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Keys Scales and Solo Structures


The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths is an illustration that has been used in music theory pedagogy for hundreds of years. It conveniently summarizes the key signature needed for any key with up to seven flats or sharps.
external image circleOfFifths.png
But which notes are flat or sharp in a key? To properly use the circle of fifths to figure out a key signature, you’ll need to also remember this mnemonic device, which tells you the order of flats and sharps:
Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.
For sharp keys (clockwise on the circle of fifths), read the mnemonic device forward. For example, the circle of fifths tells us that there are 3 sharps in the key of A major. Which three notes are sharp? The first three notes in the mnemonic device: F(ather), C(harles), and G(oes).
For flat keys (counter-clockwise on the circle of fifths), read the mnemonic device backwards. For example, the circle of fifths tells us that the key of A-flat major has four flats. Which flats? Reading backwards: B(attle), E(nds), A(nd), D(own).

Minor key signatures

Of course, minor keys can use key signatures, too. In fact, for each major key signature, there is a corresponding minor key that shares its signature. Major and minor keys that share the same key signature are called relative keys. For example, both C major and A minor have zero sharps or flats. A minor is considered the relative minor of C major; likewise, C major is considered the relative major of A minor. Compare the minor key circle of fifths below with the major key circle of fifths above, and you’ll see the remaining relative key pairs.
external image circleOfFifths-minor.png

Keys and Chord Progressions

In order to understand the notations and structures we will be using in describing blues music, it's important to know about key signatures and what are the chord progressions worth with which keys.

Chord Progressions (source)

In western music typical chord progressions for major scales

Let's refresh what we've learned so far about scales and chords. A scale is a series of notes that go in an ascending and descending manner. For every scale (major or minor) there are 7 notes, for example in the key of C the notes are C - D - E - F - G - A - B. The 8th note (in this example will be C) goes back to the root note but an octave higher.

Each note of a scale has a corresponding number from 1 to 7. So for the key of C it will be as follows:
C = 1
D = 2
E = 3
F = 4
G = 5
A = 6
B = 7

In order to make a major triad you will play the 1st + 3rd + 5th notes of a major scale. In our example it is C - E - G, that's the C major chord.

Let's have another example this time using the C minor scale:
C = 1
D = 2
Eb (or D#) = 3
F = 4
G = 5
Ab (or G#) = 6
Bb (or A#) = 7

In order to make a minor triad you will play the 1st + 3rd + 5th notes of a minor scale. In our example it is C - Eb - G, that's the C minor chord.

Roman Numerals

Sometimes instead of numbers Roman Numerals are used. We go back to our example and use a Roman Numeral for each note in the key of C:
C = I
D = ii
E = iii
F = IV
G = V
A = vi
B = vii (diminished)

Roman numeral I refers to the chord built on the first note of the C major scale. Roman numeral II refers to the chord built on the second note of the C major scale, and so on. If you notice, some of the Roman numerals are capitalized while others are not. Uppercase Roman numerals pertain to a major chord, while lowercase Roman numerals pertain to a minor chord. Uppercase Roman numerals with a (+) symbol refer to an augmented chord. Lowercase Roman numerals with a (o) symbol refer to a diminished chord.

The I, IV and V Chord Pattern

For each key there are 3 chords that are played more than others known as "primary chords." The I - IV - V chords are built from the 1st, 4th and 5th note of a scale.

Let's take the key of C again as an example, looking at the illustration above, you will notice that note I on the key of C is C, note IV is F and note V is G.

Therefor the I - IV - V chord pattern for the key of C is:
C (note I) = C - E- G (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the C scale)
F (note IV) = F - A - C (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the F scale)
G (note V) = G - B - D (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the G scale)

Also played are:
Dm (note ii) = D - F - A (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for D scale)
Em (note iii) = E - G - B (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for E scale)
Am (note vi) = A - C - E (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for A scale)
and rarely Bm(dim.) which is note vii = B - D - F (1st + minor 3rd + diminished 5th on B scale)

There are many songs that have been written using the I - IV - V chord pattern, "Home on the Range" is one example. Practice playing the I - IV - V chord pattern for every major key and listen to how it sounds as this might inspire you to come up with a great melody for your song. Remember, the ii, iii and vi are also commonly added to the mix to complete the song.


Minor keys - start at the 6th, or go forward 3 semitones to find the relative major.
Fig. 15.
Scale degrees
Scale degree names
Leading tone
E X A M P L E :
Scale degree chords
using C scale keys:
(= C)
(= Dm)
(= Em)
(= F)
(= G)
(= Am)
(= B°)

source: http://sites.estvideo.net/lk/prog.php
source: http://sites.estvideo.net/lk/prog.php

source: http://sites.estvideo.net/lk/prog.php


Introducing chords from other keys into music

(source)external image part5-1.png
Secondary chords are chords borrowed from other keys. Let's explain it this way.

