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Enharmonic in Music: Definition, Equivalents & Notes

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 (or does it . . . ?) This lesson will explore the how and why of this musical curiosity.

Enharmonic Tones, a Definition

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 (or does it …?). Have you seen the movie Face/Off, where John Travolta and Nicolas Cage each have face transplant surgeries to look like the other? That's kind of like an enharmonic tone. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) defines an enharmonic as 'pitches that are one and the same even though they are named or 'spelled' differently' (p. 288).

Bueller, Bueller?

Back to Face/Off, then. Travolta has facial transplant surgery, replacing his own face with Cage's, and then later, Cage has his face replaced with Travolta's. So what does this have to do with enharmonic tones? An enharmonic tone is like the Travolta/Cage face-thing: the name of the note is changed, but the note itself is still the same.

Why Enharmonic Tones?

There are two reasons: harmonic and historic. The historic reason isn't relevant any longer, which is due mostly to our new tuning system, 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 on a choir or orchestra, you might find the specific tuning of notes affected by the different accidental (it seems to be subconscious - sharp (#) means go higher; flat (b) means go lower).

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 in negotiations (it's a John Woo film, just go with it), there are certain chords that can be respelled using enharmonic tones to generate a different result. The classic examples are the Augmented sixth and the Diminished seventh chords.

Yeah, but why? You don't hear a difference between German 6th (a form of Augmented 6th chord) and Dominant 7th. Your 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. It's like how Travolta looked like Cage and, without any background info, you'd think it was Cage. But by knowing that Travolta wasn't Cage, you knew how he wanted to negotiate.

German 6th Enharmonic Respelling
German 6th Enharmonic Respelling

Put on your gloves; we need a little bit of theory. First, notation: numbers refer to scale degrees, or notes of the scale. The 'b' or '#' before a number means to flat (b) or sharp (#) the corresponding scale degree. When you see the same symbol (b or #) after a letter it means to flat (b) or sharp (#) the corresponding note. We often use words to describe the scale degrees, as well (just because it would make it more confusing). The important ones to remember are: the tonic - first note in the scale; and the dominant - the fifth note in the scale.

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