Understanding Sharps and Flats
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
I'm sure that many of you would agree when I say that music would be a hell of a lot easier if everything were as simple to understand as the C major scale. Realistically, music would also be pretty boring. Easy, but boring nonetheless. I'm still on my own journey to learning all that there is to learn, but Ive come across a few things that have really helped me, especially when it comes to memorizing my scales.
PATTERNS PATTERNS PATTERNS
For my first month beginning my music journey, 90 percent of my time and dedication went to memorizing all the major scales by heart. I would write 17 different scales (including the enharmonic equivalents for all the black keys) at least 5 times a day. Repetition for me was definitely key. Now, I'm not saying to spend your whole day writing scales until your hands bleed, but I am saying to do whatever works best for you to memorize them comfortably. In another post, I mentioned how I had recorded myself saying the scales aloud using a recording app on my phone and would listen to myself reciting the scales. After writing scales about 100 times, I began to notice patterns, specifically with the placement of accidentals. Let's begin with the all time favorite note to use for any musical example, C Natural, and write out it's major scale:
The only major scale with no sharps and flats. Pretty easy right? But what about C#? What about Cb? Well here's a "not so big" secret that I'm about to reveal- If you know the major scale for C natural by heart, you will know the the scale for both C# and Cb Major. Lets look at the major scale for Cb now.
Notice how ALL the notes became flat. That's because to get from C natural to C# when flattened the tonic note, C, which means that all the notes must be transposed down by a half-step. When I look at it in this perspective of "transposing" a scale as opposed to just memorizing accidentals for C natural, C flat and C sharp, it makes mores sense to me as to WHY the accidentals appear where they do in the first place. Accidentals started to seem less intimidating to face. Lets look at C# this time.
The whole scale was transposed this time to being a half-step higher. Now, I know what you must be saying to yourself. "Well, of course it looks easy, we used C Major as an example." Shit, everyone does. lol. So here's another little thing to remember that'll help you.
# lowered by a half-step = Natural
# raised by a half-step = double sharp X
b's lowered by a half-step = double flat bb
b's raised by a half-step = Natural
C# lowered by a half-step = C
C# raised by a half-step = CX
Cb lowered by a half-step = Cbb
Cb raised by a half-step = C
Based on this information I gave you about the changes in accidentals when we raise or lower a note, all we essentially need to memorize are the major scales for all the notes in their natural form.
The C Major scale is the most used example because of how easy it is to see the changes that happen to each individual note when we modify it since all the notes are in their natural state with no accidentals. But every scale, no matter how many accidentals, can be easy when we think about transposing the scale from its natural form.
Let's take a look at G Major this time.
We have one sharp accidental on F. Not too bad, right? Let's do exactly what we did for C and look at the major scale for Gb.
We transposed the whole scale down a half step. Seeing all those flat accidentals may look a bit scary or intimidating, especially to try and remember. But think of it this way, we flattened a natural note, which means all the notes that are natural in the scale become flat as well. As for F#, when we lower a note that is sharp to begin with, it becomes a natural note.
As for G#, the same concept can be applied. When we raise a natural note up a half step, it becomes a sharp note. We need to raise G natural a half-step higher so it becomes G#, which means all the other natural notes in the G major scale become sharp too.
"Okay, what the hell is that new thing over F?", you ask. "I was just getting used to the concept of sharps and flats." Don't run away quite yet. From what I told you above, when we raise a sharp note up a half step in a scale, it becomes something called a "double sharp." What we are essentially doing is raising the note up 2 half steps and calling it a double. The reason we have to do this is because when we write out major scales, the letter names must be consecutive. You can't have repeating letter names. Even though we have FX double sharp, which technically is the same note as G natural, we cannot call F double sharp G. Otherwise, the scale would look like this, which would be the incorrect way of writing the scale.
If we raise a note that already has a sharp accidental by a half-step, it becomes a double sharp and will sound like the note that is a Major 2nd interval above it, in this case G natural, before resolving to our tonic, G#. (Check out my earlier post on intervals). Lets look at all the scales next to each other
Do you see the patterns that I'm seeing within these three scales as we transpose them by a half step? If you know G natural by heart, getting to Gb or G# should be much easier.
In the same way that we have double sharps, we also have double flats. Lets take a look at a major scale with an existing flat, F major.
F natural has one flat in it's key signature. For kicks and giggles, lets say we want to find the major scale for Fb. Easy breezy. F, the tonic note is natural, which means we lower F natural by a half-step to get to Fb. All the natural notes in the F major scale will then become flat as well, and aha! You guessed it, the already existing flats, in this case, Bb, will become double flat. There will be a ton of flats in the scale of Fb major, but it's much less intimidating when we go about finding the scale for Fb this way instead of trying to memorize 17 different scales.
Try finding the major scale for D#. Since you probably don't have your major scales memorized yet, heres the scale for D natural major written out for you to transpose to D#.
D E F# G A B C# D
KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER
When Raising a Scale by a Half Step
- All natural notes will become sharp
- All sharp notes will become double sharp
- All flat notes will become natural
When Lowering a Scale by a Half-Step
- All natural notes will become flat
- All sharps notes will become natural
- All flat notes will become double flat
"Whats Your Best Advice for Understanding Accidentals?"
Whats the whole point of me rambling on this post about sharp and flat accidentals? MEMORIZE YOUR MAJOR SCALES. I will always continue to say this. All you need to memorize when it comes to major scales are 7 natural notes:
C D E F G A B.
Much easier than 21, right?
C C# Cb D D# Db E E# Eb F F# Fb G G# Gb A A# Ab B B# Bb
Every major scale with a flat or sharp note as it's tonic or root note is just a modification from the note in it's natural form. Memorize the natural form of all the major scales and you're all set to go.
This has really helped me the most when it comes to enharmonic equivalents (a note that is an equivalent to another note). All notes can have different names. B# and C natural are the same key on the piano, but can be called two different names depending on the situation. Similar to the situation above when writing the scale for G# major. We couldn't call FX double sharp a G natural in the scale, even though it's technically the same note. This also explains why we never see music in certain key signatures, like B#, E# or Fb and Cb. We run into these double sharps and double flats, which can be a huge hassle for composers and musicians dealing with reading and writing sheet music.
Why write music in the key of B#, which has 5 double sharps in it's key signature, when it's the EXACT same note as our favorite note, C with NO sharps and flats? You'll be pressing the same keys on the piano anyway, but why not make reading the music a bit easier?
D# Major Scale
Heres all 17 major scales written out for you to have. Check out my previous post of all the major scales from the circle of fifths drawn out with all their steps shown on pianos.