For the past four or so years now, I have been playing the Viola. Y'all know what that means: Alto clef. Up until just a few weeks ago, I have always seen an F# displayed in a key signature like this:

enter image description here

However, I have noticed in a few Italian pieces I have been practicing lately, that the F# in the key signature, appears like this:

enter image description here From Bellini - Norma Overture

This can also be seen in the Viola part for The Barber of Seville - Sinfonia by Rossini published by Edwin F. Kalmus & Co,. Inc. Music Publishers, which version I couldn't find online.

Does anyone know why the F# in these pieces's key signatures are shown an octave below normal? Is that way technically wrong, or is there no set "correct" method?

  • 4
    That's nothing -- have you seen some of the French sheets where all the flags (eighth/sixteenth note) point the wrong way? There's a lot of oddball stuff in older sheet music. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 12:41
  • I heard once that one should put the #/b's on the 'highest' position of the staff.
    – Karlo
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 11:08
  • 1
    @Karlo yeah that had been my knowledge which was why that F# placement confused me Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 1:47

2 Answers 2


The key signature should always fit nicely inside the staff for any key and any clef and are defined and standardized so it all looks the same no matter what piece you play. Putting the F# on the bottom line will put the C# on a ledger line or it will break the common pattern.

This site shows what the standard key signatures for many diffrent keys on bass, tenor, alto, and treble clef: http://www.learnmusicfree.com/lesson/fundamentals/clefs_key_signatures.html

That being said, these pieces that you brought up are almost 200 years old and the standards may not have been as strict, or they could have learned the wrong way. The pieces aren't "correct" from a music theory perspective, but the idea is still understood. They could have even done it like some poets don't capitalize after periods, just to make a statement on how it looks different but is still the same exact thing.

I can't tell you exactly why the F# is where it is, but I can tell you from a music theory stand point it is wrong and should not be mimicked.

  • Yes, the pieces are more than 200 years old, but these reprints aren't that old... Some nice points here... Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 5:15
  • 3
    Note how in tenor clef, the sharps go the other way around. Perhaps that's the reason: the composer may have been more acquainted to high cello / trombone etc. parts than to viola, and just translated this over to the alto clef. — IMO it's a bit harsh to say this is wrong; from a music theory perspective both ways of writing certainly are equivalent. It's just not helpful to the performers to use notation that diverges from the standard one, yet many composers do so, often in ways far more confusing than just the octave placement of accidentals. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 9:28
  • Accidentals wouldn't be written an octave out. Key sig. # or b may.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 11:08
  • @SuperMusicman the point of the 200 year old comment was to say when the piece was written and most likely your seeing it exactly how it was written 200 years ago and the reprint didn't change any of the content.
    – Dom
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 12:45
  • 1
    'The key sig. should always fit nicely inside the staff'. How does that explain the 3rd sharp - G#, in treble clef? Wonder whether @Karlo's original comment is provable.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 11:26

I used to play stuff that was hand-written. The guy who wrote it put the key signature any old where. As long as we could count how many # or b there were, did it matter where they where? Of course not ! The 3 flats for Eb will always be Bb, Eb and Ab, and, yes, convention says in that order, and on those lines or spaces, but with 3 flats, it can only be Eb ( or relative Cmin.). So actually it didn't matter. However, your F# at the bottom of the clef does look odd !

200 years or so ago, covention was still being covened, so I'm not surprised by this form; maybe there were no high F# in the piece, so the composer thought he was being helpful ?

  • Actually, there are more of the higher F#s. Having played with it the other way up until now, I will normally check the upper octave F to see if it is # (in the key signature) if I am playing the lower F. It just seems so natural! :) Or sharp... Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 22:08
  • 1
    O.k., but if there's only one sharp, guess which key it's likely to be in ! The joke fell flat...
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 23:28
  • Note that there exist scores that use a non-standard key signature (such as F#-G#). But it is true that in conventional settings, it suffices to count the number of #/b's.
    – Karlo
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 11:07

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