Relative Major and Minor Keys

Each key signature represents one major key, and one minor key. These two keys are called “relative” keys – they share a key signature because they share almost all of the same notes in the scale.

In sharp major keys, the sharp written furthest right in the key signature is the leading note, and the keynote or tonic is one semitone higher.

In flat major keys, the penultimate flat in the key signature is the tonic (keynote).

  • The relative minor key is a third lower than the tonic of the major key.
  • The relative major key is third higher than the tonic of the minor key.
key signatures tips

Key Signature Patterns

Here are the patterns of sharp key signatures in treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs:

sharp key signatures

Here are the flat key signatures:

flat key signatures

How to Learn The Patterns

1. Position on the Stave 

With the sharp keys, the general “up-down” pattern is the same for treble, bass and alto clef. However, tenor clef is quite different and has to be learnt separately. 

With the flat keys, all the clefs follow the same basic “up-down” pattern. Try to memorise the patterns. 

Look again at the examples above, and notice where the pattern is the same and where it is different.

Key signature sharps and flats are never written on ledger lines.

2. Order of Flats and Sharps 

Use the circle of 5ths, or learn a phrase like this:

Father – Christmas – Gave – Daddy – An – Empty – Box

The first letter of each word gives you the order of sharps. F-C-G-D-A-E-B. Write the letters backwards to find the order of flats B-E-A-D-G-C-F!

(This phrase has seven sharps and flats, but you only need to learn up to six for grade 5 theory!)