Key Signatures and The Guitar

I memorized all the key signatures in theory class, but I didn’t see how they applied specifically to the guitar; and they don’t.

The key signature system is based on the piano, as well as the note names and the notation system. The ‘mechanical nature’ of the keyboard is such that each pitch and chord inversion has a unique relative position in the octave; not so with guitar, where a note can be found in more than one place.

The key signature system is derived from the physical layout of the keyboard, and so lends itself to piano, because if a note is flatted or sharped, it’s a black key. Not so on a guitar, where these flats and sharps are just “names” or note identities we must identify with pitches which could occur in several places, and are not unique.

The physical layout of the keyboard, and its key signature system, are also geared towards the 7-note diatonic scale. This is reflected in our notation system, which also appears arbitrary to non-keyboard players: there are semitones between E-F and B-C, but all the others are whole steps.

If one starts building fifths from a starting point of C, then going “forward” or clockwise around the “circle of fifths” would yield C-G-D-A-E-B-F#(C#) - no need for D#.

If, on the other hand, you go in reverse (counter-clockwise), you travel the “circle of fourths”, which yields C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb (Cb).

There are three keys which “overlap” under two different names: B (Cb), F# (Gb), and C# (Db). The reason it goes no further has to do with the physical layout of the keyboard itself (there are two semitone steps in the letter sequence, E-F and B-C), and the subsequent “letter-naming” of notes which results.

To be a diatonic scale, you must have seven different letter names, with no repeats of a letter, and no double-sharps or double flats.

For example, there is no key of “Fb” because this is E, a sharp key; but if we named it anyway, we would get Fb-Gb-Ab-Bbb (you can’t repeat A - there must be seven different letter names with no repeats), Cb-Db-Eb-Fb. This “repeating letter or double-flat” dilemma does not arise on the three “repeat” keys of B (Cb), F# (Gb), and C# (Db), because this is the “seven-letter limit”.

As far as music ‘tests’ which ask for instant answers to “What is the 6th degree of the key of Bb?”, this demands that note names (pitch identities) be memorized. If you play me any tone, I can sing you or play you degree 6, based on its relative position to Bb, which is a minor third below Bb (or the maj 6 above).
So in the test, the reasons for knowing the letter-name of a pitch has little to do with hearing the sound of the pitch; letter-names are used for notation, and for names of the physical piano keys. The letter name is only the label for the sound, not the sound itself. Labels are used in contexts, for specific reasons.

As a guitarist, my instrument does not yield one unique pitch name which corresponds to a unique location, like on a piano or on a staff. A guitar yields unique patterns (scales, arpeggios) which remain the same when moved chromatically and linearly. The only time single pitches have unique positions is on single strings, which is a linear dimension like the keyboard, which goes up or down chromatically and linearly. But this linear succession of notes does not correspond literally to linear staff notation, since E-F and B-C are named in preference to the keyboard layout.
The guitar also has a vertical dimension, for moving unique patterns which span strings. This is why guitarists tend to think more visually, in patterns, rather than abstractly or in terms of notation, note-names, or key signatures. Tablature makes a lot of sense for guitar in light of this.

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I don’t want to argue with your unique perspective, as you obviously have a lot of great perspective to offer and I’d like to really understand what you are getting at.

That said, the second half of my system of fretboard organization is based on recognizing the chromatic nature of both, pianos and guitars, and applying arbitrary “unique relative positions” that I can remember in the same way as one finds granularity to latch onto when playing piano. And most systems do similar, albeit with different overhead and advantages in any given situation.

Furthermore, the modern system of key signatures evolved over time, with all kinds of instruments in the mix, including voice. I believe the piano offers black keys and white keys because folks found that the human hand did better on them… [edit: not really, although ergonomics might play a part in what survived in the age og equal temperament. Really beyond the scope of my response. @millionrainbows, plenty of history out there via search engine.]. At the back portion of the grand piano keys one finds them all similarly sized width-wise. (Although many drawings of the same miss this attribute.) I observe that we generally project our understanding of guitars and piano and that projection doesn’t always serve us.

And for sight reading or communicating with other folks who finger passages differently, it can be terrible. I became very expert at reading tablature in the eighties and nineties. Most of the time now, for me and many others, it can be a distraction and an obfuscation.

Key signatures and tablature… They’re both meta abstractions that leverage understanding and communication. Love 'em or hate 'em, they’re not going away.

What did Guthrie say in answer to the two questions, do you hear what you play, or do you play what you hear? If I’m not mistaken, his answer was, “yes.”

