What do sharp and flat notes look like? How are they different from regular notes? When and where are sharp and flat notes used? Find out in this lesson!
Sharp and Flat Notes
SHARP! When you listen to music, you often hear sharp and flat notes without even knowing it. Notes that are sharp or flat are called accidental notes, and they help composers give some variety to music, communicate with musicians who play different instruments and sometimes use them to bring tension and release to music. Nearly all instruments can play accidentals. In fact, if you've seen the keys of a piano, you've seen sharp and flat notes. Most sharp and flat notes are the black keys of the piano, as opposed to the white keys, which are called natural. The natural notes are the 'regular notes' we call A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
A sharp note can be defined as a raised pitch, or more specifically, a natural pitch that is raised to the next consecutive pitch. The 'Jaws Theme Song' makes great use of sharp notes since it continually starts on a pitch, then is raised to the next closest pitch. The sharp symbol looks something like a number sign or like a Twitter hashtag. The sharp symbol notifies us of a change in the usual condition of things.
For example, the note shown is interpreted as C natural. However, when the sharp symbol is in front of the note like this, the note is interpreted as C#. On the piano, C natural to C# sounds and looks like this. Sharp notes can occur in any kind of music, but for ease of understanding, let's go with 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. When we start on the note F#, we can see many sharps contribute to the playing of the song. This does not mean that all versions of 'Twinkle' start with F# and contain many sharps; it's just an example.
A flat note is basically the opposite of a sharp note, in that it is a lowered pitch, or more specifically, a natural pitch that is lowered to the next consecutive pitch. Much like a flat tire, a flatted note goes down. The flat symbol looks like a pointy lower-case letter B or almost like an arrow pointing down.
Again, this symbol alerts the musician that the note has changed and should be played as a lowered note. The note shown here is E natural. When the flat symbol precedes the note, the note is Eb. Let's look at 'Twinkle' again, this time starting on the note Eb.
Accidentals Within a Measure
When written in music, accidentals last throughout the entire measure. This means that if a sharp or flat note is used, the musician can assume that the note will remain sharped or flatted through the rest of the entire measure. So in this example, where we have a B that is flatted, that note plus all following Bs are read as B flat. So in total, this measure would have three B flats.
Once the measure ends, the accidental is no longer in effect. You can think of it as having VIP status for a night. On the night of your VIP status, you get special attention, but the next night, you're just a regular Joe again.
There is one exception to the rule of accidentals within a measure. A sharp or flat can be canceled out by a special symbol called the natural sign. If we add a natural sign to the last note of our previous example, it would look like this. This would mean that the last note would be played as B natural because the flat sign is no longer in effect. A famous real-life example that uses this is Beethoven's 'Fur Elise'. In this example, the first D of the measure is sharped and is played as D#, but the second D has a natural symbol, so it is played as D natural.
You may have noticed that there are many sharps and many flats available - A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, F#, G# and Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb - but that there are only five black keys on the piano. Technically, there are two spots that can be sharp or flat that aren't black keys, but that still doesn't cover the amount of keys needed for all sharps and flats. This is because some notes are technically the same.
These kinds of notes are called enharmonic notes. Enharmonic notes are notes that are the same pitch with different names. This may sound confusing, but just think of it this way: This is John Smith. We can call him John, or we can call him Mr. Smith. We're still referring to the same person, but we call him one or the other depending on the situation.
If we go back to the piano, we could say that this note is C# because it is the next highest-pitched note to C. We could also call the note Db because it is the next lowest-pitched note to D. Regardless of what we call it, it's still the same note. We can do the same thing with D# and Eb. They are the same pitch, but they are called different names in different contexts. Enharmonic notes are always an alphabetical pair, like F# and Gb or A# and Bb.
So why all the hullabaloo about having two names? The reason for having enharmonic notes is for ease of reading. Sharps and flats can mix, but composers tend to stick with one or the other because it makes the music easier to read, and in turn, the musician (hopefully) makes fewer mistakes. These two examples have the same notes, but because one has only flats, it is less complicated to read.
In all, accidentals, or sharps and flats, are useful for creating expressive music with a variety of notes. A sharp raises a note, while a flat lowers a note. Accidentals in a measure last throughout the measure but can be canceled by a natural sign. Sharps and flats share a common pitch and are called enharmonic.
You should be able to meet the following objectives once you have finished this video lesson:
- Identify sharps and flats in sheet music and explain their functions
- Define the terms enharmonic and accidental