Accidentals & Keys

This chapter contains the following sections:

  1. Types of Accidentals
  2. Half Steps
  3. Whole Steps
  4. Enharmonicism
  5. Double Flats and Sharps
  6. Key Signatures
  7. Order of Sharps
  8. Order of Flats
  9. The Circle of Fifths
  10. The Relative Relationship
  11. The Parallel Relationship
  12. Major and Minor Modes
  13. Spelling Key Signatures
  14. Diatonic vs. Chromatic
  15. Diatonic vs. Chromatic Half Steps
  16. Review
  17. Review of Terms

Section 1: Types of Accidentals


The seven letters used in music—A, B, C, D, E, F, and G—can each be altered by an accidental. There are five kinds of accidentals. The accidentals on the right raise a note from the natural position, and the ones on the left lower it.

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In notation, the accidental is written before the notehead, but in language, it is spoken after.

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  • Accidentals are canceled by a barline or a natural symbol.

  • Courtesy accidentals indicate that the accidental has been cancelled by a bar line or that it is still active in the bar.

J.S. Bach: Violin Sonata in A Minor, II. Fuga, BWV 1003

Philippe Hirschhorn, violin

Audio

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Section 2: Half Steps


  • Half steps are adjacent notes on the keyboard, whether white or black.

Flats and sharps move a note one half step away from the “natural” position. Another word for half step is semitone.

In the example below, the pitches G, C and E are surrounded by half steps above and below. The recording plays from left to right (low to high).

Audio

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Section 3: Whole Steps


  • Whole steps are composed of two half steps. Another word for whole step is whole tone.

In the example below, the pitches G, C and E are surrounded by whole steps above and below. The recording plays from left to right (low to high).

Audio

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Section 4: Enharmonicism


  • Enharmonic spelling uses different names for the same pitch, such as C# and Db. Thus, enharmonic notes sound the same but are spelled differently.

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The linguistic equivalent of enharmonicism is a homophone.

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Section 5: Double Flats an Sharps


  • Double accidents alter a note by two half steps. The letter name always remains the same.

Audio

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Section 6: Key Signatures


Often, music will consistently use the same accidentals over and over. Rather than write them for every note, key signatures are used to apply accidentals to an entire piece.

  • Accidentals apply only to one pitch (single octave) in a single measure.

  • Key signatures apply to a whole pitch class (every octave) in an entire piece, or until the key signature is changed.

In this piece from Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah, the key signature, containing F#, C#, G#, and D#, applies to those pitch classes—that is, every instance of those letters in every octave in the entire piece.

Handel: Messiah, Tenor Recitative, “Comfort Ye, My People” (piano reduction)

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philip Langridge, tenor

Audio

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Section 7: Order of Sharps


The order of sharps is always the same and follows the mnemonic device:

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Accidentals are applied accumulatively, each adding to the previous key signature. Each key signature represents one major and one minor key. Often, major keys are represented by capital letters, and minor keys by lower case letters, as shown here. Alternatively, sometimes minor keys have a lower-case m after them to indicate the minor mode, but this is easily confused with an upper case M when writing by hand.

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These major and minor keys must be memorized as soon as possible. I recommend making flashcards. Put the number and type of accidentals on one side, and the major or minor key on the other.

Notice the pattern for applying all seven sharps on the far right of the above image: Down – Up – Down – Down – Up – Down – Down. Remember this pattern. It is the same for sharps in both treble and bass clef.

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Section 8: Order of Flats


The order of flats is the exact opposite from sharps:

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That’s why this sentence is so useful. It makes grammatical sense forwards and backwards—it’s a palindrome!

As with sharps, flats are applied accumulatively, each adding to the previous key signature. Each key signature represents one major and one minor key. Again, these simply must be memorized, and flashcards are the way to go.

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Notice the pattern for applying all seven flats on the far right in the above image: Up – Down – Up – Down – Up – Down. Remember this pattern. It is the same for flats in both treble and bass clef.

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Section 9: The Circle of Fifths


The circle of fifths is a tool for organizing key signatures. Notice how it closely resembles a clock face. (I even put a clock in the middle just for fun.) It’s called the circle of fifths because each “hour” on the clock face moves by the interval of a fifth. (Intervals are covered in detail in the next chapter.)

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Sharp key signatures begin at the top and move clockwise, while flat key signatures move counterclockwise.

