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TL;DR I'm a bit confused on which key signature to use for a score in F dorian: 4 flats or 3 flats?

I wrote this arrangement of Mad World by Gary Jules back in 2012 using 3 flats as key signature. There were no accidentals in the score.

score with 3 flats

Then some guys in the comments noticed that the first chords is Fm, so I should have used 4 flats instead. The reasoning seems correct to me, so I updated the score using 4 flats (I basically added D flat).

score with 4 flats

The problem is that I had to write D natural everywhere, because the notes were correct with only 3 flats, so I basically had to "cancel" the D flat I just added.

I'm a bit confused about which key signature to use: given the notes to me it seems obvious that the "correct" key signature to use is Eb - Cm (3 flats). On the other hand, the first chord of this song is Fm, so it should be Fm (4 flats).

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  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/41225/…
    – Dom
    May 24 at 17:29
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    Just because the first chord is an Fm chord doesn't mean that the piece needs four flats. An Fm chord in an F Dorian piece seems rather natural. I would keep 3 flats. May 24 at 19:41
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    My previous knowledge about the song and the harmonic context don't agree with this, but I'll mention it anyway: the first phrase could also sound like finding tonic in Eb major. :D (There's Ab right before with even a leading tone. But then again, with the same reasoning the fifth measure would probably be resolution to Ab. Silly.)
    – JoonasD6
    May 25 at 20:27
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Upon listening to it, F minor is the tonic chord. It does have Dorian characteristics like you say, namely a major IV chord and melodic D naturals. Is that good enough reason to write it in a key signature of 3 flats? Ultimately it’s your call. Here are somethings to think about:

The case for 4 flats:

  1. Players that read are used to having the key signature be fundamentally in whatever minor or major key the song is in regardless of the modal characteristic of the song, and reading the appropriate accidentals.
  2. By putting the song in 3 flats you are chancing someone feeling that the relationship between the actual song and the key signature to be a little odd at first glance.
  3. Since you’re using a notation program the D naturals shouldn’t be a big chore to add to the music.
  4. Even in non modal music a major IV chord (Bb) is fairly common. Going from i to IV is like a ii-V but starting on the tonic and not resolving but usually going back to the i.

The case for 3 flats:

  1. Like you said, there are no accidentals, it is a very clean looking piece of music.
  2. Historically it is not unheard of to use key signatures to notate modal pieces, or for that matter to use non-traditional key signatures.
  3. For clarity’s sake it might not be a bad idea to include a note at the beginning indicating F Dorian if you choose to go this route.
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  • "Since you’re using a notation program the D naturals shouldn’t be a big chore to add to the music.": I know, musescore added the D naturals automatically, I was complaining about the benefit of having 4 flats, not about the effort to write the naturals. "For clarity’s sake it might not be a bad idea to include a note at the beginning indicating F Dorian if you choose to go this route": which note should I add and where?
    – melfnt
    May 25 at 7:26
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    Regarding the note, I am referring to literally writing “F Dorian” somewhere at the beginning of the piece, perhaps above the first chord symbol or close to the left margin. May 25 at 8:14
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    I've seen lots of folk tunes where "F dorian", etc. - the mode - is written at the head of the score. May 25 at 15:18
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    Why do you say this is in F minor when there is never a Db? It sounds firmly dorian to me starting in the second bar.
    – bjb568
    May 25 at 21:56
  • @bjb568 This question is not about whether this song Is in F minor or F Dorian, I was just making the point that F minor is the tonic chord, Dorian or otherwise. This question is about how to notate the OP’s arrangement, I made a legitimate case for both 3 and 4 flats. Ultimately it is up to the OP to decide how to write it out. May 26 at 0:25
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I agree with the other answers that both are possible, but would err towards four ♭s. Why? Well, the piece isn't really modal Dorian. The vocal melody doesn't use D♮ for the whole verse, and when it does go to that note in the bridge/chorus it's a big reveal. (In spite of The B♭ major chord having turned up earlier in the accompaniment already... but it's worth noting that in the Tears For Fears original, the first verse has just a monophonic synth bass, which also doesn't feature D♮!)

Having an accidental then in the chorus then is not only not detrimental, it actually highlights the note's function.

X:1
L:1/8
M:C
K:Fm
%%score T1
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] r2 F F A A c c | =dB
w: And I find it kind of FUN-NY!
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  • This phrase (though not necessarily later ones) even looks like a F melodic minor which would have the D♮.
    – Theodore
    May 26 at 21:04
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    I don't hear that personally. But yeah, it's definitely not a typical Dorian feel either. Overall the piece feels much more Aeolian, and then for the chorus it kind of modulates. (The intro of the Gary Jules version is the chorus part, which throws it around a bit.) I wouldn't even say to F-Dorian, because the B♭ major is almost treated as more tonic than the F minor. May 26 at 21:41
  • There D natural appears in the first bar in the melodic line and in the chords in the second bar. It appears again several times in the chords. Thus it is of no surprise when it appears in the melodic line later on. There is no D flat anywhere in the piece, neither in the melodic line nor in the chords. May 27 at 9:54
  • @LarsPeterSchultz that's the intro of the Gary Jules version you're talking about (as I said, it basically uses the chorus as the intro). This does not happen in the original. And the original does contain a couple D♭s too, though only in the weird chromatic brass fills in the later verses. May 27 at 10:06
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The key of a song is not determined by the first chord(s).

The Fm and Bb chords "exist" in Eb major (and, therefore, F dorian) and F minor (as a borrowed chord from major).

Ultimately, the key signature is a guide for the person reading the score. It's your call as the arranger whether you want that person to think of the arrangement in F dorian, in which case three flats is the way to go, or in F minor, in which case use four flats with D naturals in the score.

