All keyed up: Keyless instruments in a keyed score


Earlier this week we discussed how and when to use open, or “keyless” key signatures in a score. Today we’ll cover a related but separate topic: using key signatures for some instruments but not others, and how to do it in Sibelius, Finale, and MuseScore.

The history

Most often, we’ll encounter “keyless” instruments in a transposing orchestral score with horns and trumpets. The reason for this is historical; when horns and trumpets were of the natural variety (without valves and pistons), those instruments were usually pitched in the key of the composition. The key of the instrument was adjusted by interchangeable crooks, which effectively lengthened or shortened the tubing of the instrument, thus lowering or raising the pitch. Players were limited to playing the series of pitches that occurred naturally in the overtone series. Because chromatic writing did not exist for these instruments, players were accustomed to reading parts without key signatures.

Later, when chromatic pitches became possible with the invention of valves and pistons, instrument transpositions were standardized but the convention of no key signatures persisted. Other instruments that often go “keyless” are timpani and (less often) pitched percussion.

A section from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with a keyless trumpet in a passage where the rest of the score is in the concert key of three flats

OK, now that you know the history, how do you do it in your score?

How to do it in Sibelius

In Sibelius, when you choose the instruments in your score, either by starting a new score or by pressing I (the shortcut for adding an instrument: Home > Instruments > Add or Remove), you’ll want to choose the instrument that has “no key” in brackets.


If you choose All instruments from the Choose from pop-up menu, and then choose the Brass subgroup, you’ll see a list of ever instruments that Sibelius has predefined. The “no key” instruments won’t ever display a key signature even if the rest of your score is in a key.

Defining a new keyless instrument in Sibelius

You may have noticed a curious omission here. Sibelius doesn’t predefine a “no key” variant of the Trumpet in C. There’s not really a good reason why it’s omitted, because it’s entirely possible for a “keyless” C trumpet to play in a keyed passage (see the Stravinsky example above).

So, let’s fix the problem by creating a “keyless” trumpet in C.

  • Select Home > Instruments > Edit Instruments (the downwards right-pointing arrow in the Ribbon)
  • From the All instruments ensemble, choose the Brass family and then choose the Trumpet in C
  • Click New Instrument… and click Yes to affirm that you are sure you wish to do this


  • In the New Instrument dialog, click Edit Staff Type…
  • In the Staff Type dialog, uncheck Key signatures / Tuning


  • Click OK
  • Back in the Edit Instrument dialog, edit the Name in dialogs to be “Trumpet in C [no key]” to differentiate it from the keyed Trumpet in C when you browse for it


  • Finally, click OK, then Close

You can now use your new keyless instrument in your score by choosing it from the menu whenever you wish to add or change an instrument. Congratulations!

Note that it is also possible to change the key signature of an individual instrument by selecting the staff to which you would like to apply the change, press K for Notations > Common > Key Signature, choose More Options at the bottom of the gallery, select a key signature (such as No key) and check the box labeled One staff only. But because you will have to remember to do this any time your key signature changes in the score, it is better to use the “no key” instruments as described above.

How to do it in Finale

We’ll only cover Finale 2014 here, since earlier versions of Finale lacked the ability to truly have a “keyless” instrument.

  • Go to Window > Score Manager
  • Select an existing instrument you wish to make keyless, or add one by clicking Add instrument
  • Under Transposition, check Hide Key Signature & Show Accidentals
  • Close the Score Manager


Although you can’t add new instruments to the Finale instrument library like you can in Sibelius, it is a simpler process than it is in Sibelius to easily toggle any existing Finale instrument between keyed and keyless mode.

It is possible to set key signatures on an individual instrument basis in Finale by choosing Key Signatures from the Independent section of the Staff Attributes dialog (and in fact this was one of the workarounds prior to Finale 2014). Beware, though, that this can cause other problems (like transposition errors when copying music to and from this staff), so it should be avoided if your goal is to simply have a keyless instrument.

How to do it in MuseScore

In MuseScore 2, to apply an open key signature to an individual staff, simply hold down Command (Mac) or Ctrl (PC) while selecting the Open/Atonal option, which shows as a non-printing “X” in the key signature palette to distinguish it from C major/A minor, and drag the key signature to the staff. (If you don’t see the Open/Atonal option, be sure that you have selected the Advanced palettes.)


You will have to remember to do this for all of your key signature changes.

MuseScore does have an option in a staff’s Advanced Style Properties to hide its key signature, but because accidentals don’t automatically appear when this option is chosen, do not choose it in order to make a keyless instrument.


  1. Bob Zawalich

    Good explanation, Philip – I have seen a fair number of people get tripped up trying to accomplish this.

    Nice to see MuseScore getting into the mix too. It seems to me to be a competent program for music at many levels. Plus it is (legally) free.

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