Accidentals and steps

More details about naming musical notes

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Note values

Previously you’ve learned about musical notes and how to name them. Now let’s have a look at steps and accidentals.

Steps

A step is the difference in pitch between two consecutive notes. Steps allow us to measure intervals between notes. A step can either be a half step or a whole step. In Western tonal music, a half step is the smallest musical interval between two consecutive notes. So a whole step equals to two half steps.

Steps on a piano keyboard
Steps on a piano keyboard

On a piano keyboard, a half step is the distance from any key to its nearest neighbor on the right or left. This neighbor key can be either white or black.

Although most half steps include a white key and a black key, there are two half steps occurs only between white keys. These are E-F and B-C. Because there are no black keys between them. You can say that the difference in pitch between E and F is a half step. It is same between B and C. For all other notes you need accidentals to mention half steps.

Accidentals

Accidentals are special symbols in music to alter the pitches of notes. If a note is altered by an accidental, we sometimes refer it as an accidental too.

Sharp

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Sharp is an accidental which raises the pitch of a note by a half step. When we want to apply a sharp to a note in notation, we place a sharp symbol to the left of the note.

Note that a sharp symbol (♯) is not same with a number symbol (#). Both signs have two sets of parallel double-lines. But the horizontal lines of a sharp symbol are slanted to avoid being obscured by the staff lines. It also has two perfectly vertical lines, whereas the number symbol has slightly slanted vertical lines. Note that the little square-like space between four lines of a correctly drawn sharp sign is aligned with the line or the space of the affected note. Let’s see this in an example.

Two sharp notes
Two sharp notes

In this example, you can see two sharp notes, one in the third space of the staff (which is a C sharp) and the other one on the second line (which is a G sharp). Notice how the spaces in sharp symbols are also aligned with the corresponding space or line of the affected note. Now let’s see the difference between a note and its sharp version.

Normal and sharp notes
Normal and sharp notes

As you can figure out from this example, when you apply a sharp to A, the new note A sharp is half step higher in pitch.

Sharps on a piano keyboard

Normal and sharp notes on a piano keyboard
Normal and sharp notes on a piano keyboard

In this figure, you can see all basic notes and their sharp versions on a piano keyboard. Considering the facts that a sharp raises the pitch of a note by half step and the pitch of notes gets higher when you go right on a piano keyboard, to find the sharp version of a note, we should find the nearest neighbor key to the right.

Notice that for C, D, F, G, and A the nearest neighbor key to their right are the black keys to their right. We call them C sharp, D sharp, F sharp, G sharp and A sharp. However, the nearest keys for the E and B are white keys to their right. As I said before, between E and F and between B and C, there are half steps. Because they are enharmonic equivalents. They have same pitches, same keys on a keyboard but they are used in different musical scales. Thus, we can name F as E sharp and C as B sharp in context of music.

We always name accidental notes with the name of their nature state plus the name of the accidental. So if you apply a sharp to E, we name the new note as E sharp, not F, even if their pitches are same and they correspond to the same key on the keyboard.

Flat

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Flat is an accidental which lowers the pitch of a note by a half step. When we apply a flat to a note in notation, we place a flat symbol (♭) to the left of the note.  Note that the little space in a correctly drawn flat sign is aligned with the line or the space of the affected note. Let’s see this in an example.

"Two

In this example, you can see two flat notes, one in the second space of the staff (which is an A flat) and the other on the third line (which is a B flat). Notice how the spaces in flat symbols are aligned with the corresponding space or line. Now let’s see the difference between a note and its flat version.

Normal and flat notes
Normal and flat notes

As you can figure out from this example, when you apply a flat to A, the new note A flat is half step lower in pitch.

Flats on a piano keyboard

Notes and flat notes on a piano keyboard
Notes and flat notes on a piano keyboard

In this example, you can see all basic notes and their flat versions on a piano keyboard. Considering the facts that a flat lowers the pitch of a note by half step and the pitch of notes gets lower when you go left on a piano keyboard, to find the flat version of a note, we should find the nearest neighbor key to the left.

Notice that we name the notes differently now. For D, the nearest neighbor key to the left is the black key to its left. So we name it D flat now. We name other black keys as E flat, G flat, A flat and B flat. So what happens to the half steps which include only white keys? The key which corresponds to E is now E or F flat. Because there are no black keys to the left.  So E and F flat are enharmonic equivalents. Enharmonic equivalents have the same pitch, the same key on a keyboard. But we use them in different musical scales. Thus, we name them differently. The same logic applies to B and C too. The key which corresponds to B is B or C flat now. B and C flat are enharmonic equivalents.

Natural

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It is an accidental which we use to cancel a sharp or flat from either a previous note or the key signature. So when we see a natural sign to the left of a note, it means we should return to its natural pitch. Let’s see an example now.