Most key signatures represent one major and one minor key, as shown by the colored circles on the inside. For instance, the key signature of two sharps (at “2 o’clock”) represents both D major and B minor.

In contrast, the “hours” of five, six, and seven o’clock have two possible key signatures because that is where the clockwise sharps and counterclockwise flats overlap. These are called enharmonic keys because, like enharmonic notes, they sound the same but are spelled differently.

The number of accidentals in each major and minor key must be memorized and become second nature because you will need this information to spell scales in the next section. As you practice, imagine what “hour” each key represents in the circle of fifths.

Section 10: The Relative Relationship


  • Relative keys have the same key signature.

One key will always be major, and the other minor. They will be on the same “hour,” so to speak, on the circle of fifths, and will be three letter names apart.

For example, Ab major and F minor are relative keys because they have both have four flats in their key signature. F and A are three letter names apart. We can disregard the flat accidental on “Ab” because all we care about here are the letter names. Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 6.04.16 PM

Section 11: The Parallel Relationship


  • Parallel keys have the same tonic, or scale degree 1.

One key will always be major, and the other minor. They always differ by three accidentals, or three “hours” on the circle of fifths.

For example, F major and F minor are relative keys because they share the same tonic. They are three “hours” apart on the circle of fifths clock, and therefore they differ by three accidentals.

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Section 12: Major and Minor Modes


Sometimes the word mode is used as a synonym for key. Music in a major key is in the major mode, and music in a minor key is in the minor mode.

But there are other modes besides major and minor. These are described near the end of this chapter. However, the majority of music in the common practice era is in a major or minor mode.

Section 13: Spelling Key Signatures


Imagine that you need to spell the key signature for Bb minor on a grand staff. Here is the process that you will follow:

  1. The key signature of Bb minor has five flats. (This must be memorized.)
  2. Those flats are B, E, A, D, and G in that order. (Think: “Battle ends and down goes…”)
  3. The pattern for writing flats on any clef is always: UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN.
  4. Write those accidentals on the grand staff.

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Notice where the first Bb goes in each clef (red arrows) so you have space to write the next accidental above it.

Section 14: Diatonic vs. Chromatic


  • Diatonic means in the key. No individual accidentals are used outside the key signature.

The score we looked at from Handel’s Messiah is completely diatonic. There were no accidentals outside the key signature. (Actually there were some accidentals after the excerpt shown.)

  • Chromatic means outside the key. It comes from the Latin word chroma, meaning color. Accidentals introduce new notes that are not in the key signature. These notes are instances of chromaticism.

Here’s an example of a piece that uses chromaticism, or individual accidentals that are outside the key signature. You can feel the tonal centers shifting constantly. This is characteristic of music in the late 19th century. See if you can tell when the opening material returns in the recording (not shown in the score).

César Franck: Chorale in E Major—Louis Robilliard, organ

Audio

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Section 15: Diatonic vs. Chromatic Half Steps


  • A diatonic half step is between adjacent keys of different letter names, like B-C (assuming both of these pitches are in the key signature).

  • A chromatic half step is between adjacent keys of the same letter name, like B-B#. One of these pitches will always be outside the key signature.

Section 16: Review


 

  • There are five types of accidentals: naturals, sharps, flats, double sharps, and double flats.
  • Courtesy accidentals are optional, but make the music easier to read.
  • Half steps are adjacent keys on the piano; whole steps contain two half steps.
  • Enharmonic pitches sound the same but are spelled differently.
  • Accidentals apply only to one pitch (single octave) in a single measure.
  • Key signatures apply to a whole pitch class (every octave) in an entire piece, or until the key signature is changed.
  • The order of sharps is: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.
  • The order of flats is: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’s Father.
  • Relative keys have the same key signature; parallel keys have the same tonic.
  • The number of accidentals in each major and minor key must be memorized. Use the circle of fifths as a reference.
  • Diatonic means in the key and having no extra accidentals. Chromatic means outside the key and having extra accidentals.
  • Diatonic half steps have different letter names; chromatic half steps have the same letter name, but different accidentals.

Section 17: Review of Terms

Key signatures

Major keys

Major/minor modes

Order of sharps

Minor keys

Enharmonic keys

Order of flats

Parallel Keys

Diatonic Half Step

Circle of Fifths

Relative Keys

Chromatic Half Step