Music Theory VIII: Sharps and Flats

Welcome to the eighth installment of our free online music theory lessons. In our previous music theory lesson, we covered clef signs and how they change the pitches associated with the lines and spaces of the musical staff. This lesson will further explore pitch and musical notation by adding sharps and flats to our musical vocabulary.

You should hopefully be familiar with musical notation and its relationship to pitch after reading Music Theory VI: Pitch. If you recall, there were seven notes in the musical alphabet, and each time we had used all of the notes in the alphabet we started over with a new octave. Pitches are indicated by which line or space they appear on in the musical staff. In Music Theory VII: Clef Signs we learned that the indicated pitch of the musical staff’s lines and spaces are determined by the musical clef which sits at the beginning of the musical staff.

The piano keyboard

If you are comfortable with everything I just said above, then you are now ready to learn about sharps and flats. So far, we have only learned about notes which may be played on the white keys of the piano keyboard.

Piano Keyboard Medium Labeled White Keys

Piano keyboard with white keys labeled

A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are all unique keys on the piano keyboard which you can see labeled in the above diagram. But, as you probably already know, the piano keyboard has more than just white keys on it. Between some of the white keys there are also black keys. These black keys will be the subject of this music theory lesson.

Piano Keyboard Medium Black Keys Arrows

Piano keyboard with arrows indicating the black keys

When a pianist presses down on a black key, they are playing either a sharp or a flat. Pressing down the white keys creates the sound of what is called a ‘natural’ note.

Natural, Sharp, and Flat KeysThe white A and B keys for example are natural notes. The black key between them is either A♯ or B♭. The ♯ symbol indicates a sharp, while the ♭ indicates a flat. It is important to note that on the piano, A sharp and B flat are the same note. To play A♯ (sharp) or B♭ (flat) you would play the exact same key. Sharps make a note sound a half step higher (we’ll discuss half steps further below) while flats make a note sound a half step lower. One half step higher than A (A♯) is the same as playing one half step lower than B (B♭).

A Sharp B Flat Black Key

Whole steps and half steps

Every white key is not separated from the other white keys by a black key. As you can see from the following image, there are four white keys which do not have a black key between them:

Natural Half Steps

Arrows indicate where the natural half steps are on the keyboard

Between B and C, as well as E and F, there are no black keys. So, what’s the difference between white keys separated by a black key, and those white keys which are not separated by a black key? The difference is quite important, and easily heard in the audio clips below:

Natural Half Step

Whole Step

In the first clip you heard a natural B followed by a natural C.

B Natural and C NaturalIn the second clip, you heard a natural A followed by a natural B.

A Natural and B NaturalDid you notice that the distance between the A and the B sounded larger than it did between the B and the C? If not, listen again, and try to hear the difference between the two notes in each of the clips. The distance between B and C is called a half step. The distance between A and B on the other hand is called a whole step.

The important thing to understand about whole steps and half steps is this: whole steps are equal to two half steps. In other words, the whole step between A and B is actually made up of two smaller half steps which are: A -> A♯ and A♯ -> B (or we could say A -> B♭ and B♭ -> B).

Two Half StepsA half step is the distance between two adjacent notes. Those notes may both be white (as is the case with B and C or E and F) or they may be a white and black note which are adjacent.

Half Steps

Sharps and flats

Introducing sharps and flats into our musical alphabet effectively increases our octave from seven natural notes to twelve natural and sharp/flat notes per octave. We had originally learned about just [A], [B], [C], [D], [E], [F], and [G]. Now we have [A], [A♯/B♭], [B], [C], [C♯/D♭], [D], [D♯/E♭], [E], [F], [F♯/G♭], [G], [G♯/A♭], and back to [A] again.

Piano Keyboard Small Fully LabeledYou are now familiar with the twelve tone chromatic scale. Chromatic scales use all of the half steps in an octave like the one below.

Chromatic C-ScaleWhich sounds like this:

Chromatic C-Scale

To notate a musical flat or sharp, we simply place the sharp or the flat in front of the note as we did in the image above. It may seem arbitrary whether to choose a sharp or a flat to indicate a black key at this point in your understanding of music theory, but there are rules which we will learn soon about when to use sharps and when to use flats. Remember though that a D♯ is the same as an E♭ on the piano because they are both played by the same black key.

Flats are played one half step lower than the note they appear in front of, and sharps are played one half step above the note they appear in front of. The importance of sharps and flats becomes clear when you hear Row, Row, Row Your Boat without the necessary sharps.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat (Without Sharps)

The notation for the melody above looks like this:

Row, Row, Row Your Boat Sans SharpsBelow is an audio clip of the correct version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat with the proper use of sharps.

Row, Row, Row Your BoatRow, Row, Row Your Boat (Correct Version)

You are now familiar with the entire range of pitches which are commonly used in Western music. What you have learned thus far is used in everything from bluegrass to hip-hop, Celtic to heavy metal, and classical to jazz. Your understanding of chromaticism, pitch, and the patterns which define octaves, half steps and whole steps will serve as a great foundation for understanding the music you undoubtedly listen to every day whether shopping at the supermarket or blasting your favorite tunes through earbuds at the gym. Although there are still many more things to learn about music, you should now have a decent grasp of how music is read, written, and created.

If you feel ready, I encourage you to take the quiz below to see if you’re prepared to move on. Congratulations on finishing this chapter of our free online music theory lessons!

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