All in Order: Tricks for Identifying Key Signatures


What are the “keys” to identifying different key signatures? Read on for some great tips from Tucson, AZ teacher Lourdes C

In reading music, there are a few things that give musicians the biggest headaches. One major migraine-maker is determining keys from the key signature and then remembering the order of sharps and flats. This chart gives musicians a quick way to help with identifying key signatures.

Key Signatures at a Glance

Major sharps: the name of the key can be found at 1 semitone above the last sharp.

Minor sharps: the name of the key can be found at 2 semitones below the last sharp.

C has no accidentals

A has no accidentals

G: F# + 1 semitone = G…

E: F# – 2 semitones = E…

D: F#, C#

B: F#, C#

A: F#, C#, G#

F#: F#, C#, G#

E: F#, C#, G#, D#

C#: F#, C#, G#, D#

B: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#

G#:  F#, C#, G#, D#, A#

F#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#

D#: F#, C#, G#, D# A#, E#

C#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

A#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

Major flats: the name of the key can be found at 7 semitones above the last flat.

Minor flats: the name of the key can be found at 4 semitones above the last flat.

F: Bb + 7 semitones = F…

D: Bb + 4 semitones = D…

Bb: Bb, Eb

G: Bb, Eb

Eb: Bb, Eb, Ab

C: Bb, Eb, Ab

Ab: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db

F: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db

Db: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

Bb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

Gb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Eb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Cb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

Ab: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

Written Order of Accidentals and Example Key Signatures

Figure 1Let’s work on identifying key signatures by looking at the image above. The last flat in this case is F (Fb is E, in enharmonic spelling). From Fb, count up 7 semitones (half-steps) and keep the enharmonic spellings for E and B (Fb and Cb, respectively): Fb -F-Gb-G-Ab-A-Bb-Cb (B) – key of Cb major. Count four semitones up and you get Ab minor, the relative minor of Cb. Even if you don’t know the mode, either major or minor, by using this key signature method, you will always be able to find the major and relative minor for any signature you encounter.

Figure 2

This next key signature has one accidental. Avoid assuming that this is Bb major or minor. This is actually Fb major. Fb minor is actually E minor, which is a sharp key. This method will help you work through the Circle of Fifths and understand the relationship between tonal arrangements in keys.

Other Problems to Avoid

Accidentals (sharps and flats symbols) are written in descending order from top right to bottom left on the staff. So, knowing the last flat or sharp requires that you remember the order of sharps and flats, because on the staff, the last accidental may appear higher than the first, which can trick you into thinking it’s the first accidental. This is Bb major, as an example:

Figure 3

Mnemonic for the Order of Sharp and Flats

The order of flats is BEADGCF (“bead” – gcf). A good mnemonic is “bead the G clef from middle C to the F clef”. If you can remember that, just know that for sharps, it will be backwards: FCGDAEB. If you remember only that mnemonic and the counts in the chart above, you’ll always be in the right order and you can identify keys by their signatures alone with just a little practice. To practice, find any good graphic image for the Circle of Fifths and try this for yourself! Happy music-making!

LourdesLourdes C. teaches various music subjects and tutors in Tucson, AZ. Her doctorate is in Applied Linguistics and American Indian Studies. She has been an instructor and tutor for over 20 years for academics, research methods, languages and literature, and music as well. Book in-person or online lessons with Lourdes here!



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