New music students frequently are confused when their instructors use terms like “sharp” and “flat.” What exactly are they talking about?
To put it simply, sharp notes and flat notes are opposites. While the sharp note goes up, the flat note goes down.
Accordingly, when a note is sharpened, it is raised by a half-step, otherwise called a semitone. When a note is flattened, it goes a semitone lower.
Use the Piano
Perhaps the easiest way to see sharps and flats is to look at the keyboard of a piano. Each key is a semitone. The lowest notes are found on the left side of the keyboard while the highest are on the right. When a note needs to be sharpened, the pianist does so by moving up one key to the right. The key may be black or white, the musician merely plays the adjacent one. If a note needs to be flattened, the musician simply moves one key to the left, again without regard to whether the key is black or white.
A note that is neither sharpened nor flattened is known as a “natural” note. These notes are named with the familiar letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. When a sharp or flat is needed, it is notated with a # for a sharp or with a ♭ for a flat.
Frequently, the white keys on the piano are referred to as the natural notes while sharps and flats are the black keys.
Both sharp notes and flat notes may be labeled as “accidentals.” This means that they are alterations to natural notes.
Musicians and instructors may view accidentals from an acoustic standpoint or from the perspective of music theory.
Let’s examine this in greater detail.
As an example, consider the fourth octave on the piano. In this octave are the notes D# and E♭. From an acoustic standpoint, these two notes are identical. That’s because they both have sound waves that vibrate at a frequency of 311.13 Hz. Accordingly, if a musician wanted to play both D# and E♭ in the fourth octave, they would have to strike the same piano key. Even a person with so-called “perfect pitch” would be unable to distinguish a difference between the sounds because they are the same.
However, if you want to examine the case from the perspective of music theory, you might notice some differences. A note could be called either D# or E♭ depending upon the key in which it appears.
Almost all western music is segmented into categories of flat keys and sharp keys. The exception is the key of C major which is neither a sharp nor a flat key. C major has no accidentals, just like the A minor key, which is a close relative to C major.
Following the circle of fifths, we find that the following are all sharp keys:
- G major
- D major
- A major
- E major
- B major
- F# major
- C# major
Similarly, each of these major keys has a related minor key. These minor keys also are sharp keys, and they are named:
- E minor
- B minor
- F# minor
- C# minor
- G# minor
- D# minor
- A# minor
If you follow the circle of fourths in the other direction from C Major, you’ll discover the flat keys. These are named F. B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭ , and C♭. Just like the sharp keys, the flat major keys have related flat minor keys that are known as Dm, Gm, Cm, Fm, B♭m, E♭m, and A♭m.
In general, sharp keys have sharp accidentals while flat keys have flat accidentals. Using the above example, it becomes clear that D# usually is placed in sharp keys while the E♭ is most likely to be placed in a flat key.
Double Sharps and Double Flats
The idea behind a double sharp or a double flat note is the same as that behind a regular sharp or flat note. However, when a double sharp or double flat is indicated, this means that the pitch moves by two semitones, which also may be referred to as a tone.
Accordingly, if a G double sharp is written on the sheet of music, this note actually becomes an A. If you are given a G double flat, this converts to an F.
When Do Flat or Sharp Notes End?
When a composer places a sharp or a flat symbol next to a note in a piece of music, that sharp or flat is used for that measure only. Measures, which also are called bars, are divided by vertical lines that bisect the musical staff. Bars are used to segment a piece of music into smaller, easier-to-understand portions. These bars may vary in size, the sharp or flat note will always end with the end of the measure.
Imagine that a composer wanted to write a piece of music in which the accidentals lasted longer than a single measure. In this instance, the composer probably could just change the key in which the piece is written. This means that the desired sharps and flats would occur naturally without having to be added to every measure.
Try playing the Chromatic Climb- featuring all 20 Deskbells, including sharps & flats
Chromatic Climb is a super fun exploration of all 20 Deskbells that involves counting, colors and note names. Spot all your favorite bells as we climb this musical ladder to the stars, rung by rung. In this video, students will play whole note rhythms as they ascend melodically by half steps. Rhythmically, there is a syncopated clave rhythm to keep the song lively. The harmony of Chromatic Climb is a bit of brain buster. We had to get pretty creative with this one but we assure you, proper voice leading really makes the chords gravitate towards one another.
Distinguishing Flats from Sharps
When you hear a flat note, it will probably sound just a bit lower in pitch than the note that you are accustomed to hearing. If you hear a vocalist who sounds just slightly “off,” it is most likely that they are singing a little flat.
By contrast, a sharp note sounds slightly higher than the note you are used to. This means that sharp notes might be more noticeable, bolder, or louder than other notes.
Using a tuning fork is one way to help to adjust your ear and to ensure that your instrument is in tune. The tuning fork plays a perfect A. This is a natural note without any accidentals, and it is commonly used by musicians in the west to ensure that their instruments are in tune.
Tune your instrument a half note up to hear what an A sharp sounds like or tune it halfway down to experience an A-flat.
Are Sharps Harder to Play than Flats?
Many musicians have noted that sharp keys tend to be more difficult to play than flat keys. In reality, this is more a matter of personal opinion than an objective observation.
If you began your musical studies playing mostly in flat keys, then these will naturally feel more familiar and easy than pieces that are in sharp keys.
Consistent practice will help you to familiarize yourself with the sharp keys so that they are no longer as challenging to play.
Some music instructors prefer for their students to memorize the order of sharps and flats. A mnemonic device or an acronym can serve this purpose handily.
Teachers may use: Fat Cats Get Dirty After Every Bath for remembering the order of sharps. Notice that the first letter of each word also is the name of a key. By applying the circle of fifths, it is possible to quickly determine which of these keys have sharps. Another way to do this is to use a piano keyboard and jump five notes per key.
As an example, begin in the key of C major, which we know does not have any flats or sharps. Start on middle C, then count up five notes. This lands you on G major. If you apply the order of sharps, you’ll discover that the key of G major has one sharp, which is F#.
The next key is D major. It has two sharps, which you can verify by starting on G and moving right five notes. From the order of sharps, you can then determine that the sharps in D major are F# and C#.
You can also discover the order of flats by using the same method with the acronym: BEAD Greatest Common Factor.
Begin the Journey with Prodigies
Do your kids love to dance to music? Do they always ask you to turn the radio up and sing along to their favorite tunes?
If so, then your kids would probably love to learn more about music. At Music Prodigies, we have dozens of video lessons and supporting materials that introduce the world of music to little ones in imaginative and engaging ways. Best of all, we have deskbells that enable your kids to play their own musical creations.