How to Remember Sharps and Flats

By: Jerry A. Greene

Question: I am having problems remember the flats, or sharps in a song, when they are only presented in the key signature (not right next to the notes themselves). I am able to remember the easy keys 1 to 2 sharps, or flats in the key signature, but am constantly forgetting to play the right sharps, or flats once it goes past 3 or more in the key signature. How can I better remember which ones are flat and which ones are sharp without writing them in next to every note?

Answer: This is a very common problem for beginning and intermediate musicians. The problem generally lies in the fact that you are trying to remember which ones are flat, or sharp, not "how you play in the key of (key name here; example: Ab major, F# Minor etc.)".

When starting out in method books, it is common for you to learn a scale that goes along with the addition of new sharps, or flats. Unfortunately, practicing scales is probably not the most enjoyable part of playing and therefore is something you will most likely want to brush up on.

Understanding the music by what "key you are in" instead of having to remember which notes are sharp, or flat takes a different point of view and is sometimes overlooked by even the best teachers. Most teachers try to correct you by telling you that you missed a sharp, or flat, but not stop you to ask you what key you are in. There is nothing wrong with either approach to correcting a student, but understanding the music from the (theory point-of-view (which scale you are in)) will make it a lot easier to play music with lots of sharps, or flats.

When you are preparing to play a new piece, look at the key signature and make sure you understand what key the song is actually in. The key may change, (modulation) but at least try to figure out the first key. Is it in minor, or major? These are important distinctions to make ahead of time before trying to play a piece.

The next step is to play the scale of the piece that you are playing, trying to internalize the technique of playing that scale. Melody notes that are "in-the-key" (also known as diatonic tones) become easier to play, because you are no-longer trying to "remember if it's sharp, or flat". Accidentals will tell you if the melody is venturing out from the key (we use the term chromatic when referring to these notes). This is the job of sharps, flats, or naturals being NEXT to a note in a song. The scale that you are playing should feel like your "default" notes.

The more you learn to view music from this point of view, the less you will be forgetting your sharps and flats because it will no longer be of relevance. You will be playing the song in the key it's in and no longer focusing on whether something is sharp, flat, or natural.