{ \magnifyStaff #2 \omit Score.TimeSignature \key bes \major s^"" }
Key signature showing B and E (the key of B major or G minor)
{ \magnifyStaff #2 \omit Score.TimeSignature \key d \major s^"" }
Key signature showing F and C (the key of D major or B minor)

In Western musical notation, a key signature is a set of sharp (), flat (), or rarely, natural () symbols placed on the staff at the beginning of a section of music. The initial key signature in a piece is placed immediately after the clef at the beginning of the first line. If the piece contains a section in a different key, the new key signature is placed at the beginning of that section.

In a key signature, a sharp or flat symbol on a line or space of the staff indicates that the note represented by that line or space is to be played a semitone higher (sharp) or lower (flat) than it would otherwise be played. This applies through the end of the piece or until another key signature appears. Each symbol applies to comparable notes in all octaves — for example, a flat on the fourth space of the treble staff (as in the diagram) indicates that all notes notated as Es are played as E-flats, including those on the bottom line of the staff.

Most of this article addresses key signatures that represent the diatonic keys of Western music. These contain either flats or sharps, but not both, and the different key signatures add flats or sharps according to the order shown in the circle of fifths.

Each major and minor key has an associated key signature, showing up to seven flats or seven sharps, that indicates the notes used in its scale. Music was sometimes notated with a key signature that did not match its key in this way—this can be seen in some Baroque pieces,[1] or transcriptions of traditional modal folk tunes.[2]


\omit Score.TimeSignature \relative c' {
  \time 2/1 b cis dis e fis gis ais b} }
1. B major scale: no key signature; accidentals required throughout
\omit Score.TimeSignature \relative c' {
  \key b \major \time 2/1 b cis dis e fis gis ais b} }
1. B major scale: key signature; accidentals not needed

With any note as a starting point, a certain series of intervals produces a major scale: whole step, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Starting on C, this yields C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (a C-major scale). There are no sharps or flats in this scale, so the key signature for C has no sharps or flats in it. Starting on any other note requires that at least one of these notes be changed (raised or lowered) to preserve the major scale pattern. These raised or lowered notes form the key signature. Starting the pattern on D, for example, yields D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D, so the key signature for D major has two sharps—F and C. Key signatures indicate that this applies to the section of music that follows, showing the reader which key the music is in, and making it unnecessary to apply accidentals to individual notes.

In standard music notation, the order in which sharps or flats appear in key signatures is uniform, following the circle of fifths: F, C, G, D, A, E, B, and B, E, A, D, G, C, F. Musicians can identify the key by the number of sharps or flats shown, since they always appear in the same order. A key signature with one sharp must show F-sharp,[3] which indicates G major or E minor.

There can be exceptions to this, especially in 20th-century music, if a piece uses an unorthodox or synthetic scale and an invented key signature to reflect that. This may consist of sharps or flats that are not in the usual order, or of sharps combined with flats (e.g., F and B). Key signatures of this kind can be found in the music of Béla Bartók, for example.

In a score, transposing instruments will show a different key signature to reflect their transposition but their music is in the same concert key as the other instruments. Percussion instruments with indeterminate pitch will not show a key signature, and timpani parts are sometimes written without a key signature (early timpani parts were sometimes notated with the high drum as "C" and the low drum a fourth lower as "G", with actual pitches indicated at the beginning of the music, e.g., "timpani in D–A"). In polytonal music, where different parts are actually in different keys sounding together, instruments may be notated in different keys.

Circle of fifths showing major and minor keys and their signatures


The order in which sharps or flats appear in key signatures is illustrated in the diagram of the circle of fifths. Starting the major scale pattern (whole step, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half) on C requires no sharps or flats. Proceeding clockwise in the diagram starts the scale a fifth higher, on G. Starting on G requires one sharp, F, to form a major scale. Starting another fifth higher, on D, requires F and C. This pattern continues, raising the seventh scale degree of each successive key. As the scales become notated in flats, this is shown by eliminating one of the flats. This is strictly a function of notation—the seventh scale degree is still being raised by a semitone compared to the previous key in the sequence. Going counter-clockwise from C results in lowering the fourth scale degree with each successive key (starting on F requires a B to form a major scale). Each major key has a relative minor key that shares the same key signature. The relative minor is always a minor third lower than its relative major.

The key signatures with seven flats and seven sharps are usually notated in their enharmonic equivalents. C major (seven sharps) is usually written as D major (five flats) and C major is usually written as B major.

