How To Read Music

Share this Post

How To Read Music

Share this Post

CHAPTER 6

Sharps and Flats


So far we have only looked at “normal” notes on the staff – notes A through G.

Take a look at this image comparing the notes on the staff and the keyboard:

notes labelled on the piano and treble clef

You can see that we have only put notes on the white keys of the keyboard, despite taking up every simultaneous line and space on the staff.

What about the black keys? To play a black key we need to learn about semitones.

(Even if you don’t play piano we’ll refer to a keyboard in this chapter because it shows all the available notes, making it a very handy visualization tool.)

What are Semitones?

If you were playing a C and then a D you might be tempted to think that’s all the notes there is, but there is actually a note between C and D.

keys labelled on the keyboard with a call-out on the black key between C and D

That black key is a semitone.

Come into this blue box for a moment and let’s discuss something important. You might be tempted to think that only black keys are semitones. This wouldn’t quite be correct. In music theory a semitone is considered a “half step” and is the smallest possible interval between notes.

 
Take a look at the above image. The black key between C and D is a semitone. Likewise, if you went from E to F that would also be a semitone as the notes are right next to each other.

In music we frequently want to change the pitch of a note by a semitone.

Writing Semitones with Sharps and Flats

Sharps and flats are special symbols used to raise or lower the pitch of a note by a semitone.

sharp and flat music symbols

Using Sharps and Flats

A sharp raises a note by a semitone.
A flat lowers a note by a semitone.

Let’s go back to our keyboard. That black key between C and D could be called C# (pronounced “C sharp”) because it is a half-step above C.

That same black key can also be called D♭ (pronounced “D flat”) because it is a half-step below D.

Either way, it is the same pitch that will be played.

keys labelled on the keyboard with a call-out that C sharp and D flat are the same note

Composers will refer to notes with the same pitch using sharps or flats, so you might see C# or you might see D♭ and either way the note has the exact same sound.

Intuitively this seems incredibly confusing – why would there be multiple ways of writing the same tone? There is a very good reason for this that we’ll look at in the next chapter, but for now just realize that a C# and a D♭ are equally valid ways of writing the same note on the staff.

Sharps and Flats Where There Are No Black Keys Between Notes

Remember when we said that semitones were any half step above or below a note? Take look at the E on this keyboard:

notes labelled on the keyboard

If you see an E#, that means to play an F (because F is half a step above E).
Now look at the F. If you see a F♭, that means to play an E (as E is a half-step below F).

Special Sharps and Flats

These are very rare, but there are also music symbols to indicate double flats or double sharps.

music symbols for double sharp and double flat

A double sharp raises a note by a whole tone (2x semitones).
A double flat lowers a note by a whole tone.

So a double C sharp (denoted Cx) would mean to play a D.
A double G flat (denoted G♭♭) would mean to play a F.

Theory Rule: Measures

Sharps, flats, double sharps, and double flats apply to all notes in a measure that come after the initial symbol.

Imagine a measure with two Cs in it. If the composer writes C# on the first C they do not need to write it again on the second. Music theory rules state that the second C will also be C#. This is true even if the second C is in a different octave.

What happens if we don’t want that second C to be sharp? We’ll use a natural to cancel it.

Canceling Sharps and Flats with Naturals

A natural cancels a sharp or flat and means to play the note on the original white key.

This is the natural symbol:

music symbol of a natural

Like with sharps and flats, when a natural appears the same notes afterward in that measure will also be natural – unless otherwise indicated with a sharp or a flat.

Let’s Recap

This chapter can be summed up as follows: Sharps and flats raise or lower notes by a semitone, and naturals cancel out any sharps or flats that you were otherwise meant to play.

Wondering why a composer would use either a sharp or a flat to describe the same tone? To answer that question we need to learn about key signatures.