Order of Sharps and Flats in Key Signatures

by Wes Raines
(York, ME)

Here is how you can use the Circle of Fifths to learn the order of sharps and flats in key signatures

Draw an imaginary line between F and B-flat on the circle of fifths. The letters are the lines/spaces you would write the sharp/flats on when you are writing the key signature.

Example #1: You are writing the key of D. There are 2 sharps in the key of D. The first sharp goes on F and the second goes on C.

How do you know that?
Look on the circle of fifths, the first 2 letters going clockwise from that line are F and C.

Example #2: You are writing the key signature for A-flat. You need 4 flats. Looking at the imaginary line, you see going counter-clockwise from it, the letter names are B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat. So you write flat signs on the B, E, A, and D lines/spaces. Those are the 4 places on the staff you put the flats when writing the key signature.

So there you have it: starting between F and B-flat, the order of sharps goes clockwise around the circle, and the order of flats goes counter-clockwise around the circle.

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Aug 08, 2014
Modified (to accommodate the extremes). NEW
by: Ballen

To include easy determination of key signatures containing either 6 or 7 flats (phew!) without the need to rename B Major (to C-flat) or E Major (to F-flat), try viewing only one half of the Circle of Fifths - starting at F Major and moving clockwise 6 positions (to B Major); this semicircle, when read clockwise beginning at F Major, presents the sharp notes as they are added sequentially (F-C-G-D-A-E-B); when read in a counterclockwise manner starting with B Major, this view lists the flats by the order in which they are added (B-E-A-D-G-C-F).

Also noteworthy (inadvertently bad pun), the final two notes listed in either direction (clockwise - E and B for the sharps; counterclockwise - C and F for the flats) are the only accidentals (sharps or flats) that use natural (white) keys (on piano): as sharps, E# is F (a white/natural key) and B# is C (a white key); for flats, C-flat becomes B (a white/natural key)and F-flat is played as E (also a white key).

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