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I read an interesting point that when we use accidentals it might be fruitful to think of it like changing key signature (locally, I guess). So I naturally started wondering if the more exotic key signatures have names? I know Mikrokosmos by Béla Bartók have a lot of these weird key signatures but I have not found any names for them yet. Does anyone know?

So for example 1 sharp at some line or space, the others naturals, or some other combination of flat, natural and sharp on the seven possible lines and spaces. I found a maybe related article on wikipedia about modes of the heptatonic scale and the key signature system but it was a bit heavy for me.

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    I’m voting to close this question because as constructed doesn't meet guidelines for question quality as described in music.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask. Specifically, there can be many equally valid answers, and the question is asking for a list.
    – Aaron
    Jan 13 at 8:15
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    Even the standard key signatures don't have names! There is no point in writing any naturals in a key sgnature - is there..?
    – Tim
    Jan 13 at 9:45
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    @Emil No, C-major is the name of the scale or tonality that is most prominently expressed by an empty key signature. But it is not the name of the key signature, but the name of the key. For example the key A minor shares the same key signature with the key c major.
    – Lazy
    Jan 13 at 11:51
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    @Emil This would turn the name of a key signature (as you propose) into something that is not really well defined, which kind of defeats the purpose of a name. Why would an empty key signature have the name "C-major" and not "A-minor"? Or even "D-dorian", "E-phrigian", "F-lydian", "G-mixolydian" or "B-locrian"? To keep it to your "1"-example: 1 is both the multiplicative unit and the smallest positive integer. But its name (assuming having a name here made any sense) is still "1" and not "the multiplicative unit" nor "the smallest positive integer".
    – Lazy
    Jan 13 at 16:54
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    "I naturally started wondering if the more exotic key signatures have names": no key signatures have names, not even the standard ones. They only have descriptions, such as "one flat" and "there sharps."
    – phoog
    Jan 13 at 22:17

3 Answers 3

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I think I know what you're after, but your not-quite-correct use of standard terminology is obscuring it a bit.

This isn't exactly a list, but more of a workflow:

To demonstrate, I found Mikrokosmos on YouTube, and looked at this part:

Mikrokosmos 10

First of all, identify the tonality of the piece or passage. I think there is at least one good Q & A here to help with that. I note that the piece concludes on D so I'll guess that it's "key" is D something-or-other.

It has a nonstandard signature with only A♭.

Next go to Ian Ring's Amazing Scale Finder and select the notes corresponding to the signature:

Harmonic Major

(Never mind that it displays both G and G♯ with no A of any kind. We just want the right set of pitch classes, spelling it only with sharps.)

It says "Harmonic Major", but we're not done!

Click on the link to scale 2485 and scroll down to where it has Modes.

Remember that it's considered "Harmonic Major" when we start at C. We're starting on D, the second pitch. The second mode of the Harmonic Major is Dorian ♭5.

So what you have for this piece is D Dorian ♭5.

If you want to read about Dorian ♭5, click the link to scale 1645. It will display C Dorian ♭5 but the properties of the scale still hold. Maybe one day the Scale Finder will be updated to include a way to designate the tonic.

You'll also note that in the description of the Dorian ♭5 scale, there is a list of names for it from other traditions and naming systems.

There's another way to do this by transposing before entering the notes into the finder. I'll leave it to the reader to work that out.

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The fundamental misunderstanding here is that "key signatures" are not themselves a musical entity, but a tool for representing a musical entity in writing. This is like how time signatures represent the musical concept of meter, and staff notation represents the musical concept of pitch.

Key signatures can help indicate "the key," that is, the tonality of an area of music. (I hedge by saying "can help," because they don't tell us everything. They don't tell us the mode—one F# could be G major or E minor, or for that matter, perfectly serviceable for Mixolydian mode on D, or many other modes. And a piece might modulate for some time without bothering to change the key signature; we might analyze that passage as being in the new key even if the notation doesn't show it.)

To answer your core question: There may or may not be names for the tonalities that Bartok was representing with the "weird" key signatures in Mikrokosmos, but that doesn't technically make them "a name for a key signature" so much as "a name for a tonality[/mode/scale]." For example, you might want to write in the Hungarian minor scale, and use an F#, an Eb, and an Ab as a key signature. In this case, to be perfectly pedantic, "Hungarian minor scale" would not be the name of this non-standard key signature, but of the scale that you're trying to represent.

And also, as far as I'm aware, Bartok's example is very much an outlier; there are many, many pieces in modalities other than our familiar major and minor, but they typically just use accidentals as necessary to modify "standard" key signatures.

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  • I’m not convinced that your first sentence is necessarily true. If you can write music in a key without writing a key signature, and you can write a key signature and have music written unsigned that key signature but not in either key indicated by that key signature, then that suggests key signatures are not necessarily firmly connected to keys. Jan 13 at 14:18
  • @ToddWilcox Hm... I might be getting both of us confused in abstracts—I guess, at core, every human idea "about" music is itself an abstraction, not some kind of pure, intrinsic property of music. But I am distinguishing between tonality/mode/key (a "musical thing") and key signature (a handy convenience for pointing us toward that thing. Maybe the distinction is that key signature is more a part of the practice of music than of the theory of it? Just as a "time signature" is not meter, but a way of indicating it, and "the second space of the staff" isn't intrinsically related to 440 Hz. Jan 13 at 14:51
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    @ToddWilcox (Or possibly one of us is misunderstanding the other: "key signatures are not firmly connected to keys" is my point.) Jan 13 at 14:51
  • Ok, so it might be a good idea to find seven tonality names as a header for each one of my weird key signatures, then at least one of them should be suitable for the current "home note". This should get me started on my practice project.
    – Emil
    Jan 13 at 18:53
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    @Emil Well, again that would be a bit of a funny way of going about it—picking a number of flats or sharps and then finding a mode that fits it. Usually people would create the music they want to, either guided by an existing practice (e.g. blues scale) or by personal whim, and then would normally just adopt the key signature that matches their home note and use accidentals as needed, or, if they're Bartok, create a weird key signature. Maybe you could start a new question about this "practice project" that could shed some light? Jan 13 at 21:15
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Unfortunately there is no such list.

