Unlocking the Key to Key Signatures

I hate the Circle of Fifths. And I’m not the only one.

I was meeting with my Certified Coaches recently and we all voiced a similar feeling. The Circle of Fifths is a problem.

Before I explain myself, let me say that the coaches and I collectively have a fairly hefty set of credentials. All of us have music degrees; some advanced degrees. And of course, I not only graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music but I taught music theory there for nineteen years. You can be assured that we all know our key signatures. 

So why do we all have reservations about the Circle of Fifths?

It’s primarily because it is usually taught to students as a way to learn their key signatures. Yet in our combined experience, the Circle of Fifths confuses more students than it helps. 

The theory of music is fascinating for those who enjoy diving into the mysteries and mechanics behind the notes. What’s more, it is elegant. The patterns inherent in our tonal system are incredibly beautiful in their symmetry and predictability. To the initiated, the Circle of Fifths is merely one of those elegant patterns. But trying to learn the key signatures from the Circle of Fifths, in essence learning the facts behind the patterns from the patterns themselves, is flawed pedagogy. I believe this is why so many students become confused and never manage to learn their key signatures. 

A knowledge of keys and key signatures is essential in every practical aspect of music.

Without a thorough understanding of key signatures, any analysis of chords or harmony is impossible, improvisation has little direction and memorization is unnecessarily difficult. It takes you longer to learn a piece and any piece you learn doesn’t “stick” as well. 

Learning the key signatures shouldn’t be difficult. There are only fifteen major key signatures. That’s fewer than the letters in the alphabet or the number of states in the U.S. or elements in the periodic table or words in the Pledge of Allegiance. It shouldn’t overtax any musician’s memory. 

Here are all fifteen Major keys with the number of flats or sharps in their respective key signatures.

Notice that some of these keys you are likely to encounter only rarely, if ever. Notice also that the letter names of the sharp keys are mirrored in the flat keys and the letter names of the flat keys are the reverse of the sharp keys. Memorizing them in order and being able to recite them in order isn’t really that difficult. 

Many students are encouraged not to memorize them, but to learn how to figure them out with formulas like “the name of the key is the same as the next to last flat in the key signature” or “the key is one half-step up from the last sharp.” The problem is that remembering the formula and applying it correctly is much more difficult than simply remembering the key signature for a particular key. 

Imagine if in elementary school you were taught that every time you needed to multiply two numbers, you had to apply the principles of multiplication step by step. If you’re like me, the principles of multiplication are lost in the mists of your memory, but I’m certain you can still tell me what 9x7 equals. That’s because you memorized your times tables. Key signatures work the same way.

But if memorization still doesn’t appeal to you, I have a quick three-step process that will help you learn and remember your key signatures. There are no tricks or fancy rhymes, just solid understanding that puts your key signatures not just in your head but in your ears and fingers as well.

STEP ONE: You will need to know the order of the first four flats and the first four sharps as they occur in key signatures. You need to know these so you know which flats or sharps are in any key. Fortunately, they appear in the same order every time. The order of the sharps is the reverse of the order of the flats. That symmetry again. So if you know the first four of each you know the last three too.


First four flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat (then G-flat, C-flat, F-flat)

First four sharps: F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp (then A-sharp, E-sharp, B-sharp)

STEP TWO: Instead of memorizing all 15 major keys, learn just these 7: E flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, and A. To help you memorize them try reciting the names of the keys in these different orders:

  1. Keys from 3 flats up the list to three sharps (that is, in the order listed above)
  2. Keys from 3 sharps down to 3 flats (the list above read backwards)
  3. Keys with 0 sharps or flats, then 1 sharp or flat, then 2, then 3.
  4. Pro tip: push your levers or pedals to change the key and play a one octave scale in each as you recite the keys.

STEP THREE: Go through the pieces you are playing or have played recently and look at the number of flats or sharps in each key signature. Name the Major key with that key signature. To check, look at the last note of the piece. Either the lowest note in the left hand or the highest note in the right hand or maybe both will be the same note as the key. One caveat: some of your pieces may be in minor. While you can’t tell this just from the key signature, you can likely tell by the way the piece sounds. If the piece is in minor, the last notes will not be the same as the Major key you have identified. Don’t worry about that now. We will get into minor key signatures another time.

TIPS FOR REVIEW: To easily add some daily Major key signature review to your practice, try these tips.

  1. Choose one Major key each day and play your scales and arpeggios in that key. As an added bonus, you could also play your scales in one of the neighboring keys. For instance, if you choose B-flat Major with 2 flats for your scales, also try your scales in E-flat which has 3 flats or F which has 1 flat.
  2. Before each piece you practice, name the key and play the scale of that key before you begin practicing the piece.
  3. Make flashcards for the 7 Major keys listed in Step Two above. Put the flashcards on your stand, shuffle and play a scale in each. Yes, it’s a lot of lever or pedal changing, but that’s good practice too.

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