There was a recent question: Name of black keys as a starting point in a musical series. Several others and I answered it. In my answer, I said:

"E♭ will require 3 flats. D♯ would require double sharps."

I used the phrase, "would require double sharps" to avoid giving a specific number of sharps.

So, if asked: How many sharps in D♯ major? What would you say?

a) 9 sharps.

b) 5 sharps and 2 double sharps.

c) 7 sharps, 2 of which are double.

d) It's a silly question, no one would use that key.

e) Something else.

f) There is no good answer to this question.

The first is mathematically attractive. If you pick a pair of enharmonic keys X sharp and (X + 1) flat then the number of sharps in one plus the number of flats in the other would always be 12. However, I am not suggesting that this should be taken as a justification of this answer.


I am not suggesting that this is an important question. It is just a curiosity inspired by the question that I referred to. If there is no good answer then that is the answer. I have added that option though d) could be regarded as covering that one.

  • Not sure, whether this question is a duplicate, but it is quite close.
    – guidot
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 12:20
  • In the context of your answer to the other question, I would have written "5 sharps and 2 double sharps" if I wanted to be more specific than just "double sharps." In context, therefore, your question is ambiguous; did you literally ask "how many sharps" (which I hear as a request for a single number, which would have to be 9), or did you ask how to rewrite of the answer you gave to that other question?
    – David K
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 16:05
  • @DavidK I considered that but I wanted to keep it simple and I regarded any use of double sharps as being significantly more complicated than the alternative of 3 flats.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 16:10
  • Right, I don't have any complaint about how you answered the other question. I'm just pointing out that you've asked two questions here, one explicit question and one implicit question, and I would answer those questions differently. (I suppose the implicit question is actually "how might I have written that answer" rather than "how should I".)
    – David K
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


I think that once you get past the learning stage, we stop really talking about how many sharps or flats are in a given key, as we come to just know what notes make up what scales and/or know the patterns of the keys and can apply them anywhere without having to think about the notes that make up those keys.

If you do need to describe this, I'd think 5 sharps and 2 double-sharps would be the way to go. And yes, it is incredibly unlikely that you will run into D# Major as a key, so you're unlikely to have to make that distinction. You would most likely run into this key, or other keys that are more easily described in their enharmonically equivalent key, within a series of modulations, which is probably most likely to occur in Classical music but could certainly occur elsewhere.

  • 2
    Very true, or people who are generally uneducated in theory. As a theory geek, I'm often a stickler for using note names that make the most sense and it gets annoying working with those people. I play in rock bands, so I see it a lot, such as "the first chord is D minor and the second chord is A# Major". It hurts every time and it's almost always a guitar player. Commented May 2, 2018 at 13:49
  • 1
    Is an interesting question why this habit is particularly prevalent among guitarists. There is no very obvious reason why it is less common than among pianists. At a guess, and just that, there are more self-taught guitarists than pianists.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 13:53
  • 1
    I don't play with any deaf (hearing impaired) people. (Except drummers, but that's usually self-inflicted!!) It's a simple way to communicate what key something is in. Used it for 50 yrs, but it seems to be a bit of a secret. Got fed up of shouting across 'it's in G', only to have another player think he heard 'D', but one finger upwards is unequivocal over noise on stage - and if segueing into another number, which may only be known to a vocalist (we did this all the time), a sign works simply.
    – Tim
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 14:28
  • 1
    @Basstickler: I generally try to minimize finger gymnastics myself. Mostly by using an alternative tuning G-D-d-f-g#-b, but on the occasions I do use standard, by using different fingerings from those I often see suggested in books (e.g. I don't use my index finger on a D chord; instead I leave it free for D7). Depending upon the headstock design, though, I would think getting the hand in place for an F-style fingering of an E chord might be awkward.
    – supercat
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 16:08
  • 1
    @supercat - aw, come on! Several songs use the Spanish sequence (Am, G, F, E), and anyone who actually thinks about what they're doing - I coerce all my students to do that- rather than "I do things like this because I've always done them like this". Run down from 5th fret barre Am, 3rd fret barre G, 1st fret barre F, and why on earth would you want to change all your fingers for E? just drop everything down another fret.Then, magically, take them all back for the next Am. I can't believe you said it - or do it that way. Where's the streamlining?logic?efficiency? sense?I need more words!!!
    – Tim
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 22:14

Apart from 'please justify convincingly that D# is a better key to write in, and read, than Eb'?

Each key will need each of its notes to have a letter name, thus facilitating the writing of individual notes without confusion. Were there two Fs, for instance, one properly named E#, the other properly named Fx, they would both share the same line/space and make things even worse than this scenario!

Thus, each letter name in this 'key' will be either # or x. Stated in the key sig, which would contain 5# and 2x. There were never 7 sharps, as the two double sharps are simply that. In other words, a double sharp (x) is a different note from a sharp(#), rather than being thought of as 'two sharps'.

