Music Teacher's Helper Blog

5 Music Theory Tips: Part 2

RhythmLast month I shared with you 5 Music Theory Tips (Part 1) that were quite technical, so this month it’s time for some fun theory teaching strategies. Please do feel free to share your own tips and tricks below as a comment.

1. How do you spell “rhythm”? – Well I guess I just did! However, someone once shared with me a simple way for young pupils to remember how to spell this potentially tricky, commonly used word. Just remember that: Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving! The first letter from each word gives you RHYTHM! Da da!

2. How do you organise dynamics? – Something I’ve noticed is that pupils often confuse the order of dynamics from quiet to loud, especially knowing where mp or mf fit into the bigger picture. A simple fix is to make up six flashcards with each dynamic and get the student to order them from the quietest to the loudest to achieve the following order: pppmpmffff. How quickly can they get them into the correct order after the cards have been shuffled? What, just 7 seconds on the stopwatch? Amazing!

3. How can you remember the order of sharps and flats in a key signature? – Some useful mnemonics that I like because they’re zany and therefore memorable are:

Order of Sharps in a Key Signature: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Burgers

Order of Flats in a Key Signature: Big Elephants Always Dance Gracefully Carrying Food

To recall which phrase is for which key signature, just remember that if an elephant sits on you, you’ll be flat and if a cat sits on you, watch out for it’s sharp claws!!!

Your pupils might be interested to see that the letters of the sharps are reversible and make the order of flats. FCGDAEB for the sharps becomes BEADGCF for the flats.

A popular mnemonic of the past was Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle for the sharps and turning it around, Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father for the flats.

My final thought on this subject is that the first four flats spell “BEAD” which some pupils find useful.

4. How can you work out the major key from a sharp key signature? – I tell my pupils to go up a semitone (half step) from the last sharp in the key signature. For example, if you see a key signature of two sharps, go up a semitone (half step) from the sharp furthest to the right, which is C sharp, and you get D. Therefore a key signature of two sharps identifies the key of D major.

5. How can you work out the major key from a flat key signature? – The penultimate (second to last) flat in a key signature is the major key. So for example, if the key signature has two flats, the second to last flat is B flat. Therefore the key of two flats is B flat major. The only problem with this method is that pupils need to just know that one flat is the key of F major and that no sharps or flats is C major which most seem to have no problem with.

A simple, free resource I like using with pupils is found at Just select “Key Signature Identification” and then choose which clefs, the key signatures and tonality (major or minor) you want to use for testing and then select “Start Exercise.” The handy thing is that you can copy the URL in the web browser address area and then paste it into an email or facebook private message for your pupils to access later.

This YouTube video is perfect for explaining the above and a bit more:

Relative minor keys can be worked out by going three semitones (half steps) lower than the major keynote. For example, three semitones (half steps) lower than C is A so the relative minor of C major is A minor. Logically the (coal) minor works below the major (in the army)!

Right! Now it’s over to you! What tips do you have for teaching all things theory?

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!


  1. Nathan Sw.

    Again, great comments. I cant believe dynamics organization is even a problem among young musicians that would know what each marking stands for. I’ve heard most of these sayings already except for the one about how to spell rhythm. That is pretty good. Another word besides rhythm I hear young musicians have a hard time spelling correctly is bass clef vs base clef. Does anyone have any comments on that?

  2. Boston Guitar Lessons

    Great article. I spell rhythm wrong all the time. As a music teacher I laugh. I think the best things for teaching theory, especially to young children and teens, is to put it in as simple terms as possible and use visuals as much as possible. For example, you could use a green pick to represent Major chords, Blue picks to represents Minor chords and a red pick to represent a diminished chord.

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