I've taken to memorizing key signatures, relative major and minor keys, and the cycle of fourths over the past two months. I do a mental exercise with eight steps.

1. Start at the top of the cycle of fourths for major keys. That's C. From memory, recite the tonic and key signature for each key, traversing the cycle step-wise through the flats, back to C, through the sharps, and back to C. It will sound like this: "C, F, one flat, Bb, two flats, Eb, three flats, Ab, four flats, Db, five flats, Gb, six flats, Db, five flats, Ab, four flats, Eb, three flats, Bb, two flats, F, one flat, C, G, one sharp, D, two sharps, A, three sharps, E, four sharps, B, five sharps, F#, six sharps (gotta slow down when I say that one), B, five sharps, E, four sharps, A, three sharps, D, two sharps, G, one sharp, C." I leave out C# and Cb, because they seem trivial; C has no accidentals, seven notes in a major scale, so C# has seven sharps.

2. Repeat with minor keys. Start on A, go through the flats, back to A, through the sharps, back to A.

3. Back to major keys. Start on C again. Recite the same information using breadth-first instead of depth-first: one flat, one sharp, two flats, two sharps, etc., and back again. It will sound like this: "C, F, one flat, G, one sharp, Bb, two flats, D, two sharps, Eb, three flats, A, three sharps, Ab, four flats, E, four sharps, Db, five flats, B, five sharps, Gb, six flats, F#, six sharps, Db, five flats, B, five sharps, Ab, four flats, E, four sharps, Eb, three flats, A, three sharps, Bb, two flats, D, two sharps, F, one flat, G, one sharp, C."

4. Repeat with minor keys.

5-8: Repeat steps 1-4 in the opposite direction, starting each with sharps instead of flats.

I visualize the position of each note in the cycle of fourths as I say it. (They match up with the hour markings on an analog clock.) Now I leave out the key signatures and just run the notes, because the association between key signature and location in the cycle is easy to remember.

I first memorized the cycle of fourths when I started studying jazz in college, so it's been in my head for a while. But I still hesitate on it sometimes. When I see Bbm-Eb7 on a chord chart, I might not immediately recognize that it's the key of Ab major, or that the relative minor key is F minor. So I keep doing these mental exercises while driving, or when I need to zone out for a few minutes at work. It's helping, and this will soon be second nature.

I'm working on Moment's Notice (Coltrane) for an upcoming audition for the Jazz Studies program at SDSU. It's all major ii-V-I turnarounds, no complex chords, but in one 16-bar variation of the chorus, there are 12 key changes over 8 different keys, a significant challenge compounded by a brisk tempo. It's tough, but I'd be completely frickin' lost with this tune had I not been doing these key signature exercises and my new major scale exercise.