I was reading about Brahms, and it was mentioned that he had composed a piece in C# Major.

AFAIK, we generally don't use C# Major in jazz or rock music because the key signature has 7 sharps, so it's easier to use its enharmonic key - Db, which only has 5 flats in its key signature.

Why would a classical composer like Brahms compose something in C#?

  • 1
    If you modulate clockwise on the circle of fifths it might make more sense to say F# => C# instead of F# to Db Jul 25, 2017 at 5:09
  • AFAIK, jazz and rock wouldn't use Db or C#. Are you asking from a reading point of view? As for most instruments, the fingering for each is the same.
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2017 at 7:52
  • Duplicate of music.stackexchange.com/questions/43293/…
    – user42944
    Jul 25, 2017 at 9:19
  • 1
    @LeeWhite - from a good guitarist's point of view, playing one or the other, the same applies, as a good guitarist won't necessarily be using open chords. Using barred chords, reading either will end up the same. And how did guitarists creep in here...
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2017 at 11:38
  • 1
    @Tim-I'm asking from a composer's POV - numerous factors in play. Db seems to be used enough in jazz/RnB (at least I call it Db-those genres tend to use the flat keys) Horace Silver's Doodlin', covered by Ray Charles and countless others is recorded in Db and Ray Charles is does it in Db (it's an instrumental). Charles uses Db quite a bit - his famous Drown in My Own Tears is in Db. Albert King too - Born on a Bad Sign (and others) is in Db. Vocalists obviously tend to use keys that work for their voices - if Db is one of your good singing keys, you use it.
    – Stinkfoot
    Jul 25, 2017 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


The idea that number of accidentals in a key signature is directly proportional to difficulty of reading is understandable, but it isn't always true. In fact, several very common chromatic harmonies are relatively ugly in D♭ but not too bad in C#. The Neapolitan chord—a major triad with a root on the lowered second scale degree—would be an E♭♭ major chord in the key of D♭ but just a D major chord in C#. All three of the standard augmented sixth chords would have B♭♭ in the key of D♭ but A in the key of C# (although, admittedly they'd all have Fx in C# but just G in D♭).

My point is not that C# is unequivocally easier to read, just that the idea of readability is not quite as simple as just counting the number of sharps or flats in the signature. More importantly, most experienced performers—although they may have once found C# difficult—no longer find reading any key to be that big of a deal at all.

  • 3
    I'm thinking that C# is always easier because you just sharpen everything unless there's a natural thrown in there - you don't have to think about it. Not so in D♭ .
    – Stinkfoot
    Jul 25, 2017 at 6:34
  • 2
    @Stinkfoot Possibly, that makes a certain sense to me. Then again, you could argue that sharps on E and B are inherently more confusing. But mostly, I just don't think professional musicians have much trouble with any key. Jul 25, 2017 at 13:32

Perhaps to complete a set of 24 pieces in all major and minor keys or perhaps just to be the parallel key of C# minor or the relative key of A major. These are three common reasons.

Another reason would depend on the harmonic pattern throughout the entire piece. If the music modulated on the "flat" side of the original tonic, being written in Db could easily generate 8 or more flats in a key. (Of course, moving to the "sharp" side of the original key would generate lots of extra sharps if started in C# major.) (Flat side and sharp side refer to directions around the cycle of fifths.)

  • 3
    Relative (minor) key of C# is A#m. C#m is relative to E major.
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2017 at 7:01
  • 1
    Another reason may be that the piece was originally in D major and the singer had a rough night previously.
    – ttw
    Jul 26, 2017 at 17:43
  • singer had a rough night previously - LOL . Like vocalists who seem to drop their material a few steps every few years... As it is, I think the Brahms composition is instrumental - I'm trying to remember where I saw it. He has a number of solo piano pieces in C#, but I think what I saw was an orchestral piece.
    – Stinkfoot
    Jul 26, 2017 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot the second movement of Brahms's 1st String Quintet starts in C-sharp major, but the key signature is for c-sharp minor. The whole movement toys with the relationship between the two keys - it almost ends in C-sharp major, but he snatches it away at the last few bars and ends up on a strangely unsettling A major chord. The only other Brahms I know in C-sharp one of the waltzes in Op. 39. I know it seems counterintuitive but C-sharp major seems like a much different key to me than D-flat. Hard to explain.
    – user13034
    Jul 26, 2017 at 23:53
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot - I know it doesn't make a lot of sense. I think of as similar to the McGurk effect: youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0 Knowing it's C-sharp vs D-flat makes it sound different.
    – user13034
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:37

Sometimes it can be a psychological thing, flat is flat, whereas sharp is spirited, or upbeat. How does one "interpret" a flat key piece or a sharp key piece? Just something to think about, another point of view. Greywolf Rednight (Dan Berendt)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.