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Books and articles I've read on learning key signatures seem to focus on mnemonics that tell you how many sharps or flats the key has, but I don't understand how knowing B Major has 5 sharps helps you to play in B Major - don't you still need to know which sharps?

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Sure you need to know which sharps if you want to play. OTOH, if you just want to know the key quickly by looking at some sheet music, counting is faster and quite sufficient. –  leftaroundabout Jun 17 at 23:36
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When you look at a die which has landed 5 up, you don't count the dots. The pattern tells you.It's the same with # or b. Eventually you just know (and which they are). –  Tim Jun 18 at 6:25
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"don't you still need to know which sharps?" Yes, but they start at F# and continue though fifths, so it's always F#, C#, G#, D#, A#. So there's a degree of "memorize the result" versus "memorize enough of the process to reconstruct the result". Of course, the keys also progress like that. C (0 sharps), G (1 sharp), D (2 sharps), etc., so you can reconstruct how many sharps B should have as well. Memorization is rarely strictly necessary if you know why something is the way it is. Bob Broadley's answer covers this well. –  Joshua Taylor Jun 18 at 13:18

4 Answers 4

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The sharps and flats are always "added" in a particular order. So, if you know how many there should be for a key, you can work out what they are. The mnemonics you refer to can help you to remember the order sharps and flats are added in.

To be honest, though, I tell music pupils of mine, that learning key-signatures by using mnemonics is only partially helpful. Eventually most musicians will just know all of the key-signatures. So, another way to learn them, is in the same way you learn individual facts. You could learn them in the same way you learn, say, the capital cities of countries (the capital of Peru is Lima; the capital of "this" is "that"); no mnemonics are going to help you with that.

So…

  • Day 1: learn that C Major has no sharps or flats in the key signature; G Major has an F#; F Major has a Bb.
  • Day 2: check what you learnt the day before; learn that D Major has two sharps, F# and C#; learn that Bb Major has two flats, Bb and Eb.

And so on, up to 7 sharps (C# Major) and 7 flats (Cb Major). (Of course, there is no need for these to be learned in a week! I could have said, Week 1: learn… Week 2: learn…)

There are, of course, patterns and rules for the sharps and flats used in different key-signatures, but if you have learnt the key-signatures, you can then look for and understand these patterns and rules.

BTW, I am certainly not advocating learning by rote without understanding. But this approach comes from experience. Often I have tried to explain the cycle of fifths and how you can work out key-signatures, to pupils just starting to learn music theory, and then realised that it is easier for them to learn a few key-signatures first, and then apply the rules later, to help them learn the rest.

Yes, the rules and patterns are important, but eventually a musician needs to know key-signatures without having to recite a mnemonic, so why not learn them this way to start with? Another similar example of learning aspects of music is the mnemonics for learning the notes on the stave (eg. Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit). This might be useful when you are just getting started, but it makes sight-reading very slow!

As a reference, this is the list of major key-signatures:

  • C Major (no sharps or flats)

"Sharp" Keys:

  • G Major (1 sharp - F#)
  • D Major (2 sharps - F#, C#)
  • A Major (3 sharps - F#, C#, G#)
  • E Major (4 sharps - F#, C#, G#, D#)
  • B Major (5 sharps - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)
  • F# Major (6 sharps - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E# - enharmonically the same as Gb Major)
  • C# Major (7 sharps - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B# - enharmonically the same as Db Major)

"Flat" Keys:

  • F Major (1 flat - Bb)
  • Bb Major (2 flats - Bb, Eb)
  • Eb Major (3 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab)
  • Ab Major (4 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)
  • Db Major (5 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb)
  • Gb Major (6 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb - enharmonically the same as F# Major)
  • Cb Major (7 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb - enharmonically the same as B Major)

And, of course, each major key has a relative minor key, which shares its key-signature. You can easily work out the relative minor of any major key; the relative minor is a minor-third (three semitones) lower than its relative major key:

  • A Minor is the relative minor of C Major (both have no sharps or flats)
  • E Minor is the relative minor of G Major (1 sharp)
  • B Minor is the relative minor of D Major (2 sharps)
  • F# Minor is the relative minor of A Major (3 sharps)
  • C# Minor is the relative minor of E Major (4 sharps)
  • G# Minor is the relative minor of B Major (5 sharps)
  • D# Minor is the relative minor of F# Major (6 sharps)
  • A# Minor is the relative minor of C# Major (7 sharps)
  • D Minor is the relative minor of F Major (1 flat)
  • G Minor is the relative minor of Bb Major (2 flats)
  • C Minor is the relative minor of Eb Major (3 flats)
  • F Minor is the relative minor of Ab Major (4 flats)
  • Bb Minor is the relative minor of Db Major (5 flats)
  • Eb Minor is the relative minor of Gb Major (6 flats)
  • Ab Minor is the relative minor of Cb Major (7 flats)

(Again, the same enharmonic relationships exist as for major keys.)

