One of the first steps in learning to play the major and minor scales is learning the key signature of each one.
The circle of fifths is a great tool to help you do this.
The circle of fifths shows all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, separated by fifths (ascending by a fifth for each clockwise step).
In the circle of fifths below, you can see the number of sharps or flats that each major scale has on the outside of the circle, and the number of sharps of flats that each (natural) minor scale has on the inside.
Every time you move clockwise one step around the circle of fifths you add a sharp or remove a flat. Every time you move anti-clockwise one step you add a flat or remove a sharp.
There is an order of sharps and an order of flats that remains constant. So the scale with 2 sharps has the same sharp as the scale with 1, plus one more. The scale with 3 sharps has the first two, plus the third.
If you know the number of sharps or flats that a scale has, and the order of sharps/flats, you know it's key signature.
Order of SharpsF#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#
Order of FlatsBb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb
Example: A major has 3 sharps. The first sharp in the order of sharps is F#, the second is C# and the third is G#. So A major has F#, C# and G#. All the other notes are natural notes (the white notes on a piano).
Extra TipsA major/natural minor scale can never have both flats and sharps - it's either one or the other.
The order of flats is the same as the order of sharps, but reversed.
Every major scale that has a natural note as the tonic has sharps, except for C which has all natural notes and F, which has one flat.
When a major scale has sharps, the last sharp (in the order of sharps) is the seventh note in the scale. Example: E major - the seventh note is D#. D# is the fourth sharp. E major has four sharps.
When a major scale has flats, the last flat (in the order of flats) is the fourth note in the scale. Example: Eb major - the fourth note is Ab. Ab is the third flat. Eb major has 3 flats.
Each major scale has a relative minor scale. The relative minor scale has the same key signature. Each relative minor scale starts on the sixth note of it's relative major scale. Example: The sixth scale degree of F major is D. D minor is it's relative minor scale. F major and D minor have the same key signature.
Study the circle of fifths and memorize the tips above and you'll know the key signature of each major scale and each minor scale in no time.
About the Author:
Scott Edwards is the founder of EarTrainingHQ.com. He has helped hundreds of musicians to train their ears and become better players by breaking the process of ear training down into easy to follow steps so it is simple and easy to progress, and providing effective, targeted exercises for each step along the way.