In this post we learn about the musical alphabet and the sharps and flats. This post focuses around the notes on a piano, because it is easiest to visualise what’s being discussed – but you don’t need to understand the piano to make sense of this post. Once you have a basic understanding of the musical alphabet we start applying the notes to the fretboard in Finding the Notes: Part 2‘.
Why Learn the Notes Anyway?
It is always helpful to be able to find the names of the notes on the guitar. Knowing the note names helps with reading standard notation, and helps with finding root notes for barre chords and other movable chords. Learning scales, chords and mastering your theory are also much easier if you can identify the notes on the neck.
The musical alphabet is only seven letters long. So, ascending (getting higher in pitch) through the musical alphabet, we have: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. After the note G the alphabet simply starts again.
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C…. etc
It’s also good to know the musical alphabet in descending order (getting lower). As before, if you get all the way through the alphabet, then it simply starts again. So the alphabet in descending order is:
G, F, E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E… etc
On a piano or keyboard these seven letters correspond to the white keys.
Looking at the piano diagram we can see that there are also black keys, which fall between most of the white keys. These ‘in-between’ notes are known as sharps and flats.
A sharp is a note that is one semitone/half-step higher than a ‘white note’ and is indicated by putting a hash symbol (#) after the letter name. For instance, the black key immediately higher than the note ‘A’ would be ‘A sharp’ or ‘A#’ for short.
Note that there are no black keys between the notes B and C, or E and F. This means that a ‘B#’ is really the same pitch as a ‘C’, and ‘E#’ is the same pitch as ‘F’, so although the notes B# and E# do technically/theoretically exist, they rarely occur in actuality, since it’s often easiest just to ‘re-spell’ them as ‘C’ and ‘F’ (see enharmonic equivalence, below, for a more detailed explanation).
A flat is the opposite of a sharp. Flats are notes that are one semitone/half-step lower than a ‘white note’ and are indicated by putting a lowercase ‘b’ after the letter name. For instance, the black key immediately lower than the note ‘A’ would be ‘A flat’ or ‘Ab’.
Wait a minute! Didn’t we just name all of those black keys as sharped notes!? Well, yes we did, but they can also be ‘spelt’ as ‘flats’ too. This is known as enharmonic equivalence.
Also remember that there are no black keys between the notes B and C, or E and F, which means that a ‘Cb’ has the same pitch as a ‘B’, and ‘Fb’ has the same pitch as ‘E’. Again, this ‘respelling’ of notes is known as – yep, you guessed it – enharmonic equivalence.
The term enharmonic equivalence sounds technical but is actually very simple. It means that single pitches can have multiple names.
Enharmonic equivalence is most important when learning sharps and flats, because there are many sharp notes which are enharmonically equivalent to flat notes. This means that A# and Bb are the same pitch but with two different names. Unfortunately, many students have trouble accepting these seemingly redundant ‘extra names’, and this makes future learning all the more difficult. If you can manage to ignore this ‘redundancy’, and instead just accept that notes can have two names then you’ll do fine. (By the way, I promise that there is a reason for this seemingly bizarre system, but for now please just take my word for it).
The most common enharmonic equivalent notes are:
- A# / Bb
- C# / Db
- D# / Eb
- F# / Gb
- G# / Ab
And of course some less common enharmonic equivalents:
- B# / C
- Cb / B
- E# / F
- Fb / E
Putting it All Together
Here is our basic scale with only natural notes:
A B C D E F G
We know that sharps and flats exist between each note, except for B and C, and E and F. We also know that sharps are higher than their natural note, and that flats are lower than their natural note. And finally we know that A# and Bb are the same pitch because of enharmonic equivalence. Similarly C# and Db are the same pitch, D# and Eb are the same pitch, and F# and Gb are the same pitch.
So our basic scale, with the ‘black notes’ included, becomes:
A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab
So we can see that although we only have seven letter-name notes in the scale, we actually have twelve pitches in the scale because of the extra sharps and flats.
Generally speaking, when we arrange the notes in ascending order, we should use the sharp names for the notes, not the flat names.
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#
And when we have the notes in descending order we should use the flat names.
G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C, B, Bb, A, Ab
The reason we generally use flats for the descending scales is because flats are lower in pitch than the notes, which logically suits a descending scale because a descending scale gets lower in pitch. Similarly, sharps imply rising pitch which suits the ascending scale.
Sorry to drag on so long… it really was all necessary, I promise. In the next post I will apply it to the guitar fretboard.