• How To Classify Keys On The Keyboard While Learning How To Play In All Twelve Keys

    in Beginners,Experienced players,Piano,Transposing Keys

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    In this lesson I’ll be showing you how to classify keys on the keyboard while learning how to play in all twelve keys.

    Having played the keyboard for a very long time, I can’t say I’m unaware of the challenge of playing in all twelve keys and how difficult it can seem especially if you are used to playing in one key for a very long time and scaling through with electronic transposition.

    Although there’s no way you can effortlessly learn how to play in all twelve keys, I’ll be showing you a smarter way to learn how to play in all twelve keys by classifying the keys.

    But before we go into all of that, let’s take a look at the concept of key.

    A Short Exposition On The Concept Of Key

    There are twelve notes on the keyboard and here’s what they look like:

    Seven of them:

    …are white while five of them:

    …are black.

    If you do the math, 7 + 5 = 12.

    These twelve notes on their own are neutral. Have you ever seen a novice get on the keyboard and just touch all the notes indiscriminately? The sound produced sounds neutral because there’s no key.

    Conversely, when a trained pianist gets on the keyboard, all he/she does is to make a particular tone the tonal/key center (aka – “key”) and then have other tones relate to it. In the concept of key (aka – “tonality“), there are basically two key types – the major key and the minor key.

    The terms major and minor are used to describe the feeling that each key evokes. While the major key sounds happy and bright, the minor key sounds sad and dark.

    There are twelve notes on the keyboard, and each note has a major and minor key respectively. That explains why there are twenty-four keys [twelve major keys and twelve minor keys] all together.

    So here’s a table of the twenty-four keys…

    12 Major Keys

    12 Minor Keys

    C major

    C minor

    Db major

    C# minor

    D major

    D minor

    Eb major

    Eb minor

    E major

    E minor

    F major

    F minor

    Gb major

    F# minor

    G major

    G minor

    Ab major

    G# minor

    A major

    A minor

    Bb major

    Bb minor

    B major

    B minor

    Transposition And Its Difficulty

    There are twelve major keys on the keyboard, believe it or not, music is not written just in one key. It’s rare (if not impossible) to have an album done in one key.

    Attention: If you’ve seen any gospel, jazz, or even classical album done in one key, let me know in the comment section.

    Music is not static for a variety of reasons; it moves from the key you’re in to related keys and requires the transfer of ideas (whether notes, scales, intervals, chords or chord progressions) from one key to another.The transfer of position of these ideas is known as transposition.

    In the key of C major:

    …when E (the third tone of the scale):

    …is played, to transfer it to the key of F#:

    …requires a knowledge of the F# major scale:

    It is the knowledge of the F# major scale that will let you know that A# (the third tone of the F# major scale):

    …is to the key of F# major:

    …what E:

    …is to the key of C major:

    The transfer of position, which is known to music scholars as transposition [of notes, scales, intervals, chords, chord progression and even songs] can be difficult for a variety of reasons, here’s one of the strongest reason…

    “All Major Scales On The Keyboard Don’t Have The Same Color Pattern”

    A closer look at the C major scale:

    …and the D major scale:

    …shows two entirely different scales in terms of color and shape. The D major scale:

    …has two black notes…

    …while the C major scale:

    …has none.

    Every key has its unique color and shape and this explains why transposition is mechanically difficult.

    Consequently, a vast majority of musicians use the electronic transposition function on their keyboards, which offers them a digital way of transferring the position of their ideas (notes, scales, intervals, chords, chord progressions, and songs.)

    I’ll be showing you in this lesson, how I overcame the difficulty of playing in all twelve keys by classifying the keys on the keyboards.

    Here’s How You Can Classify Keys On The Keyboard

    In this segment, we’re classifying keys on the keyboard based on their color pattern relationship.

    Believe it or not, while playing the piano, our eyes tend to associate the notes in terms of their colors (whether black or white.) The easiest way to memorize chords is to understand their color patterns, and once  this is done, they can quickly be recalled in a flash.

    For instance, the C major triad:

    …has the white-white-white color pattern.

    The D major triad:

    …has the white-black-white-color pattern. Piano players of all styles and levels basically recall chords when they need them using their color patterns. Let me show you how you can relate keys using color patterns.

    The First Class Of Keys (B-E-A-D)

    The first class of keys we’re covering that are related by color pattern consists of keys B, E, A, and D, which you can also call “bead” (I’m sure you know what a bead is.)

    So you can classify the keys of B major:

    …E major:

    …A major:

    …and D major:

    …as a set using these color patterns.

    The keys of B, E, A, and D are white keys on the keyboard, however, they have some black notes (at least two) in their respective natural major scales.

    This class of keys on the keyboard (B-E-A-D), starts with B:

    …which has the greatest number of black notes in its natural major scale:

    Attention: When it comes to the difficulty or simplicity of any given key, there are two schools of thought. One school of thought believes that the more the number of black notes in a key, the more difficult it is while the other one believes that the lesser the number of black notes in a key, the more difficult it is.

