The Piano and Basic Accidentals

The piano keyboard is laid out in a very clear and logical way. It is therefore one of the best tools we have to learn how music works. For this same reason, all students pursuing a music degree are required to learn to play at least some piano. Even if you are taking a music fundamentals course, where you don't typically learn to play piano, the piano's keyboard is a great way of visualizing musical notes. For instance, the piano keyboard is an excellent tool to analyze steps, intervals, chords, and to construct scales.

In order to play every pitch from lowest to highest on the piano, we play every key available from left to right. Try this by clicking, or tapping the keys in the order given on the piano keyboard above. Notice that the pattern of white keys and black keys repeats after 12 keys are played. This is the total number of pitches that are available in the standard Western musical system. When you play all twelve pitches in this fashion you are playing what is called a chromatic scale.

When you play from any key on the keyboard exactly one key to the left or right this is called a half step. For instance, if you play from number 1 to 2, 5 to 6, or 9 to 8, you are playing notes that are a half step apart. If you skip a key by moving two keys to the left or right (2 half steps), it is called a whole step. Examples of whole steps would be playing from number 1 to 3, 5 to 7, or 9 to 7. This concept of half and whole steps becomes very important when it comes to labeling the black keys on the piano, and will be a concept that we utilize many times over as we learn more complex musical structures.

As you can see in the graphic above, the piano keyboard is laid out in a repeating pattern of white and black keys. The part of the pattern you want to focus on is the alternating sets of two blacks keys and three black keys. This pattern helps us locate specific notes on the keyboard. For example, the note "C" is always the white key just to the left of the pair of black keys. To name the remaining white keys we simply count forwards in the musical alphabet for each white key right, or count backwards for each white key left.

Table of Basic Accidentals
Accidental Symbol Name Description
Sharp Sharp Move up one half step (1 key right on the piano)
Flat Flat Move down one half step (1 key left on the piano)

We now know there are twelve pitches available on the keyboard, but there are only seven letters in the musical alphabet. That would seem to create a problem, how do we label the remaining pitches? The solution is accidentals. Accidentals are symbols we place in music notation to instruct the musicians to change a note slightly. The two main accidentals are called sharp and flat. A sharp symbol is a pound sign, or octothorp. A sharp tells the musician to raise the note one half step, in other words, move one key to the right. For example, the letter C is located at number 1 on the piano graphic, so C-sharp is 1 key higher at number 2.  A flat symbol looks a bit like a lowercase letter "b". A flat tells the musician to lower the note by one half step, in other words, move one key to the left. For example, the letter D is located at number 3 on the piano graphic, so D-flat is 1 key higher lower at number 2. A good way to learn all the black keys is to memorize all the white key names, then think of the black key as a slightly higher version of its left neighbor, and a slightly lower version of its right neighbor. For example, key number 4 could be called a D-sharp, which you can think of as a slightly high D (its right neighbor). Or, key number 4 can can be called E-flat, a slightly lower version of E (its left neighbor).

Finally, you may have noticed that the same black key had more than one name in our examples, this is OK! Since accidentals are just an instruction that tells the musician to move a little bit to the left or right (in the case of the piano), this means that every key on the piano can have more than one name. The term for this is enharmonic. Enharmonic simply means that you can have a single sound (one piano key) with different spellings/names. Since C-sharp and D-flat sound the same but they are differently named, they are enharmonic

To recap, each key on the piano has several enharmonic spellings. Enharmonic means we can use several spellings for the same sound. For example, F-sharp and G-flat are two names for the same key of the piano. In most musical contexts, composers will tend towards one type of accidental for as long as possible. For example, pieces of music that use a lot of sharps generally don't use flats, and vice versa. At this point, you should plan on memorizing all the white key names, the sharp and flat name for each black key, and some enharmonic spellings of the white keys B, C, E, and F which we will focus on below. 

Of the white keys, you might have noticed that between B and C and E and F there is no black key. That does NOT mean that the notes E-sharp and C-flat don't exist. Remember that all a sharp does is tell us to move right a key and all a flat does is tell us to move left. This means E-sharp is most certainly a possibility, it just happens to sit on the same key as F. These four keys, B, C, E, and F are the most common white keys to have enharmonic spellings, so let's learn them here. First, B-sharp and E-sharp share the keys C and F. Second, C-flat and F-flat share the keys B and E.