Tips to Remember Sharps and Flats in Piano Scales


How do you remember the number of sharps or flats in a major scale when you’re asked to play for your exam?

If you can’t remember how many sharps, for example, A major has, here’s a tip to help you remember.

If you are asked to play a scale that has sharps you’ll count up from middle C. If your scale has flats, you’ll count by Perfect 5ths down from middle C. So, for example, when you’re asked to play A major and need to remember the number of sharps, find middle C. The C major scale has no sharps or flats. Count up a 5th (think: “C, D, E, F, G”) and you’ve landed on the scale with 1 sharp, G major. Count up another 5th (think: “G, A, B, C, D) and you’ve landed on the scale with 2 sharps, D major. Count up another 5th (think: “D, E, F, G, A”) and you’ve landed on A major which has 3 sharps. You can now proceed to find which specific notes are sharps in the A major scale.

Note: If you are looking to find out further sharps, continue to count up by Perfect 5ths. For example, a 5th up from A Major is E Major which has 4 sharps, B major has 5 sharps, F# Major has 6 sharps, and C# Major has 7 sharps.

Once you remember the number of sharps in a scale, how do you remember which specific notes are sharp or flat?

The scale that has one sharp is G major and it has an F sharp. The scale that has one flat is F major and it has a B flat. Use this knowledge as your starting point.

Using the A major scale example again (which has 3 sharps), and keeping in mind that G major has one sharp, find F# on the piano. Every scale with sharps has an F#. Count up a 5th from F# to find the second sharped note (think: “F, G, A, B, C”) and you will find your second sharp, C#. Count up a 5th again (think: “C, D, E, F, G”) and you will find your 3rd sharp, G#. So you can confidently play your A major scale which has 3 sharps: F#, C#, and G#. Similarly, if you’re asked to play a scale which 2 flats, B flat Major for example, find B flat and count a 5th down (think: “B, A, G, F, E”). B flat major has 2 flats, B flat and E flat.

These tips should particularly help those students who are preparing for piano exams where scales are played from memory. Some exams require quite a few scales and there are a lot of details to memorise. Although the tips above will likely help students remember the “mathematical” details of music, other factors such as “muscle memory”, the way your fingers memorise passages that have been correctly practiced repeatedly, will be another huge factor in a good performance. Practice technique regularly while using logical memory aids.


Resources for Studying Scale Fingering


Scales… Like them, love them, or hate them, they simply are essential for a well rounded pianist’s music study.

Below are a few printables with scale fingering:

One octave scales:

Two octave scales:

While learning 2 octave scales, remember that all of the group I scales (C, D, E, G, A) use the 4th finger only once per octave. In the right hand this is the 7th scale degree and in the left hand this is the 2nd scale degree. The main thing is to just to practice scales consistently and, if you’re taking an exam, don’t leave studying them until the very last minute. Muscle memory will prove extremely helpful when you’re under pressure in front of an examiner.

The Damper Pedal

The Damper Pedal

The Damper Pedal

The damper pedal allows a pianist to lift his fingers while still hearing the sound he just played. The pedal is helpful to make chordal sections sound “full.” The damper pedal adds a whole new dimension to music and many piano students want to use it.

To play the damper pedal, make sure your foot is properly positioned. Leave your heel on the floor where it will allow you to use the front half of your foot as a lever which presses onto the damper pedal. Don’t put your foot too close or too far from the pedal. Make sure you feel comfortable and relaxed. In music some songs call for the pedal being pressed down throughout the entire song, other songs require the pedal to be used off and on. Whatever the case, if you’re having trouble remembering when to press and lift the pedal, always think of this: the finger moves first. Before the pedal is used, play the first note. Before the pedal is lifted, lift your finger. Before long the coordination of foot and hand will seem natural but beginners may find this tip helpful.

The damper pedal helps make songs interesting to listen to. However, be sure not to overuse it as the song can go from sounding lovely to becoming muddied. Particularly when songs are made up of scale-like passages, the pedal will most likely need to be used very little. However, in many piano pieces the damper pedal is a great tool for adding expression and musicality.

Falling Arm Weight and Dynamics: Some Word Pictures

Arm weight controls dynamics. If a student drops their arm heavily and quickly onto the keyboard the sound will be forte. If, however, the student  drops his arm with a slower and lighter attack, the sound will be piano. Recently a student and I came up with some word pictures that helped him to create a range of sounds on the piano. Word picture options are endless but here are a few ideas:

pianissimo (pp) is like a loom band or rubber band falling.

piano (p) is like a feather dropping.

mezzo piano (mp) is like a hot air balloon landing.

mezzo forte (mf) is like a stone or pebble hitting the keys. If a musical piece has crescendo from mezzo forte to forte, the student can think of the pebbles gradually increasing in size as they approach the forte mark.

forte (f) is like a basketball bouncing on a gym floor.

fortissimo (ff) is like a a heavy bowling ball dropping.

 Before incorporating these concepts into a song, the student should explore various dynamics individually by dropping their arm (and therefore finger) onto the keyboard. This will give students practice before they incorporate the dynamics into their piano pieces. I believe that using word pictures like these can make students more relaxed and controlled as they play dynamics. Perhaps you may try thinking of these or other word pictures the next time you play the piano.

Dynamics: “Finger Attacks” and Animal Stickers

While studying in college I learned that although many teachers describe the dynamics forte and piano as “loud” and “soft,” a “finger attack” is a better description for these dynamics.  If students think of the words “loud” and “soft” they may end up playing with either tense or floppy motions.  However, using the word “attack” will cause students to have musical control as they play.  The dynamic forte is a quick finger attack on the keyboard.  Students must drop their hands into the keyboard using arm weight and they must do so quickly to create a full, resonant sound.

Some students struggle to play the forte dynamic.  If students are struggling with quick falling motions onto the keyboard a good exercise is to instruct them to raise their arm about 1 foot above the keys and dropping fingers one at a time either on random keys or by playing the C/Do pentascale.  Students probably will be surprised at the forte sounds that they are making come out of the keyboard!  The dynamic piano is a slow finger attack onto the keyboard.  Students must still use relaxed arm weight while playing piano sections, but their finger must land and attack the key slowly in order to create a light, feathery sound.  A forte dynamic uses a quick finger attack (think: elephants stomping) while a piano dynamic uses a slow finger attack (think: kittens walking).


Article: Dynamics: "Finger Attacks" and Animal Stickers

Tell students to place animal stickers beside the dynamic markings in their musical pieces.

Word pictures are very helpful as students learn about dynamics, and visual reminders are also excellent lesson aids.  An activity I once thought of and have used during lessons is telling students to place animal stickers beside the dynamic markings in their musical pieces.  Have students decide which animal noises work best for the various dynamics in a song.  If there are the dynamics of forte, mezzo forte, and piano in a song, a student could, for example, choose these three animals based on the noises that they make: an elephant (for forte), a dog (for mezzo forte) and a cat (for piano).  Using these stickers will force students to find the dynamics in their music.  Also, the stickers will be an extra visual reminder for students to play musically while they are practicing at home.Explaining “finger attacks” and demonstrating arm weight makes a tremendous difference in how a student plays dynamics.  Also, using stickers provides a fun activity for students while encouraging musical growth.If you are a piano teacher and notice that a student is having trouble differentiating dynamic sections, teach students about quick and slow “attacks” using visuals as a supplement.  If you are a parent, listen to your children’s pieces and encourage them to make their pieces interesting by reading the dynamic markings and playing a variety of sounds rather than playing all the notes at just one volume.  If you are a piano student, experiment with dynamic sounds on the keyboard and incorporate these sounds into your musical pieces to play expressively.