All keyed up: Going keyless in your score


During my conversation on the SoundNotion podcast several weeks ago with hosts David MacDonald and Sam Merciers, we touched on a persistent notation problem we encounter when working with scores from well-meaning students or collaborators: a piece written in C major or A minor is not the same thing as one with no key signature.

Now, they may look the same on first blush. Say you’re setting up a new score in Sibelius and want to get right on with composing in concert pitch. You see your options in the Quick Start, choose No key signature and are presented with three options, all of which may seem similar:


Although they look alike, your choice has important ramifications: if you choose C major or A minor, any transposing instruments (like B-flat Clarinet) will display their transposed key signature (like D major) in a transposed score or a part. If your piece is really truly in a key signature, this will be exactly what you want.

But if your intent is to not have any key signatures anywhere, in any instrument, as is often common when composing film scores or atonal music, you’ll need to choose No key (sometimes this appears as Open key/atonal in earlier versions of Sibelius), lest your music be littered with unnecessary naturals.

If you’ve already set up your score with a key signature and wish to change it later, no problem: simply type K to call up the Key Signatures gallery, choose Atonal/No key, and click the first bar of the score (or the first bar of where the open key is to begin).

You can, of course, mix keyed passages and keyless passages in the same score. Doing so is nothing new; Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland are just two of the many composers who have found it useful to do this.

A section from Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, transitioning from open key to F major
A section from Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, transitioning from open key to F major in a transposing score

Do you use Finale? Until Finale 2014, the option for an open key didn’t exist. Workarounds were possible but time consuming, especially if you needed to alternate the key signatures in the same score as described above. Fortunately, Finale 2014 introduced the Keyless signature option, along with full MusicXML support.

Choosing this option, either upon initial score setup or later in the composing process, works much the same as choosing Atonal/No key in Sibelius.


MuseScore users aren’t out of luck, either. MuseScore 2 added an Open/Atonal option, which shows as a non-printing “X” in the key signature palette to distinguish it from C major/A minor. If you don’t see it, be sure that you have selected the Advanced palettes.


In this follow-up post, we cover how to show key signatures on some staves but not on others.


  1. Tim Benjamin

    “not have any key signatures anywhere, in any instrument, as is often common when composing film scores or atonal music”

    I can understand this for atonal music of course, but what’s the reason for doing this in film scores, out of curiosity?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Tim, excellent question. I will quote expert orchestrator Tim Davies, as he says it best on his blog: “As with most modern music, we do not use key signatures in film scores. Even if the score is completely tonal. It is much easier for the players to have each accidental labeled. If we did use key signatures, players would end up writing in a lot of courtesy accidentals, as they will be sight-reading and they do not want to miss any.”

      1. Tim Benjamin

        Ah, thanks! That’s both interesting and useful to know.

        I had a “professional” argument recently on a related situation – there was an accidental (naturalising the key signature) at one octave and the same note appeared later in the same bar at another octave without any accidental. It was decided that this second note inherited from the key signature, not from the accidental on the first note – a situation which I complained about on grounds of ambiguity.

        It turns out that, by the book, it’s correct to /not/ specify any accidental at the octave of the second note because the key signature applies, and the accidental at the octave of the first note only applies at that octave, not any other.

        Most editions will provide a cautionary accidental, but that’s only a courtesy and apparently not strictly required. I argued that not using a cautionary was poor practice even if technically correct – if for no other reason than avoiding wasting time in a rehearsal (e.g. at a recording session!), but I was (as it happens) over-ruled.

        That relates to the point of your blog post because if you’re not using a key signature (i.e. “no key / open key”) then you need to remember to put your accidentals in at every octave where you want them, not just at the first occurence (that’s “by the book”), and if you don’t want them elsewhere, to put cautionary naturals in for notes in unaffected octaves (that’s not “by the book” but it’s good advice to avoid time-wasting!)

        NB, Sibelius 7.5 does not obey “the book” – if you naturalise a note that is sharp/flat in the key signature, notes at other octaves are then automatically given a cautionary sharp/flat according to the key signature. Helpful, yes, but not “correct”.

        A small point but you wouldn’t believe the correspondence it generated.

        1. Philip Rothman

          I’m glad that you found it interesting and useful! That’s always the goal around here :-)

          Yes, I agree, while not technically needed, cautionaries in the circumstances you describe are a good idea. You can always override this behavior in Sibelius, either on a case-by-case basis, or by adjusting in Appearance > House Styles > Engraving Rules > Accidentals and Dots and unchecking Show cautionaries in all octaves.

  2. david simons

    Hi. I admit to having difficulty understanding & applying key signatures.All I know about music I taught myself. I have an orchestral piece I want to write. I have no idea what key its in though. It would be easier to write in no key but I can’t help feeling I’d be happier & it more professional to eventually present it to a real orchestra in a definite key. Could I write it with no key,then let Sibelius work out the actual key & automatically apply it? Please can anyone help? Thanks in advance! Dave.

  3. Dor Friedman

    Hello Philip!
    Pardon for my English,I’ll try to explain in my best way.
    I am a new user of Sibelius 7.5 wanting to upgrade to 8.
    And I have a difficultly in finding the right key signature to my score that I imported from Cubase,by using only midi files.
    There is any automatic way to find the right key signature to my score?
    And in the same breath I want to ask another one please,can the program find and hide the un wanted flat sharp and natural? And leave the right one?
    It will really save me if you can help me with that soon..
    Thanks from advance,
    Dor F.

  4. Frank Paulicki

    Hi Phil.

    Is there any way (either Finale or Sibelius) to actually CREATE you own new key signatures (eg Bb + F#+C#)? ie, completely new ones of your own, apart from the traditional sets?

    I am testing composing in new “modes”or paterns, hence the query.

    Would love to hear from you.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Frank: You can create nonstandard key signatures in Finale; see this section of the help manual.

  5. Frank Paulicki

    Hi Phil. Thank you for your prompt reply. It looks complex, but I’ll give it a try -seems a little odd that Sibelius (which I thought might be a bit more progressive than Finale), has no facility to create your own key signature combinations.

    Cheers, Frank in Melbourne

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