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.