Teaching Key Signatures by Jeremy Howard

Teaching Key Signatures by Jeremy Howard

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Sound before symbol! 

Welcome to our very first guest post, kindly written and shared by Jeremy Howard. Jeremy is a Kodály teacher in Kentucky, USA. You can follow Jeremy’s fantastic Kentucky Kodály Classroom blog here.
Thanks so much Jeremy!

Teaching key signatures can be difficult since there is no associative “sound”. How does one then teach key signatures using a Kodály approach? Use students’ knowledge of sofa and intervals that they have been building since the very beginning! Here is a way I’ve created to teach the theory behind key signatures that’s more than just memorization of meaningless concepts. Additionally, the concept of flats and sharps can be introduced through this process. The method is an interactive puzzle for your students.

Part 1 – Background Information In Fifth Grade I begin teaching key signatures. I believe it is imperative that students be familiar with the following: 1. “do”, do clef, and moveable “do” 2. all the diatonic solfa 3. whole steps and half steps 4. the intervallic pattern of a major scale (w-w-h-w-w-w-h) 5. absolute letter names

Part 2 – Leadup & Creating the Scale-Builder Mat 1. We begin by reviewing the intervallic pattern of the ascending diatonic solfa (Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half). This is then labeled as a “Major Scale”. In my classroom, we define a major scale as “pitches arranged in order, from do to do’ resulting in a w-w-h-w-w-w-h interval pattern”.

2. Then, we translate the solfa into letter names, creating a major scale beginning on “C”. This is not new to them, as they have already been exposed to the musical alphabet and its progression and repetition.

3. Next, they create “Scale Builder Mats” as seen in the photo below (resource listed at end of article):

scalebuildermat DS





Part 3 – Using the Scale-Builder Mat (Sharp Scales and F Major) Explain to the class that a major scale can begin on any letter name, but the scale must contain the exact order of whole and half steps, as shown above (w-w-h-w-w-w-h). The mat gives them the framework to create scales beginning on different pitches while providing a visual representation of the theory.

Let us assume we want to teach a “G Major” scale. First, we begin by placing the starting note on the scale builder mat (see below):

scalebuildermat2 DS




I like to ask, “What will happen to my ‘w-w-h-w-w-w-h’ pattern if I start on a different letter?” Hopefully, students will see that the whole step/half step pattern will change.

Next, we fill in the rest of the notes of the scale, using the same interval patterns represented by the green cards on the scale builder mat. Essentially, we are just creating a “C Major” scale starting on the fifth scale degree “G”; no chromatics.

(NOTE: This will skew the ‘w-w-h-w-w-w-h’ pattern of the major scale and will be corrected later – see photo below. Remember, they have no understanding of flats and sharps at this point. All they know are unaltered, or natural tones. This is the most important step that must happen so students gain a working theory of key signatures.)

“G” to “A” is a whole step; “A” to “B” is a whole step; “B” to “C” is a half step; “C” to “D” is a whole step; “D” to “E” is a whole step; “E” to “F” is a half step; “F” to “G” is a whole step.

scalebuildermat3a DS




After placing all the cards, we have the students compare the pattern of the green cards to the pattern of the pink cards. We can see that one card (“F” in the “G Major” scale) is out of alignment in comparison to the cards above it. Since all the cards do not line up, we do not have a major scale. Ask the students, “Is this a major scale? What do we need to alter to make it a major scale (w-w-h-w-w-w-h)?”

We then slide the “F” to the right a half step and add a sharp sign.

scalbuildermat4 DS





Part 4: Another Example

Let’s try another: “A Major”.

Begin by building a “C Major” scale, but starting on “A”.

scalebuildermat6 DS




Now, it’s clear that in the key of “A Major”, “C, F, and G” need to be raised a half step.

scalebuildermat7 DS





Materials to make your own Scale-Builder Mats are in Jeremy’s KKC Shop: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Kentucky-Kodaly-Classroom In the interest of brevity, the complete set of directions for other scales is included in the files that are posted.

Two versions are available:

1. Printable PDF – Print as many copies as you like and have have each student assemble his/her own mat and player cards.

2. SMART file – An electronic version of the Scale-Builder Mat to be used on an interactive white board.

Jeremy Howard is a certified Kodály educator and presently teach students, PK3 through Eighth grade. His goals as an educator are: 1) to make music accessible to all who walk through my classroom door by meeting students where they are and growing with them 2) to inspire a thirst for learning 3) to enable students to actively use the skills (not just information) they’ve learned, and 4) to create positive musical and social memories. All of these come together in an effort to create musically literate students who continue to include music in their lives.



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