Using my ears, I determined the key of Theme from Schindler's List to be D minor. Looking at the sheet music that I have, I saw that the key signature is C major/A minor, but every single B in the entire first page is flatted with an accidental.

It does finally modulate to A minor on the second page, but I'm wondering what benefits there are to this method as opposed to the various alternatives. Why not write it in D minor, and then natural the Bb? Or start writing in D minor, and then change the key signature?

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    Where does the sheet music come from? It could be the person doing the copying that is less proficient.
    – ghellquist
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 20:52
  • @ghellquist MCA music publishing. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 20:53
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    Odd. This one is D minor.
    – ghellquist
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 20:57
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    How long is the piece? Is the D minor section just an introduction to the piece proper, or is the A minor section a modulation away from the global tonic of D? Are there any bits of D Dorian?
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 20:57
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    I see it sometimes too. In orchestral scores I am used to seeing key changes when they really are key changes. Sometimes if the passage is short it will be notated with accidentals. At that point it's kind of up to the composer/arranger what to do.
    – user50691
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 21:26

4 Answers 4


There's a blog series on film scoring that I can't seem to find again right now, but in it the blogger (who composes and conducts orchestras for film scores) mentions that key signatures are never used for film scores - all accidentals are explicitly written in. The reason is that when a film score is recorded, the musicians are seeing it for the first time that day. It is 100% sight read by the whole orchestra.

The blogger's workflow is to get to the recording studio about an hour ahead of time, and that's when he first sees the score. He reads through and looks for areas that may cause trouble or where perhaps the composer wrote something that won't work exactly as written. When the musicians come in, they see the score for the first time and perhaps minutes later will be running it down with him conducting. There is no prep time but the musicians are professionals who sight read very well, it's just helpful for them to not have to remember the key signature. According to the blogger, most passages will be recorded and done in three or fewer takes.

When you combine the intense, immediate sight reading with the tendency of film scores to have frequent modulation, modal mixture, and chromaticism of all kinds, it starts to make a lot of sense to have all accidentals next to the notes and not deal with key signatures.

Found it: http://www.timusic.net/debreved/how-to-score/

As with most modern music, we do not use key signatures in film scores. Even if the score is completely tonal. It is much easier for the players to have each accidental labeled. If we did use key signatures, players would end up writing in a lot of courtesy accidentals, as they will be sight-reading and they do not want to miss any.

Who is this guy? From his bio page:

Tim Davies is one of the busiest conductors and orchestrators in Hollywood. His film and TV credits include La La Land, Trolls, Minions, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Empire, The Peanuts Movie, The Muppets, Lego Ninjago and Frozen. He is also the most prolific orchestrator and conductor in the world of video games having worked on multiple titles from the God of War, Infamous, Sims, Resistance and Batman: Arkham series and Marvel’s Spider-man.

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    Interesting. But I wonder if “key signatures are never used for film scores” is really true. For typical tonal music, it is most definitely not easier to read with all the signs written as accidentals rather than cleanly in the signature. For atonal or at least highly chromatic music, sure, but although this is common in film it's not universal. I daresay if it's true that all-accidentals is the standard, then this is more due to laziness on the composers' part who “write” music completely through MIDI keyboard, and the “read at first sight” thing is just post-facto rationalisation... Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 2:17
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    I strongly disagree that it is easier to read a score with many accidentals if they are written individually than as a key signature. If that were the case, why should signatures have been invented to begin with? Solely for the convenience of copyists? Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 7:32
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    I wonder what they do with transposing instruments? Just have more accidentals?
    – JimM
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 8:20
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    Generally speaking, I'd have thought, most pro sightreaders would prefer a key sig., even if it changed, as that would mean any accidentals would signify non-diatonic notes. Don't most of us see a piece's key sig. and 'put that hat on' as we start to play, knowing roughly what to expect? Having not listened to much film music, maybe it does modulate too much to form an idea of a specific key. Leftaroundabout's theory makes sense. As far as courtesy accidentals having to be written in - pros wouldn't bother.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 8:59
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    @IanGoldby I’m just reporting what a currently working and successful soundtrack conductor and composer is saying about why they don’t use key signatures. I certainly don’t know first hand. Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 14:20

Regarding this use in film scores for the sake of sight reading: I think this makes some moderate sense for instruments played mostly one note at a time. For polyphonic instruments with diatonic controls (like a piano or organ), this is arguably already creating more trouble than it is worth since it becomes hard to recognize chords functionally and translate them into sommon playing patterns. For polyphonic instruments with chromatic controls where functional recognition is essential for translation into patterns (guitar, chromatic button accordion), cluttering the score like that is likely to do more damage than it helps.

Even for singers in typical film scores, I'd expect the omission of a key signature to distract more than it could help, but then those are not likely expected to just sight-read without preparation.


Even as a mostly-amateur pianist, I do acquire lots of information about a piece of (tonal, whether classical or jazz or folk) from a key signature. It allows me to know-in-advance all the notes in "the scale", the tonic chord, the dominant, subdominant, etc. Further accidentals are noteworthy, and appear in rather standard ways, so are easy to read.

I'm not so bad as a sight-reader in several genres, but if someone handed me something with "key signature" converted to "accidentals", I would be quite unhappy!!! I'd probably feel compelled to understand what key it was really in, and try to ignore the pseudo-accidentals.

It is very strange to me that anyone would want to treat a key signature as accidentals [sic]. Today is the first day I've heard any hint that any serious musicians would do that.


Using accidentals instead of a key signature can be done for a few reasons:

Modulation: If a piece of music changes key frequently or has sections that are in different keys, it may be more practical to use accidentals rather than changing the key signature multiple times.

Temporary Key Changes: Sometimes, a piece may have temporary shifts to a different key within the same section, and using accidentals makes it easier to notate these short deviations.

Chromaticism: In music with lots of chromatic notes (notes outside the diatonic scale of the key), it may be more efficient to use accidentals rather than cluttering the score with many additional sharps or flats in the key signature.

Simplification: In simpler pieces or music intended for educational purposes, accidentals may be used to avoid introducing key signatures to beginner musicians.

However, using key signatures is still more common in traditional music notation as it provides a quick way to identify the key of the piece, reducing the need for frequent accidentals throughout the music. Key signatures help musicians recognize which notes are naturally sharp or flat throughout the piece and can make reading music more efficient. The use of accidentals instead of a key signature is typically seen in more complex or specific musical situations.

  • "Naturally sharp". :-)
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 18:20

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