Finally, rather than using mnemonics, you can combine the "factual-learning" and "pattern-learning" approaches:

  • as you go up a fifth from C Major, each new key signature adds a sharp, and this sharp is the note a semitone below the new key; eg. G Major adds an F#; D Major adds a C#…
  • as you go down a fifth from C Major, each new key-signature adds a flat, and this flat is the note which is the same as the next key down-a-fifth; eg. F Major adds a Bb; Bb Major adds an Eb; Eb Major adds an Ab…

The order for adding sharps is: F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

The order for adding flats is the same reversed: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

Learn the key-signatures as "facts". Learn patterns within the key-signatures as "facts". Only use the mnemonics (if you really need to) to get you started...

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used to play hand-written big band stuff where the writer would put 2# anywhere, on the stave, for the key sig. It didn't really matter, as one knows that two sharps can only mean Dmaj. (or Bmin.) and the sharps could only be F# and C#. –  Tim Jun 18 at 5:20
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Have you, or anyone else, come across the practice of signing key signatures, as in Eb - 3 fingers pointing down, G - 1 pointing up ? Very useful for busking and for deps who have no charts etc. –  Tim Jun 18 at 5:25
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Out of curiosity, I learned the sharps (#) and flats (b) sequences by heart by using them as my password... :-) First I attacked the sharps with a password similar to this one but with a few more grains of salt... :-) FaDoSolReLaMiSi (French speaking countries don't use the FCGDAEB notation) and after a week or two I changed it to tackle the flats with SiMiLaReSolDoFa. It worked very very well. :-) –  Fabricio Jun 18 at 6:41
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You don't even have to memorize the entire order. Just the first two. For sharps, you start with F# and C#. Then go one up sequentially for the following pairs (3rd is one up from F# => G#, 4th is one up from C# => D# etc.). For flats, you start with Bb and Eb, then go one down sequentially for the following pairs. –  awe Jun 18 at 7:56
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@Tim, I think my neighbour keeps telling me to play in D Major... –  Bob Broadley Jun 18 at 22:52

For me personally, I play bass guitar. Sight reading with guitar and bass (and other similar stringed instruments) can be really tricky because we have so many places on the instrument to play the same note. Being able to see two flats at the beginning of the piece and quickly say to myself "Ok - key of Bb. Bb and Eb" allows me to find my position and get going without too much thought.

Knowing exactly how many isn't the important part, since the accidentals are always in the same order according to the circle of fifths/fourths. Seeing the consistent marking of two flats, or 4 sharps, and knowing what they represent immediately is what helps quick understanding and successful reading. (Hope that made sense, there).

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About the only instrument where the sharps/flats are easily seen is a keyboard.They're not obvious on a fretboard. –  Tim Jun 25 at 8:09
    
@Tim that's what practice is for! –  Eichhörnchen Jul 7 at 16:11
    
On guitar/bass, I never think about any fret/string as being a sharp, flat or natural. Like you probably do, I position my hand, and the appropriate (if I'm lucky!) notes for that scale/mode/arp.are there ready. Whereas on keys, the sharps/flats are the signposts that help me find my way.E.g. D is always between the two black notes. On gtr/bass, there are no such patterns, and indeed the exact same note can be found in many different places.The 2#, 4b etc help in very different ways from keys to gtr/bass.But I will keep practising !! –  Tim Jul 7 at 16:19

Because the sharps and flats always come in the same order: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E# and B#, in that order. The flats are exactly the opposite: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb. So, if you know there are five sharps, then you also know that those five sharps must be F, C, G, D, and A.

Speaking of mnemonics, the order of sharps and flats can be memorized with the invertible sentence:

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle

for sharps, and:

Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father

for flats.

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For some instruments, say chromatic percussion, it is helpful to know if a key has odd or even number of sharps/flats, since it could help with working out the sticking, because, with two hands, if a key has even number of sharps/flats, the cross-sticking (or the lack of) is symmetrical in the lower and upper part of the scale.

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