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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