In musical notation, a key signature is a set of sharp or flat symbols placed together on the staff. Key signatures are generally written immediately after the clef at the beginning of a line of musical notation, although they can appear in other parts of a score, notably after a double barline.

A key signature designates notes that are to be played higher or lower than the corresponding natural notes and applies through to the end of the piece or up to the next key signature. A sharp symbol on a line or space in the key signature raises the notes on that line or space one semitone above the natural, and a flat lowers such notes one semitone. Further, a symbol in the key signature affects all the notes of one letter: for instance, a sharp on the top line of the treble staff applies to F’s not only on that line, but also to F’s in the bottom space of the staff, and to any other F’s.

An accidental is an exception to the key signature, applying only in the measure in which it appears, and the choice of key signature can increase or decrease the need for accidentals.

Understanding Key Signatures

Key Signatures and the Mandolin

Unlike other fretted instruments like the guitar, the mandolin is tuned using perfect 5ths, i.e. by playing the 5th fret of any string you get the same sound as the open next string (try it out to see what I mean). This tuning of the mandolin has many advantages, as you can change scales (i.e. key signatures) by just moving a specific finger pattern on the fretboard up or down several frets.
This is explained below, where you can see how by just moving up one fret the finger pattern of the A Major scale you get the Bb, while by just moving down one fret the finger pattern of the A Major scale you get the Ab

Other Scales and Key Signatures articles in the Mandolin Theory series