\omit Score.TimeSignature
<< \new ChordNames \chordmode { ais1:m a:m }
\new Staff \relative c' { 
  \key ais \minor <ais cis eis ais>1 \bar "||" \key a \minor <a c e a>} >> }
Natural key signature: a key signature with seven naturals () used to cancel the seven sharps () of the previous signature.

The key signature may be changed at any time in a piece by providing a new signature. If the new signature has no sharps or flats, a signature of naturals, as shown, is used to cancel the preceding signature. If a change in signature occurs at the start of a new line on the page, where a signature would normally appear, the new signature is customarily repeated at the end of the previous line to make the change more conspicuous.


Traditionally, when the key signature changes from sharps to flats or vice versa, the old key signature is cancelled with the appropriate number of naturals before the new one is inserted. Many more recent publications (newer music or newer editions of older music) dispense with the naturals (unless the new key signature is C major) and simply insert the new signature.

Similarly, when a flat key changes to fewer flats, or a sharp key changes to fewer sharps, the convention was to use naturals to cancel the flats or sharps that are being subtracted before the new signature is written. Again, more modern usage often simply shows the new signature without these naturals.

When a flat key changes to more flats or a sharp key changes to more sharps, the new signature is simply written in without using naturals to cancel the old signature. This convention applies in both traditional and newer styles.

At one time it was usual to precede the new signature with a double barline even if it was not otherwise required, but it has become increasingly common to simply retain a single barline. The courtesy signature that appears at the end of a line immediately before a change is usually preceded by an additional barline and the line at the very end of the staff is omitted.

If both naturals and a new key signature appear at a key signature change, there are also modern variations about where a barline will be placed. In some scores by Debussy the barline is placed after the naturals but before the new key signature. Hitherto, it would have been usual to place all the symbols after the barline.

The A which is the fifth sharp in the sharp signatures may occasionally be notated on the top line of the bass staff, whereas it is more usually found in the lowest space on that staff. An example of this can be seen in the full score of Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome, in the third section, "Pines of the Janiculum" (which is in B major), in the bass-clef instrumental parts.

In the case of seven-flat key signatures, the final F may occasionally be seen on the second-top line of the bass staff, whereas it would more usually appear on the space below the staff. An example of this can be seen in Isaac Albéniz's Iberia: first movement, "Evocación", which is in A minor.

Double sharps and flats

Key signatures can be extended through double sharps and double flats and beyond, but this is extremely rare. For example, the key of G major would have eight sharps, requiring six single sharps and an F double-sharp (Fdouble sharp). The key of A major, with four flats, is enharmonically equivalent and would generally be used instead.

A piece in a major key might modulate up a fifth to the dominant (a common occurrence in Western music), resulting in a new key signature with an additional sharp. If the original key was C-sharp, such a modulation would lead to the theoretical key of G-sharp major (with eight sharps) requiring an Fdouble sharp in place of the F. This section could be written using the enharmonically equivalent key signature of A-flat major instead. Claude Debussy's Suite bergamasque does this: in the third movement "Clair de lune" the key shifts from D-flat major to D-flat minor (eight flats) for a few measures but the passage is notated in C-sharp minor (four sharps); the same happens in the final movement, "Passepied", in which a G-sharp major section is written as A-flat major.

Such passages may instead be notated with the use of double-sharp or double-flat accidentals, as in this example from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, which has this passage in G-sharp major in measures 10-12.

While theoretical keys are sometimes notated with accidentals as in this example, the use of actual theoretical key signatures is very rare. The final pages of John Foulds' A World Requiem are written in G♯ major (with Fdouble sharp in the key signature), No. 18 of Anton Reicha's Practische Beispiele is written in B# major, and the third movement of Victor Ewald's Brass Quintet Op. 8 is written in F♭ major (with Bdouble flat in the key signature).[4][5] Examples of theoretical key signatures are pictured below:

\relative c' { \omit Staff.TimeSignature \omit Staff.KeyCancellation
  \key gis   \major <gis' bis dis><eis gis bis>_\markup { \halign #0.2 "G♯ maj" }_\markup { \halign #0.2 "E♯ min" } \bar "||"
  \key dis   \major <dis fisis ais><bis dis fisis>_\markup { \halign #0.2 "D♯ maj" }_\markup { \halign #0.2 "B♯ min" } \bar "||"
  \key fes   \major <fes' as ces><des fes as>_\markup { \halign #0.2 "F♭ maj" }_\markup { \halign #0.2 "D♭ min" } \bar "||"
  \key beses \major <beses' des fes><ges beses des>_\markup { \halign #0.2 "B♭♭ maj" }_\markup { \halign #0.2 "G♭ min" }

There does not appear to be a standard on how to notate theoretical key signatures:

In tuning systems where the number of notes per octave is not a multiple of 12, notes such as G and A are not enharmonically equivalent, nor are the corresponding key signatures. These tunings can produce keys with no analogue in 12-tone equal temperament, which can require double sharps, double flats, or microtonal alterations in key signatures. For example, the key of G♯ major, with eight sharps, is equivalent to A major in 12-tone equal temperament, but in 19-tone equal temperament, it is equivalent to Adouble flat major instead, with 11 flats.