However, it's a semantic question, so probably sits well with 'theory'...

  • 1
    The question is not on the merits of D# v Eb, it is just about how to count the number of sharps in unusual keys.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 13:10
  • 1
    Read past the first paragraph please. And that part eludes to (d).
    – Tim
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 14:08
  • I did but I was not sure what the intent was. Are you asking me to justify the use of D# or suggesting that should be my response? If the first, see my clarification that I added to the question. If the second then it is approximately my option d.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 14:10
  • Certainly not wishing to offend, I'd change (f) slightly to: (f) the answer to this question is purely academic. Isn't it? Although after more thought, and consideration of cumulative #, (keys moving in 5ths), the answer could be 7. Help!
    – Tim
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 14:18
  • No offence taken. Yes, the question is purely academic. As I said in my clarification to the question, it was just a curiosity inspired by another question.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 14:22

If you found yourself in a situation where it was necessary to quantify the number of sharps in all possible keys, I think continuing the count through C# - 7, G# - 8, D# - 9 would be more likely to be useful. If you disagee, your reasons will automatically answer your question!


The Key of D# is a theoretical key, more correctly, in the real world we would use and notate Eb instead, however. in the theoretical key of D#. there are 5 sharps and 2 double sharps. Given the choices of answers you have provided us with I would select answer b).


I believe that f) is correct: There is no good answer to this question. The reason why it's so is that there are no "common habits" for writing down these keys.

In classical music and transposing instruments, the key is usually re-written, i.e. a piece in B major (+5) played on an E♭ (+3 correction) saxophone should be in G♯ major (+8), but the part would usually simply be written in the enharmonic A♭ major (-4).

In classical music and series of modulations, AFAIK, the composers were never so wicked as to make series of modulations ending in theoretical keys.

In "more modern than classical" settings, you usually don't care at all about enharmonic keys and enharmonic chords.

If you still want to know how many sharps does D♯ major have and you want a single number as the answer, then it's certainly nine: F𝄪 (counted twice), C𝄪 (counted twice), G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯, B♯. The notation of this seems unsettled and the options are discussed in my answer to the other question.

  • Only reason I can think of for writing in D# is that the previous part of a piece was already in many sharps - C#, for instance, and a key change keeping in sharps may be easier for players already wearing their 'sharp' hats, rather than going to flats.
    – Tim
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 15:33
  • @Tim Right. I'm yet to see an example :) Because anyway, C#(+7) ~ Db(-5), so I would then prefer transition from Db to Eb. But it's always the composers' decision, after all :)
    – yo'
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 15:40
  • I would not say there are nine sharps in the key of D# major since Sharps and double sharps are different entities. There are 5 sharps and two double sharps. The equivalent would be like saying a key with a sharp and a flat in it has no sharps or flats because they balance out when that's not really what's going on.
    – Dom
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 16:07
  • @Dom However, you can't have a key in the circle of fifths that has both #s and bs, right?
    – yo'
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 16:27
  • There are several scales that use both sharps and flats and while key signatures are typically only associated with the major and minor scale it's not unheard of to apply it to other (it's just very atypical). One example is G harmonic minor which has Bb, Eb, and F#. There are two flats and one sharp in the scale not just one flat because the two cancel out.
    – Dom
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 16:33

There are 9 sharps in D sharp major 3G#, 4D#, 5A#, 6E#, 7B#, 8Fx, 9Cx


Western music system and theory have been developed with sets of assumptions. Those assumptions have been perceived so strongly to the points where those assumptions are called rules.

Nobody has to follow this system, it is entirely the musician's choice. Actually there are many musicians not following these system and the rules and still be quite successful and famous.

When we talk about keys and its notation using #'s and b's on five line music staff, there are a few assumptions that we are taking a rules.
Some relevant ones listed below:

  • a whole step is divided into two half steps
  • Two half steps make one whole step
  • Every whole step has the same relative interval distance ratio, and every half step has the same relative interval distance ratio
  • Based on above assumptions, Following conditions are considered true: B# = C, Cb = B, C# =Db, C## = D, Dbb = C, ... (There was time that this was not true...)
  • Musical notation should be logical, efficient and easy to read

Based on the above widely accepted rules and assumptions,there should not be any reason to notate music using C# major notation.

Yes, you can notate C# major key using a), b), or c) if you really need to use that - none of them are "wrong". However, if somebody has to grade it in a college music major music theory class in a, they are all wrong. Because C# major has been normalized as Db major.

There were times that everybody was notating music in different way. It was okay when musician did not talk to other musicians or musician from different region or town. As exchange of ideas, interactions of musicians, and music education becoming common, this became a huge problem and they started finding way of normalizing the notation very quickly. The system we are using is the result of the normalization effort.

I think the question is interesting curiosity question. My answer is, unless there is an unavoidably strong need, we should use the well accepted and normalized protocol.

If I were forced to choose an answer, it will be f) since all three of them (a, b, c) are not wrong.

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