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In the Baroque period the standard minor key signature was a so-called "dorian" signature, meaning it didn't put a flat on the sixth scale degree, and flats were added as accidentals in the score. So, F minor in the Baroque was three flats, C minor was two flats, etc. Putting the extra flat on the sixth degree in key signatures is a more modern practice.

So there isn't really a right or wrong way in regard to 3 versus 4 flats. It's a matter of general practice. Keep in mind that Baroque practice wasn't for music in dorian mode, it was just the practice for key signatures for minor key music.

I don't think there is a general practice for more modern modal style music. I've seen scores that work both ways. Anyone reading the score should be able to understand either way. Three flats and a tonic of F will be "dorian." Four flats, tonic of F, and consistent D natural accidentals, would also be "dorian."

I put "dorian" in quotes just to indicate despite key signature and tonic, it's possible a piece might not really sound dorian depending on how the harmony/tonality is handled. So, three flats, tonic F, is a sort of provisional dorian.

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  • You have a typo- you say B natural instead of D natural. May 26 at 20:17
  • @ScottWallace, thanks, fixed it! May 26 at 20:51
  • @Mchael Curtis- np. May 27 at 12:15
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Some people perform music by thinking in terms of mechanical actions related to sharps and flats. Some people perform music by playing the sounds mentally and then operating their instrument or voice to match. For people using the former approach, having a key signature minimize the use of accidentals may helpful, but for people using the latter approach having accidentals in places where music does something "unusual" may be more helpful.

Although you ask about Dorian, I think an example in Mixolydian may illustrate the point better. Consider the song "Little Drummer Boy". If the key note is C, the first seven measures won't contain any B flats or B naturals. If the Bb at the start of the eighth measure isn't marked with an accidental, people unfamiliar with the song may likely perform it as a B natural even if there's a Bb in the key signature, since they'll have gone seven measures without ever playing a Bb, and most songs which have a key note of C and use a lot of E naturals would use a B natural as well.

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  • Great answer. Personally, I agree with this approach. Notation is just a means to an end: for most proficient readers accidentals in the music emphasise the modal quality and impart more “quick” information. May 26 at 17:35
  • In other words: a half-second glance to the left confirms F Minor, and a half-second scan through the first few bars spots D naturals, suggesting F Dorian. 1 second to learn a lot about the music, and also to set up what to expect to read. May 26 at 17:38
  • One of the first times I’ve ever dared disagree with @Tim, BTW... May 26 at 17:41
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Sheet music is for the performer. "There are three flats consistently used throughout" is the information the performer needs. You are essentially lying to the performer in including D-flat in the key signature, telling them to expect that some of the Ds may be flattened. I see no benefit in this.

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    I disagree. "The tonic is F" is also information that the performer needs. Given the rarity of modal music, a performer seeing 3 flats will expect the tonic to be C or E-flat, which isn't the case. May 25 at 1:38
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    @AlexanderWoo The performer literally doesn't need to know the tonic, at least, not unless they plan on extended improvisation. Modal music is also very common today, especially dorian and aeolian as "substitutes" for minor in pop; I'd guess that it's been common since the 60s.
    – Esther
    May 25 at 3:17
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    This may well be different between different musical subcultures/traditions/communities. But at least in all the communities I’ve ever made music with (UK/US/Canada, mostly classical music, some folk + pop), @AlexanderWoo’s comment is absolutely right — indicating the tonic takes precedence over using fewer accidentals. I would definitely expect a piece in F dorian to use a standard F minor key signature + accidentals, and I’d find it just a bit distracting to read it with 3 flats.
    – PLL
    May 25 at 17:05
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    The performer doesn't need to just play the notes. They need to play the notes with the right subtle differences of emphasis on different notes to make the music make sense. A performer who has the wrong idea of what the tonic is will get that wrong. It's true that any performer who has heard the piece once will (possibly only intuitively) know what the tonic is and get it right, but imagine someone sight reading it cold. May 25 at 18:49
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    @AlexanderWoo I re-iterate: modality is common in pop music. Even if I agree that it's important to indicate the tonic -- which I don't, we'd use different key signatures for major and minor if that were the case, and anyway, I couldn't name a single composer who indicated every single key change throughout, e.g., the development section of a sonata -- major/minor is just a bad assumption for pop music. Some pop music doesn't even have a clear single tonic, performers just need to learn to use their ears if this is really such a concern for them.
    – Esther
    May 25 at 21:06
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The point of having a key signature is to give the reader an idea of what's happening as he reads through the piece. 3 flats means he'll expect those 3 notes to be flattened each time they occur, and play appropriately. Unless they get cancelled with an accidental.

Unfortunately that doesn't happen in minor keys, where often the leading note - not marked in the key signature - needs sharpening. It can be the same niggle with modal pieces.

In this piece, with a tonal centre of F, it could be construed as being in key F minor. However, with B♭major cropping up constantly, it obviously isn't. It's in F Dorian, the parent of which is E♭ major. So, those are the notes which will play 'not natural' more often than any other - 3 flats - B♭, E♭ and A♭.

Putting D♭ in the key signature is somewhat of a red herring, and also means each and every D♭ note will need cancelling. Were that the case, most players would soon realise that actually, the key signature putting it into F minor is not ringing true, and it's really a piece in F Dorian, so using the F Dorian key signature (3♭) would suffice.

A good sightreader would play the piece were it written either way - a lot wouldn't give either a second thought. And it would sound exactly the same either way, too. My vote is for 3♭, but with a note on top - 'F Dorian'.

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I'd say write in three flats. Dorian is a legitimate mode and shouldn't be looked at as a kind of modification of minor. If musicians don't understand Dorian, they can and should learn- it's not rocket science.

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