Major scale structure

Scales with sharp key signatures

There can be up to seven sharps in a key signature, appearing in this order: F C G D A E B.[9][10] The key note or tonic of a piece in a major key is a semitone above the last sharp in the signature.[11] For example, the key of D major has a key signature of F and C, and the tonic (D) is a semitone above C. Each scale starting on the fifth scale degree of the previous scale has one new sharp, added in the order shown.[10]

Major key Number
of sharps
Sharp notes Minor key Enharmonic
C major 0 A minor None
G major 1 F E minor None
D major 2 F, C B minor None
A major 3 F, C, G F minor None
E major 4 F, C, G, D C minor None
B major 5 F, C, G, D, A G minor C major/A minor
F major 6 F, C, G, D, A, E D minor G major/E minor
C major 7 F, C, G, D, A, E, B A minor D major/B minor

Scales with flat key signatures

There can be up to seven flats in a key signature, applied as: B E A D G C F[9][10] The major scale with one flat is F major. In all major scales with flat key signatures, the tonic in a major key is a perfect fourth below the last flat. When there is more than one flat, the tonic is the note of the second-to-last flat in the signature.[11] In the major key with four flats (B E A D), for example, the second to last flat is A, indicating a key of A major. Each new scale starts a fifth below (or a fourth above) the previous one.

Major key Number
of flats
Flat notes Minor key Enharmonic
C major 0 A minor None
F major 1 B D minor None
B major 2 B, E G minor None
E major 3 B, E, A C minor None
A major 4 B, E, A, D F minor None
D major 5 B, E, A, D, G B minor C major/A minor
G major 6 B, E, A, D, G, C E minor F major/D minor
C major 7 B, E, A, D, G, C, F A minor B major/G minor

Relationship between key and signature

The sharps or flats needed to produce a diatonic scale in diatonic or tonal music can be shown as a key signature at the beginning of a section of music instead of showing accidentals on individual notes. While the key of a piece generally corresponds to the notated key signature, it may not in some cases, such as in pre-Baroque music, which was composed before the modern concept of keys had fully emerged.

Some pieces feature modulations, or changes in key, between contrasting sections. Modulations may or may not be reflected by a corresponding change in key signature. Modulated passages may instead make use of accidentals.

Bach Cantata 106 is almost entirely in E major, but has only two flats, not three, in the key signature Play

The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 by Bach has a key signature with no sharps or flats, indicating that it may be in D, in Dorian mode, but the Bs indicated with accidentals make the music in D minor.

Additional terminology

Keys which are associated with the same key signature are called relative keys.

When musical modes, such as Lydian or Dorian, are written using key signatures, they are called transposed modes.

Use in other traditions

\relative c' {
  \set Staff.keyAlterations = #`((6 . ,FLAT)(2 . ,FLAT)(3 . ,SHARP)) d es fis g a bes c d ))

Key signatures are also used in music that does not come from the Western common practice period. This includes folk music, non-Western music, and Western music from before or after the common practice period.

Klezmer music uses scales other than diatonic major or minor, such as Phrygian dominant scale. Because of the limitations of the Great Highland Bagpipe scale, key signatures are often omitted from written pipe music, which otherwise would be written with two sharps, F and C.[12] (The pipes are incapable of playing F and C so the sharps are not notated.) 20th century composers such as Bartók and Rzewski (see below) experimented with non-diatonic key signatures.

Historical notation

Variant key signatures in a Victoria motet. In the superius (soprano) part the E appears first, and in two other parts a flat occurs in two octaves.

In music from the Baroque period, it is common to see key signatures in which the notes are annotated in a different order from the modern practice, or with the same note-letter annotated for each octave.

