Key signatures

The “key” of a piece determines what tones can be used by the melody and which chords will harmonize the melody.

There are 12 major keys and 12 related minor keys.

The notes that can be used are given in the key signature. In written music, you can find the key signature on the left of each line.

The key signature consists of one or more sharps or flats, or none at all. For example, if you see the following bit of music:

Piece in Bb major or G minor

This means the scale for this piece has two flat tones (black keys) and five regular tones (white keys). Specifically, B should be played as Bb and E should be played as Eb. This is either the key of Bb major or G minor.

Likewise for a key signature with sharps:

Piece in A major or F# minor

Now we have three sharpened tones — F#, C# and G# — making this either the key of A major or F# minor.

Note: The key signature is not only important for written music. If you play by ear, you’ll still have to work with keys and so you’ll still have to know which notes are sharps and which are flats.

Here is a handy table that lists all major and minor keys with their scales and key signatures:

Major key Minor key Signature Scale tones
C A min Key signature C major, A minor C D E F G A B
F D min Key signature F major, D minor F G A Bb C D E
Bb G min Key signature Bb major, G minor Bb C D Eb F G A
Eb C min Key signature Eb major, C minor Eb F G Ab Bb C D
Ab F min Key signature Ab major, F minor Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
Db Bb min Key signature Db major, Bb minor Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
Gb Eb min Key signature Gb major, Eb minor Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F
Cb Ab min Key signature Cb major, Ab minor Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb
C# A# min Key signature C# major, A# minor C# D# E# F# G# A# B#
F# D# min Key signature F# major, D# minor F# G# A# B C# D# E#
B G# min Key signature B major, G# minor B C# D# E F# G# A#
E C# min Key signature E major, C# minor E F# G# A B C# D#
A F# min Key signature A major, F# minor A B C# D E F# G#
D B min Key signature D major, B minor D E F# G A B C#
G E min Key signature G major, E minor G A B C D E F#

Of course, melody and chords will from time to time use tones that are not in the key signature. Such tones are called “accidentals”. More about them later.

Read more articles on Piano Clues:

Basic Theory

Chords and Harmony

The Circle of Fifths

Arrangement, Improvisation and Composition

Reading Music and Sheet Music

How to Record Piano

Software and Virtual Instruments

Scales and Exercises

Digital Pianos

Links and Other Stuff


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