Accidentals

In the lesson on the piano keyboard we learned two accidentals: sharp and flat. In this lesson we will learn a few more accidentals and how they are written into music notation. The most common are sharp, flat, natural, double sharp, and double flat. We already learned that sharp raises a pitch by a half step, and flat lowers a pitch by a half step. It probably seems logical then that a double sharp raises a pitch by two half steps (a whole step), and a double flat lowers a pitch by two half steps (a whole step). Finally, the natural returns a note to its normal "white-key" letter name, more on why we need the natural later! In the table below you can see what each of these symbols looks like, and its action (how many half steps it moves a particular note up or down). 

*Reminder: if you are using the piano to think through these symbols, to move a pitch higher by a half step it is right one key, and to move a pitch lower by a half step it is left one key.

Common accidentals, their symbols and actions
Accidental Name Symbol Action Half-steps up (+) or down (-)
Double Sharp double sharp Up two half steps (1 whole step) +2
Sharp Sharp Up one half step +1
Natural natural Back to "normal" note 0
Flat Flat Down one half step -1
Double Flat double flat Down two half steps (1 whole step) -2

When accidentals are placed on a note in music notation, they are always placed just before the note they apply to, so when a musician reads the score they are actually seeing an instruction like "sharp the C," as in the graphic above, but when we speak the note's name, we say "C-sharp." This is a very logical choice since musicians read notation from left to right, they need to know if the note has been affected by an accidental before the note is played.

Accidentals are vertically placed very strictly in front of the notehead, so much so that a musician can read what pitch the accidental applies to even without the presence of the note itself (this feature of accidentals will be especially important when we discuss key signatures). Click the button for each accidental to show how it is placed next to a note.

  • ~ The rounded portion of the flat symbol is placed on the same space or line as the notehead
  • ~ The "square" portion of the sharp symbol is placed on the same space or line as the notehead
  • ~ Like the sharp, the central "square" of the natural symbol is placed on the same space or line as the notehead
  • ~ The double sharp "x" is placed exactly like a notehead is, centered in a space or directly on a line
  • ~ Placed exactly like the flat symbol, there are just two symbols in a row

This note is still D-sharp!

Accidentals don't just effect the first note they are placed on. They actually effect every note at the same pitch for the remainder of the measure. This means the musician needs to remember that the note has been changed for the remaining time in the measure, but also means that the score looks cleaner, since it prevents a lot of unnecessary markings on the page. Accidentals are therefore a bit like an "on" switch, for instance the note D is given a sharp at the beginning of a measure, this means that all the following D notes in the measure are also sharped; they have had the sharp "switch" turned on. This works the same way with all accidentals. The switch can be turned "off" or changed in several ways: 

  • ~ Once the barline is crossed, the same pitch in the new measure returns to "normal"
  • ~ A new accidental will replace the previous
  • ~ Works like any other accidental, in this case returning the note to its unchanged, "white key"

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