Unusual signatures

Further information: Anhemitonic scale § Modes of the ancohemitonic heptatonic scales and the key signature system

The 15 key signatures that form diatonic scales are sometimes called standard key signatures. Other scales are written either with a standard key signature and use accidentals as required, or with a nonstandard key signature. Examples of the latter include the E (right hand), and F and G (left hand) used for the С diminished (С octatonic) scale in Bartók's Crossed Hands (no. 99, vol. 4, Mikrokosmos); the B, E and F used for the D Phrygian dominant scale in Frederic Rzewski's God to a Hungry Child; and the E and D (right hand) and the B, A, G (left hand) in György Ligeti's Galamb Borong (no. 7 from the second book of the Études pour piano), and B, E, D,G (both hands) in Pour Irina (no. 16 from the same work's third book).

There are also examples of conflicting standard signatures, as in:

No sharps or flats in a key signature can indicate that the music is in the key of C major / A minor, or that the piece is modal or atonal (does not have a key signature). An example is Bartók's Piano Sonata, which has no fixed key and is highly chromatic.


The use of a one-flat signature developed in the Medieval period, but signatures with more than one flat did not appear until the 16th century, and signatures with sharps not until the mid-17th century.[13]

When signatures with multiple flats first came in, the order of the flats was not standardized, and often a flat appeared in two different octaves, as shown at right. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, it was common for different voice parts in the same composition to have different signatures, a situation called a partial signature or conflicting signature. This was actually more common than complete signatures in the 15th century.[14] The 16th-century motet Absolon fili mi by Pierre de La Rue (formerly attributed to Josquin des Prez) features two voice parts with two flats, one part with three flats, and one part with four flats.

Baroque music written in minor keys often was written with a key signature with fewer flats than we now associate with their keys; for example, movements in C minor often had only two flats (because the A would frequently have to be sharpened to A in the ascending melodic minor scale, as would the B).


Key signature Major key Minor key
C Major key signature
no sharps or flats
C major A minor
Key signature Added Major key Minor key Key signature Added Major key Minor key
G Major key signature
1 sharp
F G major E minor F Major key signature
1 flat
B F major D minor
D Major key signature
2 sharps
C D major B minor B-flat Major key signature
2 flats
E B major G minor
A Major key signature
3 sharps
G A major F minor E-flat Major key signature
3 flats
A E major C minor
E Major key signature
4 sharps
D E major C minor A-flat Major key signature
4 flats
D A major F minor
B Major key signature
5 sharps
A B major G minor D-flat Major key signature
5 flats
G D major B minor
F-sharp Major key signature
6 sharps
E F major D minor G-flat Major key signature
6 flats
C G major E minor
C-sharp Major key signature
7 sharps
B C major A minor C-flat Major key signature
7 flats
F C major A minor

See also


  1. ^ Schulenberg, David. Music of the Baroque. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 72.. "(…) to determine the key of a Baroque work one must always analyze its tonal structure rather than rely on the key signature."
  2. ^ Cooper, David. The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press, 2005. p. 22. "In a few cases Petrie has given what is clearly a modal melody a key signature which suggests that it is actually in a minor key. For example, Banish Misfortune is presented in D minor, although it is clearly in the Dorian mode."
  3. ^ "How to Read Key Signatures".
  4. ^ a b Anton Reicha: Practische Beispiele, pp. 52-53.: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  5. ^ "Ewald, Victor: Quintet No 4 in A, op 8". imslp. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  6. ^ John Foulds: A World Requiem, pp. 153ff.: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  7. ^ Max Reger (1904). Supplement to the Theory of Modulation. Translated by John Bernhoff. Leipzig: C. F. Kahnt Nachfolger. pp. 42–45.
  8. ^ "Ewald, Victor: Quintet No 4 in A, op 8", Hickey's Music Center
  9. ^ a b Bower, Michael. 2007. "All about Key Signatures Archived 2010-03-11 at the Wayback Machine". Modesto, CA: Capistrano School (K–12) website. (Accessed 17 March 2010).
  10. ^ a b c Jones, George Thaddeus. 1974. Music Theory: The Fundamental Concepts of Tonal Music Including Notation, Terminology, and Harmony, p.35. Barnes & Noble Outline Series 137. New York City, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 978-0-06-460137-5.
  11. ^ a b Kennedy, Michael. 1994. "Key-Signature". Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, associate editor, Joyce Bourne. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-869162-9.
  12. ^ Nienhuys, Han-Wen; Nieuwenhuizen, Jan (2009). "GNU LilyPond — Notation Reference". 2.6.2 Bagpipes. Retrieved 2010-03-28. Bagpipe music nominally uses the key of D Major (even though that isn't really true). However, since that is the only key that can be used, the key signature is normally not written out.
  13. ^ "Key Signature", Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed.
  14. ^ "Partial Signature", Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed.