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I am wondering about how many major and minor keys there are and why.
Here are some suggestions:

24 keys
One could argue that there should be one major and one relative minor key for each of the 12 equal tempered enharmonic notes, that is for each of
C; Db(/C#); D; Eb(/D#); E; F; F#/Gb; G; Ab(/G#); A; Bb(/A#); B
totalling 24 keys.
This would in some sense be supported by the mere idea of 24-key set compositions such as Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier and Chopin's 24 preludes (although the choice of enharmonic high-number sharps/flats key signatures vary in different composition sets).

26 keys
Sticking to the idea of enharmonic notes and the 24 keys but making a difference between the note names F# and Gb since they require an equal amount of sharp and flat symbols in their major and relative minor key signatures, and in that way seem equally relevant, yields 26 keys.

30 keys
If you count keys while you keep adding sharps or flats, until all seven natural notes (A to G) have a sharp or a flat symbol in the key signature, you end up with 30 keys.
That is the 15 keys
C; F; Bb; Eb; Ab; Db; Gb; Cb(!); G; D; A; E; B; F#; C#(!)
in majors and their relative minors.

42 keys
Counting all seven natural notes (A to G) on their own, as well as their respective flattened, and sharpened notes we get 21 note names as a basis for keys. That is
Cb; C; C#; Db; D; D#; Eb; E; E#; Fb; F; F#; Gb; G; G#; Ab; A; A#; Bb; B; B#.
Major and relative minor keys for each of these 21 gets you 42 keys (indeed with a lot of double sharps of flats in twelve of them).

Infinate number of keys
Albeit seemingly ridiculous someone might amuse himself/herself with for instance "transposing" 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' from C major to A### major1 ("A triple-sharp major" with 24 sharps in the key signature :-) or use any other super-sharp/-flat key. This is to say that you can invent pretty much as many keys as you please.

THE QUESTION
So, is there a consensus on or a standard answer to how many keys there are?
Or
When asked "How many major and minor musical keys are there?", what is the generally accepted correct answer?
Also
Why, and says who?

I am pretty sure I know what's considered the answer to how many keys there are, but I would like to know why and who settled for this.

In case you find that it matters I'm referring to 12 tone equal temperament. I could otherwise perhaps further have suggested, say, nine (usable) keys for e.g. quarter-comma meantone temperament.

1 I stole the example from a joke by the Finnish orchestra Retuperän WBK.

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What started my thinking was this answer as well as the question is G# major a real key. –  Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 24 '12 at 12:16
    
The thirty keys are pretty standard. –  American Luke Sep 24 '12 at 15:27
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@Luke: Why? Who set the standard? When? And what about G# being a key - this does not fit within 30! - as by the question I linked in the previous comment? Maybe there is no clear answer to these questions, but then I'd like to know that too. :-) –  Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 24 '12 at 16:39
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Eh, I think it's just squabbling over nothing, confused by history and varying conventions. Much like grammar discussions ;). In 12-tone equal temperament there are obviously 12 tones, and having two names for each is just silly; there is no functional difference between C# and Db (etc.). Yet people insist on distinguishing them because they have nothing better to do! :P –  Matthew Read Sep 24 '12 at 16:48
    
you MAY need to specify whether you want -keys- or -key signatures-. A -Key- could ignore the scale: there are obviously only 12 of them, possibly enharmonically named. A -key signature- includes the spec of the scale. There are a HUGE number of those (all possible combinations of a set of 12). –  Stephen Hazel Sep 26 '12 at 22:43

8 Answers 8

Obviously the answer depends on your point of view, and there probably isn't one "right" answer.

There are 12 unique named tones in Western music; all pitches are one of these 12 tones. Thus, from a purely sonic perspective, there are only twelve starting notes for a key, and with major and minor scale qualities, there are 24 tonally unique keys. For my part, this is my answer; it's the basis of the Circle of Fifths and thus much of Western music theory.

Now, those 12 tones don't each have unique names; each flat note is the adjacent note's sharp (for F and C, their flats are the natural notes E and B) and vice versa. For most of these, such as A#, you have to go more than halfway around the Circle of Fifths, and "double-sharp" or "double-flat" notes in the key signature. Double-sharping and double-flatting is generally frowned on, and is disallowed altogether in key signatures because key signatures are supposed to have only one symbol. Also, in these cases there is a key signature available with far fewer accidentals (A# would require double-sharping F,C, and G, but why have 4 sharps and three double-sharps, when all you need is two flats?)

However, for three of these enharmonic note names (B/Cb, F#/Gb, and C#/Db), a key signature exists that has 7 or fewer sharps or flats, thus not requiring mixed symbols. If we consider major and minor variants of these to be separate nameable keys, there are 30 nameable (engravable) keys that you could conceivably see on a piece of music using the Westen notation system. 6 of them are enharmonic, and four (two key signatures/major-minor pairs) are unlikely to be seen as their enharmonic equivalent alters fewer notes (C# requires seven sharps; Db only requires five flats), but the signatures conform to the notation rules either way.

Virtually all your other possible systems violate the generally-accepted notation standards for Western sheet music (primarily by unnecessarily double-flatting or double-sharping notes). These rules evolved out of a general desire to simplify and standardize notation based on logical symbolic progressions, which also generally followed the math behind the sounds of Western music. There isn't one single person who set them in stone (and indeed many things we consider "rules" can be bent and broken to great effect), but I'll bet that if you handed any professional musician a piece written in A# he'd scratch out all those symbols and write in two flats, and curse your name for wasting his time.

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This explanation of 24 or 30 keys, and why, seems eminently sensible. It is perfectly sensible also, though, to name keys such as G# Major (dominant of C# Major) or Fb Major (subdominant of Cb Major), entered via a modulation in an actual piece of music. Without using these names, one can't fully describe/analyse such music. Of course you can't have a practical key signature for such keys. More info about this is here: music.stackexchange.com/a/5660/9198 –  Bob Broadley Apr 2 at 13:47
    
True, however the question specifically asked for a number of major and minor keys, which imply the Ionian and Aeolian diatonic modes respectively. Any additional diatonic mode you want to include as a key, like Dorian, Phrygian or Lydian, would add 12 tonally unique and 15 engravable keys (though the signatures would not change). Add non-diatonic scales with non-standard key signature patterns, like Ascending Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor, Hungarian Minor, Phrygian Dominant, and Arabic/Byzantine semitonic, and you can easily arrive at a total number of tonally-unique keys in the hundreds. –  KeithS Jul 8 at 16:54

I hadn't really thought about the "engraving" standard, but in the diatonic tonal world, there are two answers:

  1. In equal temperament there are 24 "keys", if by key you mean tonal structure based on some transposition of the major or minor scale.

  2. In non-equal temperament, especially in pure just intonation, there are no enharmonic equivalents (Gb ≠ F#), and so there are, theoretically, an INFINITE number of keys. You can keep modulating around the cycle of fifths forever and you will never return to the exact pitch from which you started.

You will slowly drift either up or down in frequency by a Pythagorean comma (don't ask) until, ten of thousands of modulations later, you exceed the human ear's limits.

Trippy...

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I'd say the ENGRAVING standard is 30 key signatures due to standards in scale spelling. This doesn't include all -scales-, just standard #/b -signatures-.

The reason for having half the enharmonic note names undefined is that they have more sharps/flats than their other enharmonic note name and would cause huge numbers of sharps/flats giving no advantage to the alternative note's notation.

We also don't have signatures for any of the non major or minor scales such as the modal scales (when key isn't on, say D of dorian scale, etc), pentatonic, etc.

So there are 12 tones - giving 12 possible keys (enharmonic #/bs ignored as they should be). But there are PLENTY of scale variations that engraving standards do NOT cover. So no standard for all possible scales exists as far as I know. (I am NOT a professional engraver OR piano teacher - I'm a software developer trying to code some FRACKIN standard notation into my app.)

I would LOVE to hear that there ARE standards beyond this, but so far this is all i got.

==================== MAJOR KEYS ===================      ! means PLAIN cuz ksig
            xx      xx          xx      xx      xx       % means natural
flats   KEY m2  M2  m3  M3  4   tri DOM m6  M6  m7  M7   d double flat, x db shp
0       C   db  D   eb  E   F   f#  G   ab  A   bb  B
1       F   gb  G   ab  A   B!  b%  C   db  D   eb  E
2       B!  cb  C   db  D   E!  e%  F   gb  G   ab  A
3       E!  fb  F   gb  G   A!  a%  B!  cb  C   db  D
4       A!  bd  B!  cb  C   D!  d%  E!  fb  F   gb  G
5       D!  ed  E!  fb  F   G!  g%  A!  bd  B!  cb  C
6       G!  ad  A!  bd  B!  C!  c%  D!  ed  E!  fb  F    or F#
7       C!  dd  D!  ed  E!  F!  f%  G!  ad  A!  bd  B!   B in sharps preferred

            xx      xx          xx      xx      xx
sharps  KEY m2  M2  m3  M3  4   tri DOM m6  M6  m7  M7
1       G   ab  A   bb  B   C   c#  D   eb  E   f%  F!
2       D   eb  E   f%  F!  G   g#  A   bb  B   c%  C!
3       A   bb  B   c%  C!  D   d#  E   f%  F!  g%  G!
4       E   f%  F!  g%  G!  A   a#  B   c%  C!  d%  D!
5       B   c%  C!  d%  D!  E   e#  F!  g%  G!  a%  A!
6       F!  g%  G!  a%  A!  B   b#  C!  d%  D!  e%  E!   or Gb
7       C!  d%  D!  e%  E!  F!  fx  G!  a%  A!  b%  B!   Db in flats preferred

==================== MINOR KEYS ===================
            xx          xx      xx          %#      %#
flats   KEY m2  M2  m3  M3  4   tri DOM m6  M6  m7  M7
0       A   bb  B   C   c#  D   d#  E   F   f#  G   g#
1       D   eb  E   F   f#  G   g#  A   B!  b%  C   c#
2       G   ab  A   B!  b%  C   c#  D   E!  e%  F   f#
3       C   db  D   E!  e%  F   f#  G   A!  a%  B!  b%
4       F   gb  G   A!  a%  B!  b%  C   D!  d%  E!  e%
5       B!  cb  C   D!  d%  E!  e%  F   G!  g%  A!  a%
6       E!  fb  F   G!  g%  A!  a%  B!  C!  c%  D!  d%
7       A!  bd  B!  C!  c%  D!  d%  E!  F!  f%  G!  g%

            xx          xx      xx          #x      #x
sharps  KEY m2  M2  m3  M3  4   tri DOM m6  M6  m7  M7
1       E   f%  F!  G   g#  A   a#  B   C   c#  D   d#
2       B   c%  C!  D   d#  E   e#  F!  G   g#  A   a#
3       F!  g%  G!  A   a#  B   b#  C!  D   d#  E   e#
4       C!  d%  D!  E   e#  F!  fx  G!  A   a#  B   b#
5       G!  a%  A!  B   b#  C!  cx  D!  E   e#  F!  fx
6       D!  e%  E!  F!  fx  G!  gx  A!  B   b#  C!  cx
7       A!  b%  B!  C!  cx  D!  dx  E!  F!  fx  G!  gx

rules:
- start with spelling of 7 scale tones per keysig's sharp else flat
- 7 tones of scale ALL on DIFFerent letters
- if minor, M6 and M7 are ALWAYS m6,m7 SHARPED (naturaled flat/doublesharped)
  since "sort of in the scale as almost tones"
- SINGLE LETTER for tonic, dominant - not duped even for tones outside scale
- no letter used 3 times when making outside the scale tones (2 =max=)

checking:
- vertically, sharps should read fcgdaeb
- vertically, flats  should read beadgcf
- cols should have SAME letter:  2,3  4,5  6,7  9,10  11,12
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Not sure why you used ! in place of #/b on your chart... seems to confuse things, and you could probably still use single characters and use the nonstandard ones for the more infrequent double-sharps/flats. –  NReilingh Sep 25 '12 at 19:21
    
But more importantly, the engraving explanation is a good one. Start from C#/Cb, and then go through the circle of fourths/fifths until you get to the other side! –  NReilingh Sep 25 '12 at 19:22
    
sorry bout the ! stuff - that's what the c++ in my app needs :) (and, by the way, trying to FIND these standard-ish rules was like pulling teeth) –  Stephen Hazel Sep 25 '12 at 21:08
    
You miss D# minor and A# sharp minor –  Neil Meyer Apr 3 at 17:47

If you use equal temperament there will be 12 major keys and 12 minor keys, or 24 all together, as others have said on here. If you use unequal temperament there will be a lot more, since C♯ and D♭ etc. will be different notes (C♯ will be slightly higher than D♭).

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Practical soul that I am, I say there are as many keys as there are notes in the chromatic scale, times the number of modes. That gives me 84, if my arithmetic skills serve me correctly. Of course, if there are only two modes anymore, then the number is 24.

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One way of looking at it would be this: There are 12 different pitches in relative pitch, so a major and minor for each of these means there are 24 keys. However, each of these (apart from C and Am) is in a sharp or flat key, so there is an enharmonic key for each of these with the opposite, either flats or sharps. As for C and Am, these are not either sharp or flat keys, and so need a sharp and flat key each. This leaves us with 50 different keys. However, this also leaves us with keys such as G double-sharp minor, which has 2 sharps and 5 double-sharps.

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Don't forget there are (at least) 3 minor keys - natural, harmonic and melodic, all using slight variations in their make-up, Yes, all three will be given the same key sig., but actually the 'feel' will be different for each. Whether this difference makes each a different 'key', I'm not sure, but judging by the definitions above, notating each 'key', then maybe it's worth mentioning.

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4  
-1 These are scales, not keys. This has nothing to do with the number of keys. –  American Luke Oct 5 '12 at 13:32
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Sorry, but my dictionary states that a key is A SYSTEM OF NOTES BASED ON MATERIAL IN A PARTICULAR SCALE. You had no right to mark me down! –  Tim Oct 7 '12 at 12:00
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Although many musicians confuse key with scale, a scale is an ordered set of notes typically used in a key, while the key is the center of gravity, established by particular chord progressions. –  American Luke Oct 7 '12 at 18:37
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A minor is a key. A natural minor is a scale. A melodic minor is a child who likes to sing. –  American Luke Oct 8 '12 at 14:45
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Yes, that definition is severely flawed. In common practice music, there is no such thing as writing in "A Harmonic minor" or "A natural minor". Look at any minor-key piece from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic eras: they are called Sonata in A minor, Symphony #2 in D minor, etc. Minor key pieces use all 3 scales depending on the context, in other words, the 6th and 7th scale degrees are variable in minor. In the rock world, that are pieces written in harmonic minor modes, but that's a very different world than the common-practice one. –  Pat Muchmore Feb 7 at 20:08

It is worth noting that there is no such scale as G# Major / A# Major and so on. The only Major scales that start on a note with a sharp is F# Major and C# Major.

When asked "How many major and minor musical keys are there?", what is the generally accepted correct answer?

The answer should be one Major and Minor scale for each note in an octave. There is no need to have two scales that start on the same place. There is exceptions Gb Major / F# Major and C# Major and Db Major but there are other reason as to why they exist.

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Can you explain/add some references to the 'It is worth noting that there is no such scale as G# Major / A# Major and so on.' part? As far as I know, there is a G# Major scale –  Shevliaskovic Apr 3 at 17:49
    
There is Ab Major and Bb Major which would start on the same place . –  Neil Meyer Apr 4 at 8:41
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Ab major starts on Ab and Bb major starts on Bb and there are 2 notes difference in those scales... –  Dom Apr 4 at 19:38
    
I meant the same as G # and A # –  Neil Meyer Apr 5 at 11:01

protected by Dom Apr 4 at 21:26

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