Part of the problem will be in the naming and various musical traditions.

For example, there is a scale called variously Freygish, Ahava Rabbah, phrygian dominant, etc. etc. Which name is supposed to be the name.

But I think there is another practical problem when specifically asking for key signatures.

In the major/minor system, a rough count of key signatures is 12 tonics * 2 modes for 24 key signatures. (Technically there are more key signatures than that, but let's skip those details.)

If you do the same, but account for only the seven diatonic modes, it becomes 12 * 7 or 84! Now add in additional modes from jazz theory only using each mode of the harmonic and melodic minor scale, that an additional 7 + 7 modes. 12 tonics * 21 modes is 252 key signatures!

Of course you can make a list of all those and index with all the various duplicate names, but it would become an impractical list.

One reason the circle of fifths charts of the major/minor key signatures are common is because the number of items shown is relatively small, so the visual format works. But, if you try making a chart of 200+ items, chances are it will be a mess!

The more practical way to do this is not list all key signatures but just list a reference scale for each mode, with each one starting on the same tonic. That will show you the interval structure of the scale, and from that you can transpose and create a key signature if you want.

That is what the wiki page modes of the heptatonic scale and the key signature system does. It just lists reference scales of a single tonic of C. It it were a list of key signatures for all those different modes, it would be 12 times as big!

Finally, there is one other issue: whether the key signature should cover all the sharp/flat naming, or if accidentals should be used in the score. For example, let's consider D mixolydian. A lot of music might use a key signature of F# and C# and then use naturals on any C in the music. In essence that says the music is roughly major, but the accidentals used to lower the seventh scale degree give it a mixolydian color. Using the conventional D major key signature helps make clear the tonic is D, but the accidentals in the score give the specifics of mode to make it mixolydian. Or... the key signature could simply be one F#. There is not a convention for deciding what to do. So what then to use for the mixolydian key signature in a giant reference list?


Based on all the comments on the various posts and comments I really think the OP is not asking about key signatures, but really is just looking for a exhaustive scale reference. There are lots of such pages online, or you can just search for scales in Wikipedia. People seem to love making those lists.

But, it might be helpful to at least point out a naming convention that appears in jazz. Lots of scales get names in jazz theory based on diatonic modes - as based on tonic C - plus modifiers to scale degrees. So, for example, the second mode of harmonic minor, some docs call it "locrian ♮6", because it has the same intervals as the locrian mode, but with the sixth degree raised.

Wikipedia even list the "name of scale" for the second mode of the double harmonic scale as "lydian ♯2 ♯6" with absolutely no citation to an actual example of music with a tonic and mode to support the idea. Basically, these kinds of docs just "name" all modes of any scale regardless is there is a real musical tradition using these purported scales.

If the question is what to call a weird scale, try using that process to find a descriptive name.

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  • "12 tonics * 2 modes for 24 key signatures": if you allow key signatures with seven sharps or flats, there are 15 key signatures. That each key signature can be applied to two keys (or more modes) does not change the number of key signatures. Those 15 key signatures can denote 30 keys, though some of them are so impractical as to be arguably wrong to use. Still, if you only allow signatures with up to 6 sharps or flats, there are 13 minor keys and 13 major keys for a total of 26 keys. Still, that's only 13 key signatures.
    – phoog
    Jan 13 at 22:24
  • @phoog, you see where I wrote "...Technically there are more key signatures than that, but let's skip those details..." In the major minor system, yes, you can the number of key signatures by just the sharp/flat account disregarding mode. But, how will that work for combining many exotic modes? For example, a key signature of one G# for E Freygish. I guess you would list one key signature and label it with the seven modes of A harmonic minor. Seriously, I don't know how you would arrange such stuff visually into a practical doc. Jan 14 at 0:43
  • My main point with numbers was to say we would be dealing with several hundred "items", way, way more keys that the major/minor system. A combined chart/list is hard to imagine. In other words if 26 keys is 13 key signatures, from 200+ major/minor/modal/exotic "keys" how many signatures would we "need"? What's the point of trying to do that? Jan 14 at 0:44
  • I would like to nitpick that I don't care about scales that much since they seem obsessed with a particular note "the tonic", for me every note in a key signature feels "home", maybe that will change or maybe not, at least I know it is important for others now.
    – Emil
    Jan 14 at 7:02
  • "you see where I wrote": yes, I did see that, and I focused on the wrong point in the comment. The main reason I decided to post the comment in spite of that disclaimer was that this answer doesn't call out the question's confusion between names of key signatures and names of keys. I mean, it's reasonable to treat the question as if the questioner really wants to ask about keys, since that's probably the case, but the answer ought at least to point that out and then use the right terminology. Also, as to the question "if 26 key signatures is 26 keys...," I think I'm missing your point. ...
    – phoog
    Jan 14 at 8:04

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