How to Learn the Sharps and Flats

 

With up to seven sharps or seven flats in a key signature, it can seem daunting to try to remember the order—yet there’s a simple shortcut that makes it easy.

You just need to remember three simple things: 1. Sharps raise notes, while flats lower notes. 2. The first sharp and first flat. 3. Accidentals (the collective name for sharps and flats) are a fifth away from each other.

With regard to raising or lowering notes, you can associate sharps with going up the keyboard and flats with going down the keyboard.

Sharps

The first sharp you’ll encounter in a key signature is F-sharp:

That’s our starting point. Let’s start with an F-sharp around the middle of the keyboard. We can go up a perfect fifth by playing the first five notes of a scale starting on F-sharp. We arrive at C-sharp. This note is a perfect fifth above F-sharp. If we look at the key signature with two sharps, we’ll find F-sharp and C-sharp:

Now let’s find the third sharp. How do we do this? We’ll just use the same method. Let’s play a scale starting on C-sharp and stop on the fifth note. We land on G-sharp. Sure enough, G-sharp is the third sharp found in a key signature of three or more sharps:

We can keep going using this method. A perfect fifth above G-sharp is D-sharp:

A perfect fifth above that is A-sharp:

Pop quiz: Which note is a perfect fifth above A-sharp? Give this a bit of thought, and try it out on the piano.

If we play five scale notes starting on A-sharp, which note do we arrive on?

If you said F, that’s not exactly right. It’s actually an E-sharp:

Finally, which note is a perfect fifth above E-sharp? Let’s play five scale notes starting on this note.

Which note do we arrive on? You may have guessed it. The answer is B-sharp:

Therefore, the order of the sharps is F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, E-sharp, B-sharp.

Flats

We can do the same thing to find the order of the flats. Can you recall the first flat encountered in a key signature?

The answer is B-flat. Do you remember which major key has just this one flat? It’s F major:

How do we find the next flat? Hint: It’s a perfect fifth from B-flat. If you’re thinking a perfect fifth up, remember that sharps go up while flats go down the keyboard. A fifth down from B-flat is… E-flat:

Five scale notes down from E-flat is A-flat, and this is the third flat we find in flat key signatures:

A fifth down from A-flat is D-flat:

Can you find the next flat? Play five scale notes down from D-flat starting with a whole step. You can use your ear to hear a major scale and play accordingly. Sure enough, we arrive on G-flat:

Which note is a perfect fifth below G-flat? Start with a whole step down and play a total of five scale degrees. Which note do we arrive on?

You may be thinking B, but remember the first white key we landed on when we worked out the sharps. This note is actually a C-flat:

Finally, which note is a perfect fifth down from C-flat? Applying the same system, we arrive on F-flat. This is the seventh and final flat we’ll encounter in a key signature:

(For extra credit, do you know which major and which minor key have seven flats? You can look it up on the Circle of Fifths.)

Now we have the order of the flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat, C-flat, and F-flat.

You can use this trick anytime to find the order of the sharps and flats quickly!

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