Key Signatures


Bb to Eb

Bb to F

Eb to E

Accidentals that appear to the right of a clef, not associated with individual notes, are called a key signature.

These accidentals apply to all notes of that letter name, in all octaves, unless canceled by a natural. If you are familiar with the scale, a short-cut to finding the key is:

For sharps, call the last sharp ti, count up to do.
For flats, call the last flat fa and count down to do.

In the top example the last sharp is "C". If "C#" is "ti" then "D" is "do".

The second example shows a key change from two flats to three flats. When adding accidentals to an existing key signature, use a double bar and then the new signature.

The last two examples show the use of naturals when canceling accidentals in the existing key signature. Only the non-continuing accidentals need canceling.

All existing accidentals must be eliminated when switching from sharps to flats or flats to sharps.

Here you see the order of sharps and flats as they appear in key signatures. The first sharp is F#, the first flat is Bb. From there they follow the order as above, up a fifth to the next sharp, down a fifth to the next flat. Of course they are written on the staff, not with ledger lines.

Pitch Top

I have shown the practical maximum of six accidentals. If you ever see published music with seven please email me!

The order of sharps and flats in key signatures is predetermined by what is often
referred to as the circle of fifths. Here I illustrate its concepts using the staff.
If you start at the lowest C on the piano and proceed up twelve perfect fifths, you will arrive at the highest note on the piano, also C, and will have played each of the other eleven notes in the chromatic scale once. This is shown in the far left column. The * shows where I chose to start spelling with flats instead of sharps. The interval from the C# to the Ab is a diminished sixth, equivalent to a perfect fifth. You could spell the notes with sharps all the way up. The top note would then be B#, which is enharmonic with C.

The right-hand column shows a circle of fourths. Notice the reverse order of notes! The * interval is now an augmented third, equal of the perfect fourth.

Pitch Top

Well, back to key signatures! To find the number of sharps or flats in a key, use Middle C as the center of a line of fifths with the sharp keys the fifths above C and the flat keys the fifths below. The number of fifths from C determines the number of accidentals in the key signature.

These are the major keys associated with each key signature. Each major key has a relative minor key a minor third below. A line of fifths like this one could be made for the minor keys. It would have A as its center. For practice you can download and print out a page of staff paper and do this.

You could also make a chart for the order of sharps and flats in key signatures.

Next Pitch Top