What Do Signatures Signify?: The Curious Case of Seventeenth-Century English Key


At the beginning of the seventeenth century English composers used only a handful of keys: they combined five keynotes (G, A, C, D, and F) with the three signatures documented in English solmization theory (♮,♭, and♭♭). By the end of the century English theorists described eighteen keys—all of the modern major and minor keys with up to four signature accidentals. But the route from eight to eighteen keys was not straightforward. This article traces this route by examining how the function of signature flats and sharps changed in seventeenth-century England. At the beginning of the century signature flats and sharps were clefs, mere notational symbols that provided a shorthand for the probable pitches in a composition. As a result, English musicians used adjacent keys (i.e., ♮-D and -D), which were distinct, well-formed versions of a broader category of D minor. In the middle of the century, composers and theorists used ad hoc and asymmetrical strategies ♭ to create new keys. Composers explored new flat keys through the process of signature creep, while theorists devised new sharp keys when they identified the parallel key relationship. Finally, theoretical interventions at the end of the century “fixed” keys into our modern system but obscured the varied pitch structure that still animated musical practice. The messy, flexible circumstances in which keys arose complicate several assumptions about modern key; this evidence challenges notions of transpositional equivalence and reveals that different kinds of keys may be built on different conceptual foundations.


Duke University Press

Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of Music Theory


Music Theory

Document Type



Key, Key signature, Notation, Clef





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