What is the Order of Sharps and the Order of Flats?
In the lesson about the major keys on the circle of 5ths you learned every key has a unique number of flats or sharps. The flats and sharps from key to key are not random . The flats and sharps of each key follow a specific, unchanging order that you need to memorize. This order is called the order of flats and the order of sharps.
Once you have memorized how many sharps or flats are in each key in combination with the order of sharps and flats, you will be able to spell the notes of each key. Since you're always playing in some key, knowing your keys in this manner will always be of great benefit.
The Order of Flats
|The order of flats:||Bb||Eb||Ab||Db||Gb||Cb||Fb|
The order of flats is a sequence of seven flat note names. This order tells you which notes are flat in a key containing flats. If a key has one flat, it only contains the first flat from the order of flats Bb. If the key has two flats, it uses the first two flats from the order of flats Bb and Eb. A key with 5 flats would contain the first 5 flats from the order Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb.
With that bit of information you can spell any key containing flats...
The key of F has 1 flat. That means the flat must be the first flat (Bb). All the other letter names are natural notes. Now, starting on the root of the scale F, we can spell the key of F major F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E.
As another example, the key of Ab major contains 4 flats. It would use the first 4 flats of the order of flats Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db. Starting on the root Ab, the key of Ab major is spelled Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, and G. It contains those 4 flats and the rest of the notes are natural.
The Order of Sharps
|The order of sharps:||F#||C#||G#||D#||A#||E#||B#|
The order of sharps works the same way as the flat order...
The key of G major contains 1 sharp. It has to be the first sharp F#. Starting on G we can spell the G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#.
The key of A major contains 3 sharps. Those sharps would be F#, C#, and G#. A major is spelled: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, and G#.
Memorizing the Order of Flats and Sharps
All you need to remember is the order of flats as the word BEAD plus three letters GCF. The order of sharps is the same, but reversed FCG DAEB.
If you've memorized the notes on the circle of 5ths and 4ths, you will notice flats go in 4ths starting on B and sharps go in 5ths starting on F.
Sometimes people like to make sentences to remember the notes. The classic memory aid works both directions:
Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father (order of flats)
Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (order of sharps)
Key Signatures Use the Order of Flats and Sharps
If you look at the circle of 5ths diagram, I have included all fifteen key signatures used in music notation. You will notice the flats and sharps of the key signature are written in the order of flats and sharps.
Why Do We Need Note Names Like Cb, Fb, E#, and B#?
Students are often confused about why we need these note names like Cb, Fb, E#, and B#. Isn't Cb the same as B? And, Fb the same as E?! There is a reason for these "funny" note names.
When we spell scales, we can't skip letters and we want to avoid having two letters such as a B and a Bb in the same scale. That would cause trouble with reading music and just be confusing.
For instance, the key of Gb major could be improperly spelled Gb, Ab, Bb, B, Db, Eb, and F. Notice there are then two B notes and no C. Properly spelled it is Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, and F.
You also can't mix sharps and flats in a key spelling. It's always one or the other.