In this lesson on the order of sharps and flats, we will be looking at how to reduce the complexity of the circle of fifths to a few simple and easily memorized concepts. In order to make memorization of the order of sharps and flats easier, we’re going to apply a commonly used mnemonic device as well as a couple of tricks that all musicians including those of us who’re not yet fluent readers can use for a quickly determining the sharps and flats of any major key.
The Order of Sharps
We will be looking at the order of sharps and flats, but let’s begin with the order of sharps first.
Remember, the key of C major uses only natural notes, so it’s key signature is indicated by the absence of any sharps or flats, since the sharp keys move in a cycle of fifths, the next key with one sharp, five up from C is G. The sharp necessary to create G major is F sharp, consequently the sharps also appear one at a time at fifth apart, five up from F sharp is C sharp, G sharp, D sharp, A sharp, E sharp and B sharp, one at time until all seven notes are sharped.
Again the order of sharps is; F, C, G, D, A, E and B. An easy way to remember that sequence is to use the memory technique of making those letters the first letters of words incorporated into a memorable phrase. A commonly used phrase that does exactly that is; Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle, and these sharp are placed in the key signature in the following positions; F sharp, C sharp, G sharp, D sharp, A sharp, E sharp and B sharp.
The Order of Flats
Since the flat keys move in reverse circle of fifths, the next key with one flat is F, a flat necessary to create F major is B flat. Each new flat will also be either a fifth below or fourth above the last, five down four up from B flat is E flat, then A flat, D flat, G flat, C flat and F flat, one at a time until all seven notes are flatted. The order is B, E, A, D, G, C and F.
The mnemonic for flats is; Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father which appear in the key signature in the following positions; B flat, E flat, A flat, D flat, G flat, C flat and F flat.
Fortunately whoever created this mnemonic made certain that the phrase made perfect sense forward for sharps and reversed for flats.
Quickly Determining the Key Signature
Here are a couple of things to remember for quickly determining the key signature that both readers and non-readers can use;
- The last sharp to appear left to right is the raised 7th°, and the keynote though is a semitone up from that. Let’s say that we have a written score with five sharps in the key signature, by reciting the first five words of the phrase; Father Charles Goes Down And, we find the fifth sharp is A. The very next note in musical alphabet is B, so five sharps in the key signature will put us in the key of B major, the same process can be reversed if with no chart available we are told that a piece is in the key of B major we simply need to go backwards down the scale to locate the raised 7th° A and then recite our sharp phrase up to that note, this way we quickly find that by raising; F C G D and A we will be in the key of B major.
- Each new flat is a 4th° apart, so the keynote Do is either four down or five up which is the same as the previous flat. Let’s say that we have five flats in the key signature, by reciting our phrase; Battle Ends And Down Goes, we find the fifth flat is G flat, this being the 4th° Fa, we know that we can locate Do by counting four down or five up which is the same as the previous flat; D flat, five flats put us in the key of D flat. Conversely without a written score if we are told to play in the key of D flat, we simply count up four or down five to G which is the lowered fourth degree and the last flat in the key signature then we recite the flat phrase up to that note to quickly find that by lowering B E A D and G, we will be in the key of D flat major or quicker yet when we have two or more flats and we know that the second last flat is Do, just recite the flat sequence one note pass Do to find all the flats in that key.
Now that we’ve pulled the curtains aside and study the inner workings of music, it is time to apply the mnemonics, logic questions and practical tricks discussed in these lessons. With practice we can be as fluent in this universal language as we are in our native speaking language; given time we can become very comfortable with all things related to key signatures and the order of sharps and flats.