Flats and sharps
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So far, we have looked at notes with simple letter-names (C, D, E, F, G, A, B). These are the "natural" notes, but there are some notes "in between" these natural notes: flats and sharps.
It might seem strange at first that there can be notes "in between" the natural notes (C, D, E, etc.). The sharp and flat notes really stand out on a piano keyboard - they are the "black notes" and the natural notes are the "white notes".
As you can see from the photo below, there are no sharps or flats between B and C or between E and F.
Tones and semitones
The gap between a natural note and its sharpened version is an interval called a semitone, and the reason that there is no sharp (or flat) note between B and C or between E and F is because these natural notes are already a semitone apart, and so there is no "room" for a sharp or flat between them.
The interval between two natural notes which is large enough to contain a note "in between" - a flat or sharp - is called a tone. Therefore, there are tones between these pairs of natural notes:
- C and D
- D and E
- F and G
- G and A
- A and B
A note that is sharp is higher than the natural note with the same letter name, lying between the natural note of the same name, and the natural note above. For example, C sharp lies exactly between the natural notes C and D. Similarly, the note between F and G is called F sharp.
Notes that are sharp are indicated by a sharp sign:
On the stave, we write sharp notes with the sharp sign in front of the note which is to be sharpened, as shown in the following example:
We can therefore write out a list of the different natural and sharp notes, in order, from C to C:
C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp, B
The number 12
As you can see, there are 12 notes listed above. This number 12 will return again and again in your study of music theory - look out for it!
A note that is flat is lower than the natural note with the same letter name, lying between the natural note of the same name, and the natural note below. For example, D flat lies exactly between the natural notes C and D, and similarly, the note between G and A is called A flat.
Notes that are flat are indicated by a flat sign:
On the stave, we write flat notes with the flat sign in front of the note which is to be flattened, as shown in the following example:
As with sharps, there are again 12 different natural and flat notes:
C, D flat, D, E flat, E, F, G flat, G, A flat, A, B flat, B
Once you use a sharp sign to make a natural note sharp (or a flat sign, to make a natural note flat), all subsequent notes of the same pitch are also sharps (or flats), even though they don't have the sharp or flat sign in front of them.
In order to prevent this from happening (for example, if you want a C sharp followed by a C natural) then we use the natural sign to force a note back to its natural state:
Just like the sharp and flat signs, the natural sign continues to take effect on all following notes of the same pitch, so there is no need to repeat it:
We'll soon look at bars and barlines - they also have important effects on sharps and flats. An added sharp (or flat) sign will only last for the duration of a bar, and is effectively "cancelled" by the barline at the end of the bar, just as if you'd used a natural sign.
It has probably not escaped your notice that we've said that there are only 12 notes, and that there are only five black keys on the piano to go with 7 white keys (corresponding to the 7 natural notes). Why is that, when there are so many flats and sharps?
The answer is that some flats and sharps are equivalent.
For example, the note between C and D is both C sharp and D flat; therefore we can say that C sharp and D flat are equivalent. Similarly, E flat is equivalent to D sharp. On the piano, these equivalent notes are played by the same key!
Important: Notice how there is no gap between E and F or between B and C! In fact, if we attempt to sharpen E, to make an E sharp, which is equivalent to F natural. Likewise:
- F flat is equivalent to E natural
- C flat is equivalent to B natural
- B sharp is equivalent to C natural
We'll look much more at equivalent notes (the technical name is "enharmonic equivalent") in a later study guide.
Are you sure you've understood everything in this study guide? Why not try the following practice questions, just to be sure!