Key Signatures

Clairnote SN has its own version of key signatures but it is not necessary to constantly remember them while playing (as in traditional music notation). A musician can ignore the key signature and still play the correct notes based on their position on the Clairnote SN staff alone. Here is an illustration of the E major key signature:

Key of E major in Clairnote SN music notation

Clairnote SN’s key signatures are primarily there to help musicians know what to expect. They convey the same things as traditional key signatures:

  • Which notes are in the key.
  • The names of the notes in the key, whether they are sharp, flat, or natural.

They also provide information that is not conveyed by traditional key signatures:

  • Which note is the tonic note.
  • Whether the key is major, minor, or modal.

Reading Clairnote SN’s Key Signatures

The stack of hollow and solid dots in the key signature concisely indicates which notes are in the key. In the illustrations, notice how the dots correspond to the notes in the key that are shown on the staff. Solid dots correspond to line notes while hollow dots correspond to space notes.

Key of A Flat major in Clairnote SN music notation

The lowest dot indicates the tonic note in the key, and the pattern of hollow and solid dots conveys whether the key is major, minor, or modal. We know the illustration above shows the key of A-flat because the lowest dot corresponds to the tonic note A-flat. Also, it is A-flat major because major key signatures always have a 3-4 pattern – 3 dots of one kind followed by 4 of the other (ascending from bottom to top of the stack).

The key signature shown below has four flats like the one above, but we can tell that it is an F minor key signature because the lowest dot corresponds to the tonic note F, and the dot pattern is 2-3-2, the pattern for minor key signatures. As you can see, in traditional notation these two key signatures are the same four flats. They don’t indicate the tonic note or whether the key is major, minor, or modal.

Key of F minor in Clairnote SN music notation

A “tail” connected to the left side of a dot indicates a note that is sharp or flat. A tail that moves downward (from left to right) indicates a flat note. Conversely, a tail that moves upward indicates a sharp. You can think of the tails as the trace of the dots’ movement as they moved into position in the stack of dots (either up/sharp or down/flat). Kind of like meteors in the night sky. This symbolism is similar to Clairnote SN’s accidental signs.

Note that these sharp and flat indications in the key signature are not like the sharps and flats in traditional key signatures. You do not need to remember them and they do not alter how you play the notes on the staff. They simply indicate the names of notes in the current key, clarifying the names of notes like the black keys on a piano that have two different names but have the same pitch (i.e. they are enharmonically equivalent in 12-tone equal temperament tuning).[1] This makes it possible to use the standard Names of Notes and Intervals.[2]

For example, imagine you see a note on the staff that could be called either a B-flat or an A-sharp. You already know what note to play based on its position on the staff but what if you want to know its name? If it has no accidental sign this tells you it is in the current key and you can simply check the key signature to find out whether it is named B-flat or A-sharp. You actually only need to know whether the key contains sharps or flats because standard keys contain one or the other but not both.

Counting the number of tails tells you the number of sharps or flats in the key signature, which corresponds to the position of the key on the circle/spiral of fifths. This is just like counting the sharps and flats in traditional key signatures.

Key of D phrygian in Clairnote SN music notation

In the illustration above the pattern of the dots (1-4-2) indicates that the music is not major or minor but modal (in this case D phrygian). Each mode has its own dot pattern.

A comprehesive overview of all the key signatures (major, minor, and modal) can be seen in this PDF file, that was produced from this LilyPond file.

Note that to prevent collisions between the dots and the tails, the stacks of dots ascend moving to the right in flat keys and to the left in sharp keys. This also gives sharp and flat key signatures a more distinct and easily recognizable appearance.

Clairnote SN’s key signatures work hand in hand with its accidental signs.

Next: Accidental Signs

  1. This assumes the standard tuning system of 12-tone equal temperament. In other tuning systems the pitch of “enharmonically equivalent” notes may differ slightly. For a performer these differences are a matter of minute adjustments in intonation. In that case Clairnote SN’s key signatures and accidental signs help indicate these subtle shifts in intonation, as well as the different names of the notes. See the Enharmonic Equivalents tutorial on the Music Notation Project’s site. Return
  2. If a musician is using an alternative nomenclature that does not differentiate between sharps and flats, she can either ignore or omit the tails that indicate the sharp or flat notes in the key. Return