Let's take our Simple Map and use our imagination. First, we’re going to change the simple map from I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi to C, Dm, Em, F, G, and Am. These are the chords for the key of C. Second, we’re going to illustrate each square in the diagram as a "pool" in an imaginary Water Park. The diagram with the “pools” is pictured on the right.

You may jump anywhere from I, which in this case is C. If a chord appears at more than one place (like Dm or G), there is a "secret tunnel" connecting them, so being at one spot is the same as being at the other.

But this time we add a new rule. At any time you may leave the “water” to come down a “slide.” Where are the slides?

external image part5-2.png The slides are the green locations pictured in the next diagram, the one labeled “A Progression Map For C.”

Some Things to Think About

The first idea is not to be afraid of the complexity of the picture. Yes, it may look complicated, but we are only in one box or circle at a time, and the general flow of the arrows is back toward the home location, which is the C at the bottom. From there we can jump anywhere we like, and then come flowing back.

Also, the sounds represented by these locations are sounds you’ve probably heard before, perhaps many times, and have grown accustomed to, though you may not have seen them spread out in a picture before.

We call this diagram “The Big Map.” The example here is for the key of C major. There are other charts like this, for the other major keys, in the “Charts and Maps” section of this site. There is also a Generic Chart, with a few extra locations added, for those who would like to have this information on just one page.

Some Things to Notice

While we’re looking at The Big Map for C, there are a few things to notice.

1) First, let's talk about the blue boxes. Some of the chord variations now appear at the bottom of each box. For instance, C lists the 2 chord, the 6 chord, major 7, major 9, and suspended as possible options, any of which can be played at that location

2) Three blue locations have been added.

  • The octagon with C/G inside indicates that this chord quite often follows Dm or F, and then heads for G before going home to C.
  • The box labeled F/C and G/C shows that the right hand chord can change while the bass note (C) stays right where it is. This technique, holding a bass note while varying the chord above it, yields many surprising and useful sounds.
  • Finally, the little box labeled C/E is often found between F and Dm. It works going either way.

3) The chords with a green background don't belong to the key of C; they come from other keys. They are useful when we want to explore sounds a little "farther from home." You can put a green chord almost anywhere, but when you do, you'll probably want to follow the arrows back toward the blue ones. Your audience will feel good when the chords that seem far from home step back to more familiar ground.

(A word about names: some of the green chords are written as slash chords, like Am/F#, meaning that, on a keyboard, an Am chord would be played by the right hand, and an F# would be played as the bass note by the left hand. This chord can also be written F#m7b5. In general, whenever you take a simple minor chord and move the bass from the root down three half steps, you get a m7b5 on the new bass note.)

Culminating Task - Original composition


You are to compose a complete piece of music by yourself. The song will be in a key of your choice. It will include at minimum 1 verse and 1 chorus segment. What chords and strum patterns are up to you. It will feature your playing of the song. Lyrics are allowed, but not mandatory.

You will present to the class your composition without lyrics. In the end you must have a written copy of the music on piano staff or tab, with lyrics underneath if you choose to include them, as well as an audio copy of the work recorded submitted to me in WAV or MP3 format.


  • If you include solo work, the the composition will be multi-track recorded on your personal device (phone/tablet etc...). This means you will record your strumming of the song. Then you will record any solo licks if applicable. Alternatively you can "hire" a colleague to help you and single-track record the piece using your phone's built-in recorder.
    • On your Android device I recommend Audition Music Recorder On iOS I recommend GarageBand. Of course you can also record multi-track on Audacity for free on your home PC.
  • No lyrics are encouraged for this first composition - concentrate on the played music
  • The piece will be performed in front of the class
  • The piece will be recorded using proper piano music notation OR with tab using this template sheet


Blank piano staff/tab
Correct written notation
-using piano staff&tab
Notation demonstrated superior skills in layout and recording
Notation met expectation and accreditation
There were notation errors, but not sufficiently to make the piece difficult to follow
Notation errors made the piece difficult to follow
Prosody - Composition arrangement
-theory applied
Extremely creative use of blues theory- represented style very well
Good arrangement of blues piece with good use of theory components
The arrangement was nearing expectations, but had little style or creativity
Piece was unoriginal and had little to no creativity
Use of technology
-audio file (WAV/MP3)
The composition was extremely well recorded with no time lapses, or no noticeable flaws
The composition was well recorded and while it may have some flaws, they rarely detracted from the piece
The recording had several errors which lead to distracting arrangement
The piece was poorly reproduced and had sufficient flaws in recording to make it difficult to listen to
Live Performance
The piece was played professionally in front of an audience
The piece was well performed, with few if any errors
The piece was performed adequately, though riddled with errors
The piece was difficult to listen to through errors in reproduction
Use of Time
Used time well during each class period (as shown by observation by teacher, and documentation of progress in journal) with no reminders.
Used time well during most class periods (as shown by observation by teacher, and documentation of progress in journal) with no reminders.
Used time well (as shown by observation by teacher and documentation of progress in journal), but required reminders on one or more occasions to do so.
Used time poorly (as shown by observation by teacher and/or documentation of progress in journal) in spite of several reminders to do so.