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When to call it a Sharp and when to call it a Flat

Posted by Michael Hughes on Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I don't know if anybody really cares about this, but it makes my brain feel good to think about it, so I thought I would write it down.

Let's talk about notes that fall a half-step between two other notes. For example, the note between F and G. Is that an F# or a Gb? Well, it depends. There are two primary rules.

The first rule applies to notes that occur in the octave for a given key. Here's the rule: "In any given key, each letter of the scale must be used, and each can be used only once." So if we are in the key of G, our note halfway between F and G would have to be F#. Otherwise, G would be used twice (as G and as Gb) and F would not be used at all. The logic is clear if you think about key signatures. If we signed the key of G with Gb instead of F#, then every time you wanted the musician to play G, you would have to put a natural symbol in front of it. That would make for some busy scoring.

The other rule applies to notes that modify a standard chord pattern. The # or b should describe what you did to the basic pattern to get the new chord. For example, we make minor chords from major chords by "flatting the 3rd." Since a G major chord is G-B-D, I would describe a G minor as G-Bb-D. If I were talking about a G augmented 5th, I would describe that chord as G-B-D#, because we talk about "sharping the 5th."

Quick rule of thumb: With the exception of F and C, all key signatures in a natural letter (No flat or sharp in the name) have sharps. F has one flat (B) and C has no sharps or flats.

There, now my brain feels good.



7 comments on “When to call it a Sharp and when to call it a Flat”

jmb3450 Says:
Tuesday, March 1, 2011 @10:21:03 AM

Michael, I appreciate that information. I never gave much thought to it before but what you're saying makes sense.

scout49 Says:
Thursday, March 3, 2011 @11:34:57 AM

you may be practically right , but that ain't the way they do that! Its based on the Key! to make it simple, All music is based on a piano keyboard, yes, and on the piano key board the Key of C has all white keys in the scale, thus no sharps or flats. The next major key has 1sharp, the F sharp, which is the key of 'G'; the next is 2sharps, which is the Key of 'D'--in other words, you hit two black keys in palting the scale. once you finish those keys, you get into the flatted keys, which for simplicity l ets say tahttose are the scales that start on the black notes of the piano keyboard. Ies confusing for one who does not have traing on a keyboard, or who has not had the rote memorization of a concert instrument . First of all string instrument musicians aren't much aware of the notes on a piano key board. And, of course 80% of dobro music is played in the open G,C,and D scales, using a capo in between.

scout49 Says:
Thursday, March 3, 2011 @11:48:04 AM

Sorry, about the typos, also I didnt have time for a in depth explantion. But just a further word , in some music the score calls for the melody line to ' play a normally sharped note 1/2 step below. Say for example you have to play an 'F' in the key of 'G'. they dont say its a flatted Fsharp: its a 'F' natural, using a 'NATURAL' sign.

Michael Hughes Says:
Thursday, March 3, 2011 @7:30:03 PM

Sorry I wasn't very clear. You're right, an F would always be called an F. All the notes that correspond to a white key on the piano are referred to by just their letter. I was talking about the notes that correspond to the black keys. So an open 3rd string on a Dobro is always called G. But if you lay the slide on the 3rd fret, you now have a choice of calling that note an A# or a Bb. The rationale I was trying to articulate was if you are in the key of B, you would call it an A#; if you were in the key of F, you would call it a Bb.

scout49 Says:
Friday, March 4, 2011 @2:22:11 PM

I wasn't trying to be argumentative, just in a hurry at the time. I think any attempt to explain the workings of scales should be commended

Bryon Says:
Sunday, March 6, 2011 @11:06:13 AM

I really liked your description Michael. I have been teaching music for 20+ years and your brain drain is well put. It is sometimes a hard topic to relate to when Father Charles Goes Down And End Battles. Well Done!

Michael Hughes Says:
Monday, March 7, 2011 @6:41:48 AM

You Father Charles is more socially engaged than my Father Charlie, who is content to eat brownies :-)

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