chromatic scale, the one with "all twelve different tools," the one that has every possible note, be it sharp, flat, or natural. (Yes, there are thirteen, but only twelve different notes. Only one of the two notes at the ends counts because they have the same letter name.) Click on the words "Hear it" and our electronic violin virtuoso friend will play a chromatic scale for you.

You will notice that all of the accidentals are given as sharps. They can also be given all as flats.

The result is the same, so what is the difference? Let's look at the note in the number 2 1/2 slot of this scale. In one scale, it is D#; in the other, it is E♭. In one scale, it is a monkey wrench; in the other, it is a pipe wrench. They are just different names for the identical tool/note.

You will also notice the division by half-pitch increments, and that there are none between E and F or between B and C. This is the way the math of music works out. All we need to know is that there are two gaps and where they are located. These gaps are the reason the black keys are situated in alternating groups of two and three on the piano keyboard. What you see is "two-gap, three-gap," etc. It should be noted that the gaps occur between the E/F and B/C notes, not between the 3/4 and 7/8 notes. The chromatic scales above are C scales, because they begin and end on C. Let's look at the chromatic scale in D.

The scale is one full-pitch higher in pitch overall because it starts on a D rather than C note. But the scale itself is identical; the intervals (simply the distances, in pitch) between adjacent notes are identical; they're all one half-pitch apart. And you will see that the gaps fall in between the same notes, even though their locations in the scale (numbers) differ from those of the C scales above. You can play any thirteen consecutive notes on a piano, starting on any note, and you will have played a chromatic scale.

So, there is no E# or B#; those notes are F and C, respectively. Likewise, there is no F♭ or C♭.

But there's a whole key called C♭ in the circle.

Yes, there is a key of C♭. Things get a bit complicated down at the bottom of the circle. Rest assured that you will not encounter C♭ in key, note, or any other form in the book.

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I thought a scale was do-re-mi...

Right you are, and we're getting to that. It is assumed that this is the scale everyone is likeliest to be familiar with. The do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do scale is one of the sets of seven different tools. Yes, there are eight notes, but only seven different ones; the "do" note appears twice, at the beginning and end. Incidentally, the note a diatonic scale begins and ends on is called the root note. The do-re-mi scale is called the major scale or the diatonic scale.

The key of C

Now that you know what it means, we'll begin with the diatonic C scale. Remember, "Music begins at C."

The interval (distance) between the two "do" notes is called an octave. An octave is the distance, either up or down in pitch, from any note to the next note of the same letter name. It might be the distance from a C note to the next higher C; it might be the distance from a D# note to the next lower D#. So, it can be said that the diatonic scale spans a range of one octave.

Of course you could keep going up from the highest note of the scale shown above. If so, the 8 note assumes the role of the 1 note for the next higher octave, as shown. Likewise, the 1 note of the scale shown is also the 8 note of the next lower octave. The limits of how high or low you can go are the ranges of various instruments and ultimately the range of human hearing. We'll keep the boundaries well within reason.

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First stop, heading the sharp direction: the key of G

So, if you want to play a diatonic G scale, you just have to start on G and avoid all the sharps and flats, right? Same as the chromatic scale?

It's almost that simple, but not quite. Here, have a look and a listen at what we get if we do that.

Something is obviously a little wrong, but what? If it wasn't obvious, listen to it again, and pay particular attention to the 7 note. It has an enlarged note head in the picture to make it stand out. So, the trouble is the 7 note.

In case it's still not clear from listening where the trouble is, let's put this scale to actual use. We'll play the first line of "Happy Birthday" using the scale above. Here are the results:

It becomes even more obvious when accompaniment is added:

If it's still not obvious, well, you might want to think twice about performing for any birthday parties. But take heart; there are pieces that call for this and other similar scales, and we will get to that later. But for now, we need to fix our G scale.

The afflicted F note is one half-pitch too low. In order to raise it one half-pitch, we just need to add a sharp to it. But all of the F notes in Happy Birthday will be sharp. So rather than having to write in a sharp for every F note, the sharp is prescribed globally, by the key signature. The set of tools we need to take along for the job of performing Happy Birthday is thus G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. This is the G diatonic scale. Have a look and a listen.

And finally, here how it looks with the key signature for the key of G.

Now let's obey the key signature and take one more stab at Happy Birthday.

Much better. So there is one sharp (the F) in the diatonic G scale, the G major scale, the do-re-mi scale in the key of G (all three mean exactly the same thing.) We'll be looking at a lot of other scales here in a minute, but before we move on, let's stop for a reference to the circle of fifths.

If anyone has all along been wondering what the fifths in the circle of fifths means, now is your time. Look at the diatonic C scale. Look at the number of the G note, and you will see that it is 5. But what about the chromatic C scale, which has more notes? It is still number 5. G is a fifth interval above C. If you go around the circle clockwise, you will find this to be true all the way around. From G up to D is a fifth interval, so the next key we will look at is D.