    We’ll still have to go on irrespective of the school of thought you belong to.

    Key B vs Key E

    The BEAD set starts with B:

    Being able to play in the key of B:

    …helps you to also play in the key of E:

    This is because chord one in the key of E (the E major triad):

    …is chord four in the key of B.

    Also, chord one in the key of B (the B major triad):

    …is chord five in the key of E:

    The keys of B and E are related and this explains why a variety of chords in the key of B can also be seen in the key of E. Did I mention that chord two in the key of B:

    …which is the C# minor chord:

    …is chord six in the key of E:

    Chord six in the key of B:

    …which is the G# minor triad:

    …is chord three in the key of E:

    So there is a relationship between the keys of B:

    …and E:

    The same thing is obtainable in the keys of E:

    …and A:

    Most of the chords in the key of E can be found in the key of A, and most of the chords in key A can be found in the key of D:

    In a nutshell, the major keys of B:



    …and D:

    …have something in common. If you don’t believe me, take a look at their tonic triads. (A tonic triad is a chord of the first degree).

    A look at B major triad:

    …E major triad:

    …A major triad:

    …D major triad:

    …shows you that they have one thing in common in their color pattern – there is a black note in the middle.
    Submission: With the exception of B major triad:

    …that has a black note on the right hand side, E, A, and D major triads have the same color pattern white-black-white.

    E major triad:

    …A major triad:

    …and D major triad:

    “Take a look at their major seventh chords too…”

    E major seventh chord:

    …A major seventh chord:

    …and D major seventh chord:

    Can you see it’s exactly the same color pattern (white-black-white-black)?

    A knowledge of this relationship in color pattern makes it easier to transpose from one key to another and ultimately to play in all twelve keys.

    The Second Class Of Keys (Bb-Eb-Ab-Db)

    We covered B-E-A-D in the last section, and now we are taking a look at Bb-Eb-Ab-Db.

    If you are familiar with playing in the major keys of B:



    …and D:

    Believe it or not, playing in the keys of Bb:



    …and Db:

    …is just a game of colors because if you are familiar with the first three tones of the B major scale:

    …which are B, C#, and D#:

    …(which is basically white-black-black), doing it in the key of Bb:

    …is just about changing the colors from white-black-black:

    …to black-white-white:

    So after covering the first set of keys, going over to the Bb-Eb-Ab-Db class of keys becomes easy because all you just need to do is to change the colors and tilt a little bit downwards on the keyboard.

    “Take a look…”

    From B:

    …you can tilt a little bit downwards to Bb:

    From E:

    …you can also tilt a little bit downwards to Eb:

    The same thing is obtainable between

    …and Ab:


    …and Db:

    In the first class of keys (B,E,A, and D), we have 75% of the tonic triads having white-black-white, while in this set, it reverses to black-white-black.
    With the Bb major triad:

    …being an exception that has a black-white-white color pattern, we have the tonic triads in the keys of Eb:


    …and Db:

    …conforming to the black-white-black color pattern.
    The C minor triad:

    …is chord 2 in the key of Bb:

    …chord 6 in the key of Eb:

    …and chord 3 in the key of Ab:

    In the same vein, the F minor triad:

    …is chord 2 in the key of Eb:

    …chord 6 in the key of Ab:

    …and chord 3 in the key of Db:

    Let’s round up by taking a look at the third set of keys.

    The Third Class Of Keys  (C-F-F#/Gb-G)

    Playing on these keys is relatively easy because the keys are predominantly made up of notes of a particular color. For instance in the key of C:

    …where there are no black notes, and the keys of F:

    …and G:

    …where there’s just one black note respectively,

    …and in the key of F#:

    …or Gb:

    …where five out of seven of the notes are black.

    So it’s easier for you to also practice ideas in the keys of C:


    …and G:

    … because they are related.

    In the key of C:

    …the keys of first relationship are key F:

    ..and key G:

    “Permit me to divide this class of keys into two subsets…”



    ..and G:

    …in one sub-set and then F#:

    …or Gb:

    …in another subset.

    The first sub-set consists of C:


    …and G:

    …while the second sub-set consists of F#:

    …or Gb:

    Final Words

    There is no classification, idea or perspective to playing in all the keys that can substitute for the decision, hard-work and commitment to make it happen.

    This classification is just a way of learning by the association of related color patterns but does not replace or substitute hard-work. So as you practice playing in all the keys I hope that you enjoy it using this classification.

    All the best, until I come your way again.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.



    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 daniboy eromosele

    God bless u guys.. I really enjoyed nd understand d class.. pls I want to still kwn how to apply my Diminished and augumented chord on c major


    2 Maxwell

    Pls if u have a whatsup group for we learns pls add me now +233551730310


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