Sharps and Flats: Reading and Identifying Sharp and Flat Notes in Music

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  • 0:07 Sharp and Flat Notes
  • 0:55 Sharp Notes
  • 2:12 Flat Notes
  • 3:00 Accidentals Within a Measure
  • 3:39 Natural Symbol
  • 4:22 Enharmonic Notes
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

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.

Sharp Notes

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.


Flat Notes

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.

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