by Nancy Pickett

Nancy Pickett is a graduate student in Educational Technology at San Diego State University, a full-time mother of an amazing eleven year old son, a former English teacher, and a part-time actress.


Instructional Objective The learners will be able to identify musical key signatures and their respective primary chords and will be able to define musical dynamics terms.

Learners/Context The learners are students in their second year of music theory for piano. The age range of the students is from seven years to adult.

The game is designed to be played after an individual or group lesson to give students practice in recognizing key signatures and their primary chords and in identifying musical terms used to convey dynamics (how the piece is to be played).


Rationale It is important for students to be able to quickly identify the key signature and its dynamics in order to know how the musical piece is written and how it is to be played. Knowing the primary chords will allow a student to easily and quickly learn a new piece of music. For beginning students, figuring out the key signature and its chords slows down the process of playing the song. By practice and reinforcement, the student will proceed more rapidly and play more successfully. The student will subsequently gain more confidence in his/her ability which will in turn, spark their enjoyment and motivation.

A card game is appropriate because children and adults will find it an entertaining, challenging, and motivating method of reinforcing their new skills. The game could be used during a group class or after class. Instructors can add more key signatures, primary chords, and musical terms when the students are ready.

Rules The game follows the format of the card game "UNO".


Number of players
Two to four people may play at the same time.

Card Content
There are four basic cards: musical term card (Wild card), key signature card (with musical notation), key name card, and primary chord card. Each chord card also contains a keyboard graphic with the keys colored in red to represent the notes in the chord.

Game Playing

  1. One student deals seven cards to each player. The rest of the cards are placed face down to become the Draw pile. The top card is placed face-up next to the Draw pile to become the Discard pile. If a musical term card is turned over at the beginning of play, it is returned to the middle of the Draw pile and another card is turned over until a key signature or chord card appears to begin play.


  2. The first player has to match the card in the Discard pile by placing down a card with the same key signature or a primary chord card of that key signature. Or, the player can throw down a Wild Card to change the key signature. First, however, the player must correctly define the musical term on the card. If the player cannot identify the term, they must draw a card from the Draw pile. Then it is the next player's turn.


  3. When a player has one card left, they must say "RITARDANDO" (used at the ending of a piece of music, meaning to gradually slow down.) Failure to do so will result in having to draw two cards from the Draw pile (but only if caught by the other players).


  4. When a player has no cards left, they win that game.

Information Sheet
An information sheet is available during play so that players may look up musical terms, key signatures, and corresponding primary chords.


To focus on one skill at a time and simplify the game for beginners, a memory game may be played using only the key signature and chords cards. For instance, pairs may be chosen using the key signature card with the musical notation and the word card with that key. The card with "F Major" will be matched with the card showing the staff with "b flat". Players will lay all the cards face down and turn over the cards one at a time to match the key signature by name or by notation. The player with the most cards at the end of play is the winner.

Card Design There are four basic cards: musical term card (Wild card), key signature card (with musical notation), key name card, and primary chord card. Each chord card also contains a keyboard graphic with the keys colored in red to correspond with the notes in the chord. The figures below show an example of each type.


Sample Cards

Key Signature Name Card and Key Signature Notation Card

Primary Chord Card and Wild Card (Musical dynamics term)

Deck Design The deck has a total of 70 cards: The key signatures represented in this deck include C Major, F Major, G Major, D Major, A Major, and E Major. Each key signature is represented twice in the deck. Each key signature will have 10 cards to represent it. The deck also contains 10 musical term cards (Wild cards) representing dynamics which are signs that indicate ranges of volume and style. These cards include terms such as forte, allegretto, largo, andante, allegro, moderato, pianissimo, fortissimo, piano, and presto. The complete deck will contain the following cards:

Design Process Since memorizing key signatures, their primary chords, and musical dynamics terms is a long, dull process of practice and repetition, an educational card game is an effective, enjoyable method of practice, remediation, and feedback. A fun, competitive environment lends itself to practicing the students' knowledge. This card game is appropriate for children and adults.

The first deck I prototyped contained chord cards which showed all the primary chords of a key signature on one card. After field-testing, I discovered that students would not be motivated to learn all the primary chords of a given key signature. They would only need to look at the root note of the first chord to know the correct key signature. I then redesigned the chord cards so that each card contained only one triad.

Another change I made to the chord card was to add a graphic of a keyboard with the corresponding notes of the chord colored red on the keys. Students could use this visual representation to decipher the primary chords for a given key. This approach duplicates the process used while a student is playing the piano and sight-reading.

At first, I designed Ritardando as a rummy game. However, I wanted to introduce a second element, the musical dynamics terms, to add interest and content. The use of Wild cards in Uno proved to be a good format for this purpose.

Bastien, James. Musicianship for the Older Beginner. The Bastien Older Beginner Piano Library. San Diego, CA: Kjos West,1977.
Manoff, Tom. The Music Kit. Workbook, second edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984.
Bastien, James. Theory. Bastien Piano Basics. San Diego, CA: Kjos West, 1985.

Last updated by Nancy Pickett on September 30,1996.

Return to the Card Game Table of Contents.

Educational Technology 670, Fall 1996.