Enharmonic in Music: Definition, Equivalents & Notes

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  • 0:04 Enharmonic Tones
  • 0:37 Historic Reasons
  • 1:14 Harmonic Reasons
  • 1:59 German 6th Chords
  • 3:30 Diminished 7th Chord
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

An enharmonic tone is a musical note that has multiple names. Like a homophone, the enharmonic tone is spelled differently but has the same meaning. This lesson will explore the how and why of this musical curiosity.

Enharmonic Tones

An enharmonic tone is a musical note that has multiple names. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) defines enharmonic tones as ''pitches that are one and the same even though they are named or 'spelled' differently.'' Like a homophone, an enharmonic tone is spelled differently but has the same meaning.

Have you seen the movie Face/Off, where John Travolta and Nicolas Cage have face transplants in order to look like the other? Well, an enharmonic tone is similar in nature. The name of the note changes, but the note itself is still the same.

Historic Reasons

There are two reasons for enharmonic tones: harmonic and historic. The historic reason isn't relevant any longer, due mostly to new tuning systems, but it's interesting, nonetheless. Essentially, with older tuning systems, specifically the just temperament, a D# is actually a little bit higher than an Eb. You won't see that anymore due to the use of the equal temperament system, but if you used a tuner with a choir or orchestra, you may find that the specific tuning of the notes has been affected by the different accidentals. For example, sharp (#) means go higher, while flat (b) means go lower.

Harmonic Reasons

The harmonic reason is more relevant. Essentially, we can manipulate the resolution of a note or chord depending on the notes used. What does that mean? Well, much like how Travolta used Cage's face to try and get a different result while negotiating, certain chords can be respelled using enharmonic tones to generate a different result. The classic examples are the augmented 6th and the diminished 7th chords.

But why? We don't hear a difference between a German 6th (a form of augmented 6th chord) and the dominant 7th. Our ear hears the same thing. In all honesty, this is a bit of a hold-over from classic theory. It has to do with voice leading, or the practice of notes resolving in the most singable way.

German 6th Chords

Let's delve into a bit of theory. First, numbers refer to scale degrees, or the notes of the scale. The ''b'' or ''#'' before a number means to flat (b) or sharp (#) the corresponding scale degree. When we see the same symbol after a letter it means to flat (b) or sharp (#) the corresponding note. We often use words to describe the scale degrees, as well. The important ones to remember are the tonic, or the first note in the scale, and the dominant, the fifth note in the scale.

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