6 Major key signatures

As noted in the first section of this lesson, the major scale can be transposed (moved) to a location other than C. The process of constructing a major scale can be simplified by the use of key signatures. If the accidentals (sharps or flats) necessary to create the correct pattern of whole and half steps of a scale are moved to the beginning of the staff, immediately to the right of the clef, a key signature is created. Following is an A-flat major scale using accidentals. The second slide shows the same scale, but the accidentals have been moved to the left of the scale to create the A-flat major key signature.

Slide background
Slide background

The use of key signatures eliminates the tedious chore of writing sharps or flats before each note to be raised or lowered. It is also easier for the performer to “think” the key of four flats rather than read each of the accidentals individually as they occur in the music.

Because there are seven letters (A-G) to our musical alphabet, there are seven flat and seven sharp key signatures along with the key of C (which has no sharps or flat). Following are the major key signatures in the treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs.

Flat key signatures:


Sharp key signatures:


Looking at the examples above, notice that each key signature is formed by adding one flat or sharp to the preceding key signature.  Therefore, if you memorize the order of all seven flats and all seven sharps, you will be able to write all the key signatures.


Memorize the letter names of the flats in their order of appearance in key signatures.  The first four flats spell the word “bead.”  The last three (G C F) might be remembered as, “Gee, see Eff!”

B E A D G C F (order of flats)

Memorize the letter names of the sharps in their order of appearance in key signatures.  The order of the sharps is the exact reverse of the flats.

F C G D A E B (order of sharps)



It is also necessary that you can quickly notate the pattern of sharps and flats in the key signatures in the treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs. The vertical and horizontal position of sharps or flats in a key signature is significant. They should always be in the same order left to right (as noted above and shown below) and on the same lines or spaces as shown below (not an octave higher or lower). The flats follow a similar pattern in all four clefs. The sharps have a similar pattern in three clefs (treble, bass and alto), but notice a different pattern in the tenor clef below.

l3_sharp_flat_order l3_sharp_flatcclefs_order

How to Identify Major Key Signatures:

  • Locate and name the last sharp of the key signature (the sharp farthest to the right.
  • In a major key, the last sharp is the seventh pitch of the scale, so the key name is the next letter name and is located one half-step above on the next line or space.

  • Locate and name the last flat of the key signature (the flat farthest to the right.
  • In a major key, the last flat is the fourth pitch of the scale, so the key name is located by counting up to 1 (8) from 4 (or down to 1 from 4)
  • If there are two or more flats in the key signature, the key name is the next-to-the-last flat.


Three key signatures that are helpful to memorize are C major, Cb major and C# major:


  How to memorize accidentals in key signatures

 Learn to write flat key signatures

 Learn to write sharp key signatures

 Print a page of blank manuscript paper. Then . . .
 Practice writing all seven sharps and seven flats in both the treble and bass clefs until you can do this task quickly and easily. Be sure you retain the correct order of the accidentals and place them on the correct lines and spaces as shown below:


Drill: Key Signature identification


MTSB: Lesson 3, Practice writing and identifying major scales