How to memorise scales, sharps, flats and theory?

by Suzanne Omar
(Shah Alam, Malaysia)

In 2008, I was badly injured and banged up my head which caused amnesia in an automobile accident. Then 1 year later went through a bad divorce which left me with nothing and penniless.

So after 33 years of devotion to the family, I must now fend for myself and the only way is to get a certificate of something. As I had taken my piano grades till Grade 5, 33 years ago, it is now my only option to be a piano teacher while working as a kindergarten teacher.

I am now doing very well in my Grade 6 piano pieces and playing the scales well but I can't remember the sharps and flats. I am down with theory because I can't memorize the sharps and flats and remembering the time values, the melodic and harmonic, in short the whole lot.

My ABRSM exams will be in March next year and I am studying very hard for it but I would appreciate all the advice and help I can get.

Maria’s answer:
Oh dear, you really had some tough luck. But it seems to me you are determined and strong, and will make things change for the better.

As for memorizing the sharps and flats, I assume you mean the order of them in regards to the key signatures?

There are 7 sharps or flats showing the key signatures. You have to memorize only the first sharp and flat in each series.

Let’s start with the sharps:

The first sharp is on the F line, and placed on the highest line of the staff. The rest of the sharp signs are added for each tonality in a zig-zag pattern; moving a fourth down, a fifth up, a fourth down, a fifth up etc.

Following this pattern we have a bit of trouble reaching A on the treble staff, since it ends up on a help line. A sharp sign on a help line looks messy, so this sharp gets moved down an octave, this is the only exception. Otherwise the pattern continues until a total of 7 sharps.

The trick to remember which tonality each group of sharps represents is easy:

The last sharp added; The next note higher is your key signature in major. (The relative minor is 1 ½ step below the major.)

For example if there are three sharps in the key signature; the last sharp is on G. The next note higher is A, so three sharps is the key signature for A major(or F# minor).

Now the flats:

You have to memorize that the first flat is placed on B. Add each of the flats in the same way as with the sharps - but – instead of starting by moving down a fourth, you go the other way: up a fourth, then down a fifth etc until you have 7 flats.

The trick for flats is:
1.You need to memorize that the first flat (on B) is the key signature for F major / D minor.
2. The one before the last flat added, is always the same as the key signature. (That’s why you have to memorize the first flat, since there is no flat before!)

As an example, you have two flats, the second one is on E, the one before that is on B; so the key signature is Bb major / G minor.

About scales:

Actually, there are only a few things to remember here as well:

1.The major scale pattern (Whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half).

2.The relative minor is a small third or 1 ½ steps below the major.

3.Using exactly the same notes as the relative major scale, but starting 1 ½ steps below, is the Natural Minor Scale.

4.Raising the 7th step in the natural minor scale turns it into a Harmonic Minor Scale.

5.Raising the 6th and the 7th step when going up (ascending) and lowering them again when going down (descending), makes it a Melodic Minor Scale.

I have written some pages which might be helpful regarding the scales and the key signatures:

An Easy Way to Learn Major and Minor Scales

About the Piano Scale

Piano Scales with Fingering

The Circle of Fifths

I hope this was of some help. I wish you all the best and good luck!


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by: John Connor

Thanks so much. I just started to study a book, and read about the 4th/5th circle. It is easy to go with the book, but the it says "Now, stop and memorise all major scales and signs in 4th circle order, and that's daunting.
I'm gonna try your advice, that makes it seems easier.

how to remember what sharps or flats in piano scales
by: Suzanne

Hello again, I can play my major scales and remember the sharps and flats a bit better now but I still get my sharps and flats mixed up when playing other scales i.e. G# minor or Bb minor harmonic or melodic in the scales. When I am guided by my teacher then only will I be able to play the scales and I do play it well. The problem is sustaining and remembering the lesson after that. I can't keep it in my screw-loose brain and it gets very frustrating. Yes practice makes perfect and I have been practicing daily.As I had already taken my Grade 5 exams before the automobile accident and suffered memory loss, many memories and events just escape my brain especially hp numbers, time values, etc. I am taking memory booster tablets to help rejuvenate my memory. I know its a long shot but I have to pass my exams and start trying to build a life again and support myself. I really do appreciate any advice and help.

Remembering theory and applying it
by: Suzanne

Hi thank you so much for replying. It means a lot to me as now I know that there are people willing to give me a helping hand. Actually I know all the flats and sharps but when it comes to playing the scales, i.e... B flat minor harmonic, I can't remember how many flats there are in the scale even though I have been practicing it thousands of times. Once I get a little help telling me what the flats are or shown a bit by playing it then I can do so and do it well on my own.And when it comes to theory, while lesson time I am able to follow yet unable to sustain the lesson long enough to remember. And it gets so frustrating the feeling of Knowing Yet Not Knowing. I have done a lot of reading and homework and yet I'm slow. As time is not on my side and emotions do create havoc when rushed. I need this not only for myself but my youngest son whom I want to stay with me once I can earn my own. Y? Because he is a special child with Asperger Syndrome-Autistic Spectrum. He is now 18 yrs old and I am proud to say that I single-handedly brought him up albeit Yes; with my ex hubbys money to what he is now. He pass his A-level exams obtaining Maths-A, Science-B, English-B, Bahasa Malaysia-D {our national language},and the only 1 to pass in his category. I also have a condular plate (a 4 inch piece of metal)inserted into my thumb due to the accident.
I have manage to overcome the slight handicap there even though sometimes my thumb does tend to "run away" by itself. So again, I do need to understand the basics of theory and somehow retain the lessons being taught. My best bet now is to learn and listen to as many lessons and tutorials and advice and help from all hoping that at least I can remember as much as I can TQVM

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