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The key of D

Again, we will play a scale using only the natural notes, this time starting on a D note. Here is the result.

As you can probably hear, it needs two sharps to make it the diatonic D scale.

So here how it looks with the key signature for the key of D. The extra F# note is just there because the sharp of the key signature goes on the higher F of the staff. As you can see in the continuous staff map on the far left of the screen, the top line and bottom space are both F notes.

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The key of A

And again, here is a scale using only the natural notes, starting on an A note.

As we wander farther away from C on the circle and the scales need more sharps, it gets harder to tell just by listening which notes are or are not part of the diatonic scale. This scale needs three sharps to make it the diatonic A scale.

And here it is with the key signature for the key of A.

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The key of E

Our last stop in the sharp direction around the circle is the key of E. Here is a scale using only the natural notes, starting on an E note.

It doesn't sound like much of anything. This scale needs four sharps to make it the diatonic E scale.

And here it is with the key signature for the key of E.

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Heading the flat direction: the key of F

Our first of only two stops in the flat direction around the circle is the key of F. As we did with the keys in the sharp direction, we will play a scale using only the natural notes, starting on an F note.

Because it is only one key away from C, this scale doesn't sound too far removed from the do-re-mi scale. It just needs one flat to make it the diatonic F scale.

And here it is with the key signature for the key of F, a single flat.

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The key of B♭

Our second and final stop in the flat direction around the circle is the key of B♭. Let's hear a scale using only the natural notes, starting on a B♭ note.

Again, this scale doesn't sound too far removed from the do-re-mi scale. It has one flat by default, as its root note is flatted. It just needs one more flat to make it the diatonic B♭ scale.

And here it is with the key signature for the key of B♭.

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Minor keys

Some pieces in the book are set in minor keys. The terms major and minor refer specifically to the third note of a scale. We have seen major scales above. The third note of the minor scale is one half-pitch flat of the third note in the major scale of the same letter name. For example, the third note of the A major scale is C#; the third note of the A minor scale is C. Minor scales and keys are referred to in abbreviated form by attaching a small "m" to the letter name.

Unlike majors, minor key scales are variable; there is no one minor scale for any given key. But some are more commonly encountered than others, and those are the ones we will examine. We will begin with Em.

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The key of Em

We will be looking at the minor key scales relative to their major counterparts, all of which are included above. The first scale for each will result from simply flatting the third note of the major scale. It has three of the E major scale's four sharps in its key signature. Here is that scale for the key of Em.

Another frequently encountered Em scale is shown below. It has one sharp in its key signature.

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The key of Am

Again we have flatted the third note of the A major scale. It has two of the A major scale's three sharps in its key signature.

Another common Am scale is shown below. It has no sharps or flats in its key signature.

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The key of Dm

And here we have flatted the third note of the D major scale. It has one of the A major scale's two sharps in its key signature.

This Dm scale is arrived at by flatting the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the D major scale. The 3rd and 7th notes got from sharp to natural; the 6th from natural to flat. So it has one flat in its key signature.

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Modes

Sometimes the scales required by certain pieces have what might be called built-in accidentals. These pieces require notes that are not part of the major scale. Instead, they have their own "custom" scale. These scales are called modes, and they are said to be modal. In fact, minor key scales are modes, as they vary from the major scale.

One of the most popular of modes is arrived at by flatting the 7th note of the major scale. If you recall the scale that wouldn't work for Happy Birthday above, here is part of a fiddle piece from the book that uses that very scale, a G major scale except for the flatted 7th note. Being that the 7th (F) note is the only sharp of the G scale, this scale has no sharps or flats. Because all of the F notes in the piece are natural, the key signature has no sharps or flats, yet the piece is in the key of G. You can hear a bit of it below.

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Keys and vocal range

This section is more practical than theoretical, as it gives you an opportunity to hear some different keys in action. We will use the first line of Happy Birthday again for the demonstration. It is set in all of the different major keys used in the book.

This shows the relationship between keys and vocal range. The range of a song's notes may be too high or too low in one key to suit a particular voice. But in addition to changing the key, a song may be too high as written but comfortable in a lower octave, in the key in which it is written. This is illustrated as well.

Happy Birthday, key of G

We begin with the example from earlier in the page, Happy Birthday in the key of G.

Happy Birthday, key of G, melody an octave lower

Now here is the same thing in a lower octave.

Happy Birthday, key of G, melody another octave lower

In fact, it's not impossible that some voices would even find it comfortable at yet another octave lower, as below.

And here it is in a number of different keys. We will start with the key of E and go clockwise around the circle of fifths, but skipping G when we get to it.

Happy Birthday, key of E

Happy Birthday, key of A

Happy Birthday, key of D

Happy Birthday, key of C

Happy Birthday, key of F

Happy Birthday, key of B♭

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Key of G Key of D Key of C Key of A Key of F Key of B♭  
minor keys Em Am Dm Modes Vocal range