i believe i have discovered an easy method for finding major and minor key signatures until memorized. all you have to do is count by whole step. this process may be easier if you sit in front of a keyboard.

all you have to know in advance is this:

C major = 0 accidentals

G major = 1 sharp

F major = 1 flat

First, we start with C major and ascend by whole step until you reach F# major. for example:


C = 0
D = 2
E = 4
F# = 6

Then, we go up one half-step and continue the ascent by whole step:

G = 1
A = 3
B = 5
C# = 7

for flats, you descend by whole step:


C = 0
Bb = 2
Ab = 4
Gb = 6

now we descend one half-step and continue

F = 1
Eb = 3
Db = 5
Cb = 7

It also works for the Minor keys as well.

This time we just need to know

A minor = 0 accidentals

E minor = 1 sharp

D minor = 1 flat

Again we also ascend for sharps, and descend for flats:


A = 0
B = 2
C# = 4
D# = 6

ascend by half-step to E Minor

E = 1
F# = 3
G# = 5
A# = 7


The descent:

A = 0
G = 2
F = 4
Eb = 6

time to half-step

D = 1
C = 3
Bb = 5
Ab = 7

Is there something incorrect about this approach? Am I missing something?

  • 1
    Thanks for sharing this with our community. It may have been done before - there's nothing new on Earth! - but it's a nice way to get used to key sigs. +1.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 7:24
  • 3
    Welcome to music SE James!
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 8:46
  • 4
    It's a good idea but it is well-known because two perfect fifths equal a whole step (plus one octave); and similarly for the downward movement. Most musicians are aware of this.
    – Matt L.
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 10:08
  • 3
    This approach certainly works, and if it helps, go for it. But I would agree with Matt L. here: moving by whole steps is the same as moving through the circle of fifths two jumps at a time, as far as the key signature goes. Although it's perhaps easier to think C D E than C G D, and so forth, you will need to know the circle of fifths at some point anyway, and with it you can move through the key signatures one change at a time instead of two. Just my humble suggestion. Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 11:19

3 Answers 3


There is nothing inherently incorrect with your approach, no. (In fact, it's kind of clever; I'd never seen it before!)

But I wonder if the traditional circle of (descending) fifths is not a better tool just because it actually mimics what more often occurs in real music. This circle of fifths (from G down to C down to F, etc.) is actually a common progression in music, and jazz musicians learn this circle of fifths very early on to help with their motion across ii–V–I progressions.

To get a "true" ii–V–I circle of fifths, you'd need some alterations on some of the scales, but nevertheless learning all the scales in major in this descending circle of fifths is probably a better preparation for future studies.

(And great first question!)


In the traditional way of finding the sharps and flats in each key, you start at C major (no sharps or flats) and go up a fifth to add a sharp. Then another fifth to add another sharp, and so forth. To remove a sharp or add a flat you go down a fifth. The keys are usually written around the circumference of a big circle so that keys played the same way (for example, F-sharp major and G-flat major) are at the same place on the circle. So this is called the circle of fifths.

Your scheme works because when you go up a fifth twice, for example from C up to G and then from G up to the next D, you arrive at the same place as if you went up an octave (from C to C) and then a whole step (from C to D). That is, going up a whole step gets you to the same key as going up a fifth twice. Therefore going up a whole step adds two sharps to the key signature, one for the first fifth and one for the second fifth.

In classical music, when we change key in the middle of a song we usually add or subtract just one sharp or flat, so the tonic of the key goes up or down a fifth. Going up or down by just a whole step is rare. But in some other kinds of music--popular music or show music, for example--changing the key a whole step upward is not so rare. In that context, knowing that you add two sharps to go up a whole step is a handy thing to remember.

But if we only have your rule, suppose you're playing something in the key of D-flat major (five flats) and you see that in the next measure there is a new key signature with six flats. Quick--what key is that?

Do you go all the way back to C major and count three whole steps down one at a time? A musician who learned the circle of fifths would just go down a fifth from D-flat to G-flat.

So your system has some nice applications in some kinds of music, but I would recommend learning the other system too.


As a classical musician, I always went by the number of shaprs or flats and then memorized the key that went with them which results in the circle of fiths. I have to remember to insert them so you look at the key signature first you know. If you want to think anbout what key you are in you can but I was always trying to get those notes in and keeping up with the accompanyists! What key Im in didnt matter to me except to tell me the sharps or flats I needed. I was not improvising in the same way nor playing chords. So its different there I think. I just went down a third or sixth for the minor. Modes helped me more, the minors being aolean and phrygian etc. It matters differently in jazz and composition. The key changes alot in jazz so by the time you figure it out its changing again. You never know where its gonna go so you cant plan anything. So then key is sorta irrelevant again.

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