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:
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.
That black key is a semitone.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.