Hi,

I was going through how sharps and flats are arranged on the staff to represent a key.

I have a question about the order of sharps/flats when used to represent a key - why do all sharps begin at F and all flats at B?

This is the order I have been told, but I was wondering why is it so - B E A D - C G F ?
Quote by jpnyc
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I guess:

1. It doesn't become all cluttered
2. It's a nice consistent way of ordering them
3. Just looking at the last one will give you the key signature without you having to count them or see exactly what they are
Circle of 5ths order adds one sharp each time, and one flat each time. Harmonic resolution by 5th is the fundamental tendency in music, so it defines key relationships, too.

Key - Number of flats/sharps

C# - 7# (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#)
F# - 6# (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#)
B - 5# (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)
E - 4# (F#, C#, G#, D#)
A - 3# (F#, C#, G#)
D - 2# (F#, C#)
G - 1# (F#)
C - 0 b/#
F - 1b (Bb)
Bb - 2b (Bb, Eb)
Eb - 3 b (Bb, Eb, Ab)
Ab - 4b (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)
Db - 5b (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb)
Gb - 6b (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb)
Cb - 7b (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb)

The only thing you can't do with a [normal] key signature is use ## or bb.
Last edited by cdgraves at Jul 26, 2014,
B and F are the first accidentals because B and F create the tritone in the diatonic scale. In medieval practice, the tritone was to be avoided, both harmonically and melodically, so the B was sometimes flatted, and later the F could conversely be sharped (either way would solve the problem - just depended on the musical context). Notice how both the flat and natural signs are both variations an the letter "b"? Those symbols used to represent what were called "soft" and "hard" B's, respectively. In some early chant notation, you can sometimes see a flat on the B line as a kind of primative "key signature."
Pretty sure the natural sign is a version of the letter H, which is the German name for B natural (while B is Bb).
Quote by sickman411
Pretty sure the natural sign is a version of the letter H, which is the German name for B natural (while B is Bb).

Nope. I wasn't stating my opinion here, just the historical facts as they've come down to us.

"The hexachord on F, which required Bb to produce the semitone between mi and fa, was named soft (molle) because the rounded form of the letter b indicated b-fa. Conversely, the G hexachord was hard (durum) because a square letter indicated b-mi B natural." Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. p.63
Hey, thanks!

I've had some exposure to theory, but very little to sheet music. Looking at how key signatures were organized/notated, made me wonder.
Quote by jpnyc
You are what they call a “rhythm guitarist”. While it's not as glamorous as playing lead you can still get laid. Especially if you can sing and play.

Beer is the solutions to the world's problems.

The order of flats and sharps in major keys comes from the major scale. The pattern for the major scale is root, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th and major 7th. Let's take C major scale. C D E F G A B. Then let's build a scale with "white notes" only and start it with F: F G A B C D E - but you need to flatten the B to make it sound like major, so it goes like F G A Bb C D E. Otherwise you would have an augmented 4th which is not a part of the major scale.

Same with sharps. If we start a scale with G (and use "white notes" only), it goes like G A B C D E F. But there's a minor seventh instead of major seventh that a major scale needs. So we need to sharpen the F and what we get is G A B C D E F#.

Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

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