Adam Neely gets into the issues (including chunking), and he will explain it better than I can, and albeit with a stronger title assertion than I would have…


typical misunderstanding
Key signatures exist not becaise of piano keyboard, but because most common scales are heptatonic (7 grades) while we have 12 semitones in a octave. And traditional musical theory is 7 notes based. If you take a note staff then you would see that major, minor, any diatonic scale (dorian, phrygian etc), harmonic major/minor, melodic major/minor located quite logically - one grade occupies one line or place between lines. Looking at sheets you can easily find out what grade of scale is which note, which interval you have here and so on.
Sharps and flats are not to address ‘black keys’. ‘Sharp’ moves a note a semitone up, ‘flat’ moves a note a semitone down, thats it, that is their definition. Sharp sign rises ANY note up. Even ‘white’ note - thus you can get E# or, for example, double sharp F##. And you can’ t change E# to F without ruining theoretical system. Take for example C#- major - it has seven sharps, and if you know that this scale is derived from C-major using 7 steps by fifth, it looks quite logical.


I’m not saying that we should discard notation; I’m just pointing out that it is derived from the keyboard. Tablature is valuable, too; let’s keep it, on the bottom, under the music. It’s a useful for ear players. I think guitar notation should always include left-hand fingering, pick direction, and string indications.

Also, I think that depictions of visual patterns are very useful, like those in the Guitar Grimoire books. These are not tab, but are good visualization tools.

Okay. You might want to check your sources on the latter though; did you read what @ASTN explained above?

…well, and foremost, because of seven note scale systems before any ergonomic concerns.

[edit: Hmm. Actually, it’s fairly complicated and I’m not an expert. Anonymous keyboard constructors are rolling in their graves, and this is mostly off topic.]

sorry, nope.
Piano keyboard is the result, not the reason. You can use whatever instrument you want. Actually, you don’t need an instrument at all. Once you start to buid scales as it’s usually done (considering C-major as a basis) you’ll get your key signatures. Without any instrument, whether its piano or guitar or electroukulele.

I guess you just don’t understand the system well yet. Once you get it, everything becomes clear, like why key sharps goes in fifths while flats goes in fourth, why F-major is the only major scale starting with ‘white’ note which has flat instead of sharp, why ‘circle of fifth’ is actully a spiral, why flat-named scales (Db-moll for example) have less signs than
enharmonical sharp-named scale (C#-major) and so on.
Musical theory is actually a fun, and it’s quite logical in it’s own way. Yes, there’re some nuances sometimes but they are fun too.
It has nothing to do with a piano or organ or whatever. If these instruments were not invented you’d still had to learn these key signatures )


Actually, the topic is not as simple as it seems. Notation system is far from perfect. Additionaly, there some strange things that exist just because they exist. Lets take an orchestration for example, you have to deal with the fact that one and the same note could have different pitch on different instrument. Written C would be Bb on a trumpet while french-horn would sound as F. Sometimes it makes my eye twitch.

Moreover, there’re examples of true dodecaphonic musical pieces, like serial music. So, in this context common notation is not so good. But, since 99% of music is 7-note based changing the musical theory doesn’t seem a good idea.

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The net result is that there are correspondences in the piano/notation/diatonic scale. The half-steps between E-F and B-C are duplicated in the notation staff, and also occur in the 7-note diatonic scale. I’m just pointing out the net results of the piano/notation/diatonic scale. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter exactly how it got to this stage.

I’m not sure I follow you on the half steps point; how are they reflected on the staves? The half-steps shift around on the piano with the different key signatures, and they multiply as we get into commonly used minors and symmetric scales.

Once again.
Even if piano (or any keyboard instrument) were not invented you’d still have all these key signatures with that strange E#=F and B#=C. Even if you had another notation system you’d still have it. As long as you build scales on fiffth.
Moreover E# is not equal F. Once you make wrong assumption like this you’d get into a troubles. Come on man! Buy yourself a good book on music theory.

It’s ok for a beginner.

That’s not OK for a beginner to make such strong statements. If you dont understand something it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

However. If you don’t use note staff, if you don’t use theory at all then, I guess, you could ignore it. But in that case you shouldn’t make any assumptions on musical theory, since you don’t even use it.

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Intellectual curiosity is awesome. Doubling down on hypotheses refuted with factual evidence presented by peers, not so much.

“The net result is that there are correspondences in the piano/notation/diatonic scale. The half-steps between E-F and B-C are duplicated in the notation staff, and also occur in the 7-note diatonic scale. I’m just pointing out the net results of the piano/notation/diatonic scale. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter exactly how it got to this stage.”

I still stand behind this statement. My mistake was using the term “derived” instead of “corresponds”. I’m not interested in the chronology or in right-fighting.

