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Memorizing the Keys

Question: Hi Albert,

I’m finding it nearly impossible to memorize the keys. (Which key has 5 sharps, which key has 4 flats, etc.) It may not help that I’m 74 years old, but I would have a difficult time memorizing them even if I was 24. I’m hoping you have a “trick” suggestion for memorizing the various keys. Thanks.

– Willard Crawford (Llano, California, USA)

Albert’s reply: No need to do it the hard way… there is an easy way! First, to learn the keys themselves, you simply need to learn the Circle of Fifths.

To learn the order of sharps and flats in key signatures, simply remember these details:

  1. Sharps go up, while flats go down. (A sharp raises a note by a half step, while a flat lowers it.)

  2. The first sharp encountered in a key signature is F-sharp, while the first flat is B-flat.

  3. The next accidental (sharp or flat) is always a fifth away.

Sharps

Let’s start with the sharps. The first sharp is F-sharp, as mentioned. Since sharps raise notes, think “up.” Going up a fifth from F-sharp, we arrive at C-sharp (think F-G-A-B-C). A fifth above C-sharp is G-sharp (think C-D-E-F-G). A fifth above G-sharp is D-sharp (think G-A-B-C-D). A fifth above D-sharp is A-sharp (think D-E-F-G-A). A fifth above A-sharp is E-sharp (think A-B-C-D-E). Finally, a fifth above E-sharp is B-sharp (think E-F-G-A-B). Thus, the order of the sharps is F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, E-sharp, B-sharp!

(The sharps zigzag in the key signature simply so they can all fit on a 5-line staff – in reality they keep ascending by a fifth.)

Flats

Now let’s do the flats. The first flat is B-flat. Since flats lower notes, associate flats with “down.” Going down a fifth from B-flat, we arrive at E-flat (think B-A-G-F-E). A fifth down from E-flat is A-flat (think E-D-C-B-A). A fifth below A-flat is D-flat (think A-G-F-E-D). A fifth below D-flat is G-flat (think D-C-B-A-G). A fifth below G-flat is C-flat (think G-F-E-D-C). Finally, a fifth below C-flat is F-flat (think C-B-A-G-F). The order of the flats is thus B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat, C-flat, F-flat!

(The flats zigzag in the key signature simply so they can all fit on a 5-line staff – in reality they keep descending by a fifth.)

If you just remember the above rules, you can easily reconstruct the order of the flats and sharps in your mind.

Here is a table of all the key signatures. In this table, major keys are listed in uppercase and their relative minor keys in lowercase.

The “flat” keys:

# Flats Flats Key
1 B♭ F / d
2 B♭, E♭ B♭ / g
3 B♭, E♭, A♭ E♭ / c
4 B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭ A♭ / f
5 B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭ D♭ / b♭
6 B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭ G♭ / e♭
7 B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭, F♭ C♭ / a♭

The “sharp” keys:

# Sharps Sharps Key
1 F♯ G / e
2 F♯, C♯ D / b
3 F♯, C♯, G♯ A / f♯
4 F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯ E / c♯
5 F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯ B / g♯
6 F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯ F♯ / d♯
7 F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯, B♯ C♯ / a♯

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