Accidentals in use
Accidentals in use

In this example, you can see four quarter notes in a 4/4 measure. The first quarter note is an A. It is in natural state. In other words, there are no accidentals applied to it. The second quarter note is an A sharp. It is half step higher than A in pitch. The third quarter note is an A natural. It is on the same pitch with A. Why? Because the natural sign cancels the previous accidentals. So it cancels the sharp on the previous note and returns to note to its natural state. In other words, it is an A too. However, the fourth quarter note alters the pitch of the note again. It is an A flat which is half step lower than A in pitch.

Double Accidentals

Double accidentals also exist. They raise or lower the pitch of a note further than a sharp or flat.

Double Sharp

"Double

A double sharp is a double accidental which raises the pitch of a note by two half steps. So we may think this as we raise the pitch of a note by a half step then another half step.

Double sharp notes
Double sharp notes

Notice that this little x symbol is aligned with the corresponding space or line of the affected note. Now let’s see the difference between a note, its sharp version and its double sharp version.

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In this example, there are three measures with one half note each in 2/4 time. The first half note is A. The second half note is A sharp and the third half note is A double sharp. A double sharp is also enharmonic equivalent of B note. Because between A and B notes there is a whole step and when we apply a double sharp to A, we raise its pitch by two half steps or a whole step. So when we think that note on a piano keyboard, it corresponds to the same key with B.

Double Flat

"Double

A double flat is a double accidental which lowers the pitch of a note by two half steps. It is indicated with a double flat symbol which includes two flats. The double flat symbol is aligned with the corresponding space or line of the affected note. Now let’s see the difference between a note, its flat version and its double flat version.

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In this example, there are three measures with one half note each in 2/4 time. The first half note is A. The second half note is A flat and the third half note is A double flat. A double flat is also enharmonic equivalent of G note. Because between G and A notes there is a whole step and when you apply a double flat to A, you lower its pitch by two half steps or a whole step. So when you think that note on a piano keyboard, it corresponds to the same key with G.

Altering Double Accidentals

Sometimes we may want to alter double accidentals we use in a piece of music. If we want to cancel a double sharp or double flat, we place a single natural sign to the left of the affected note. Alternatively, we can use two naturals. If we want to cancel only one sharp or flat of a double sharp or double flat, we can place a natural sign and a sharp or flat, or alternatively just a sharp or flat. This means we cancel the double sharp or double flat, instead we place only one sharp or flat.

Altering a double sharp
Altering a double sharp

In this example, the first half note is an A double sharp. When we place a natural and a sharp sign beside the note, it means we cancel one of the sharps of the double sharp. So the second note becomes an A sharp.

The Effect Range of Accidentals

There are some certain practices about using accidentals. Understanding this convention allows us to use accidentals effectively.

When we apply an accidental to a note, that accidental is in effect for the entire measure on and after that note. For example, if we apply a sharp to a C in a measure, all other C’s after the affected note in that measure are all C sharps. We don’t have to place any other accidental symbols again for those unless they are in another octave. But once that measure ends, the effect of the accidental ends except tied notes.

The effect range of an accidental
The effect range of an accidental

In this example, you can see two measures of half notes in 4/4 time. A sharp is applied to the first half note, so it is C sharp. That sharp is in effect for the entire first measure. Therefore the second half note is C sharp too. But once the first measure ends, the effect of the accidental ends and all other C’s are natural unless there are no accidentals placed again.

Using Accidentals In Octaves

The accidental sign applies only to the line or space where it first appears. So if the same note appears in another octave, we should restate the accidental sign. Otherwise we play them in natural form.

Using accidentals in octaves
Using accidentals in octaves

In this example, you can see two measures of half notes in 4/4 time. But this time the second half notes are in lower octave. A sharp is applied to the first half note, so it is C sharp. But the second half note is C. Because we should restate the sharp sign to indicate that the same note in another octave is affected too. You can see this in the second measure. The first note of the second measure is C sharp. The second note is C sharp too.

Note that this is not a rule. Some modern composers apply only one accidental to the measure and expect you to apply it to all notes in the same measure of the same pitch. But that is the effect of a key signature which you will learn about later. So after an octave change using accidentals like this is a proper way of showing which notes are affected.

Using Accidentals On Tied Notes

Although the accidental effect ends after the affected measure passes, there is one exception. If an affected note is tied to another same name note of the next measure to lengthen its duration, then the effect of that accidental is carried out until the end of the tie. Any same name notes following that tied notes are in natural form. Because we should mark them with accidentals again.

Accidental on tied notes
Accidental on tied notes

In this example, you can see another two measures of half notes in 4/4 time. This time the accidental is on the second note of the first measure. This is why the first C is in natural form. The second note is C sharp. Because we tied it to the first half note of the second measure. So the accidental is in effect for that note too. However, the second note of the second measure has not any accidentals. This is why it is a natural C, not a C sharp.

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