The piano in this sense is a “diatonic” instrument, whereas the guitar is a chromatic instrument.

In the key of C: In the treble clef staff, there is a half-step between line E and the space above it, F. Notice that this uses two letter-names.
Likewise, there is a half step between space B and line C; and two letter names have been used.
By contrast, all other line-to-space-above intervals, which move to a new letter-name, are whole steps. This is what is meant by a “correspondence” with the diatonic scale and the staff. These same half-steps also “correspond” to the keys of the keyboard.
There are only seven letter names, but there are twelve pitches. This is what is meant by a “correspondence” with the diatonic scale and the physical keyboard.
That’s all I was pointing out. It seems rather simple, really. What’s the problem?

I’m not sure I really understand the point of this debate, but the guy I quoted is right - at a minimum, and I’m arguably splitting hairs a little, but the piano dates to 1700, and while it continued to evolve for some time after that, the concept of the musical staff dates back to at least 1,000.

I think the piano is a very “pure” way of translating musical notation into sound and that it follows very logically from the staff in ways that the guitar doesn’t, but while I’m not sure I’m getting your point exactly, if it’s that the concept of keys doesn’t really apply to the guitar, I don’t really agree.

If it’s the E# = F and B# = C stuff that’s the point you’re getting at, then, well, I still don’t really agree - the system of naming pitches is done with respect to how the pitch is functioning in the overall harmony, so while technically speaking E# and F are indeed the same pitch, in the key of C#, then an E# is a major third while F is a diminished 4th, which have very different functional roles in chord construction. You don’t need to know how they’re functioning to physically play that note, sure, but when it comes to knowing what’s going on harmonically or discussing the harmony with another musician, it does matter.

Or is it this…? Because the piano is, literally, the 12 chromatic tones arranged in ascending order, through something like 8 octaves. It’s just as chromatic as the guitar.

I guess maybe I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make…? Sorry!

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I just explained it in the post above. All I did was point out the…oh, nevermind. I’m not trying to debate anything.

That’s it. I agree with this. That’s all I was saying.

A piano scale has one unique form. Bb major has 2 black notes, Bb and Eb, which are the two accidentals. All the other notes are white, and not accidentals, just plain letter names. So when you see it as a visual pattern, it’s the 3 white notes “behind” Bb, and the 2 white notes “behind” Eb. This creates a visual pattern which is not only recognized visually, but also has the letter names and accidentals of the key of Bb (Bb is a “flat” note because it is black).
Not so on guitar; while the scales have recognizable visual patterns, they do not correspond as recognizably to physical characteristics with letter-names associated with them. Sure, every note has a specific physical location on the neck, but it’s not as obvious. And it’s not patterned after a diatonic scale like a keyboard. The guitar kind of “blends in” in this regard.

So, what I said in response to your first message still stands. Piano presents a set of chromatic notes, presented linearly. Guitar presents six rows of chromatic notes, linearly. Guitar being fretted, the chromaticism is enforced, albeit with the flexibility we all enjoy. There are organs with six manuals… If you want the guitar to have some visual reference point, you can paint the fretboard. They are both chromatic, and they both very much comprise easy access to diatonicism.

If it’s helpful to you to think of them differently, great.

Ironically with respect to this thread, variations on tablature predate modern music notation–and guitar. Furthermore, given the number of ways that one can play a line on guitar, I think it’s good that there is a common musical language and notation system out there that isn’t dependent on one person’s way of mapping notes to a guitar fretboard!

Isn’t that kind of the case with the piano, too, though? It’s just that the patterns on the guitar tend to be more, idunno, vertical, while those on the piano are pretty linear. Or maybe the better way to say it is that on the piano your patterns only extend in one dimension, as a matter of how many keys you skip over to stay in a pattern, whereas the guitar has patterns in two dimensions, how many frets you skip, as well as which of the six (or seven, in my case) strings you fret on.

In both cases, you can certainly look at it in terms of patterns… But you’re far better off thinking about it at least partially in terms of harmonic function of the notes within those patterns.


Point was quite simple. Topicstarter said that key signatures has nothing to do with the guitar since ‘The key signature system is based on the piano’

What I was trying to say that t’s not true. Notation system is not related to any instrument at all. First of all, noatation which is more or less close to modern was developed by Guido Aretian and that notation was supposed to be used by choir. Not a piano, not an organ. Key signatures has nothing to do with piano black keys. These signs come from theory not from an instrument. Or else, how would you explain E# in F#-major (since it’s a white key on a piano)?

Where in my post did you see that?? Well… ok, my english is far from perfect but believe me it’s not what I was trying to say.

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Don’t worry, I was replying to the OP, not to you. I agree with you. :slight_smile:

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