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Thread: Beginner’s question about sharps and flats

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    Default Beginner’s question about sharps and flats

    Hello,

    I’m learning classic guitar at this time, and I have a question about sharps and flats. You’ve all helped me with my earlier question about 7th chords, and I appreciate it, so here’s my new question.

    It’s my understanding that any note’s sharp is exactly the same as the next higher note’s flat. For example, C# is the same as D flat, etc. I know that this is true for the guitar, and my assumption is that it’s true for all musical instruments.

    So why are both sharps and flats used in music notation? Isn’t it just as easy to call a C# a D flat or to call a G flat an F#? (I realize that there is no B sharp or E sharp)

    In my classic guitar books, I see both sharps and flats. It just seems that it would be easier if a student only had to think about either sharps or flats, but not both.

    Can anyone explain the reasoning behind the use of both notations?

    Thanks again,

    Louis

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    Senior Member Rasa's Avatar
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    So why are both sharps and flats used in music notation?
    If somethign is in the key of F, using only sharps you would have a load of doublesharps to express it. Using both sharp and flats actually makes reading easier.

    Furthermore, a sharp is technically not as high as the corresponding flat: a sharp is 1/9th of a tone higher.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rasa View Post
    If somethign is in the key of F, using only sharps you would have a load of doublesharps to express it. Using both sharp and flats actually makes reading easier.

    Furthermore, a sharp is technically not as high as the corresponding flat: a sharp is 1/9th of a tone higher.
    Thanks Rasa,

    I'll have to think about what you said about it being easier to read music with both sharps and flats. I'm not disagreeing with you, it's just that since I'm a beginner, it may take me a few minutes to digest it.

    But, I don't understand your second statement about a sharp being technically higher than the corresponding flat. How can that be? If for example, I play a G# on my guitar, it's played on the same exact same string and fret that I would use to play an A flat. And I would assume that this is the same case as it would be with a piano, for example.

    Update: Perhaps when you say that the notes are technically different, you are referring to a scientific definition of musical tones, i.e., maybe you mean that their scientifically defined frequencies are slightly different.

    Thanks again,
    Louis
    Last edited by LBrandt; Nov-15-2010 at 03:00. Reason: add text

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    Senior Member Meaghan's Avatar
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    As far as sharps being slightly higher than corresponding flats, the people who actually have to take care to play them that way are mostly bowed string players. I don't know if that's something you have to worry about on a fretted string instrument like guitar. Your book would probably tell you if you did. On an instrument with fixed tuning, like a piano, they are exactly the same because you're pressing down the same key whether you're playing an F# or a Gb.

    You use flats in some scales and sharps in others so you have all eight letter note names in each scale. F major is spelled F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F because if you called the Bb an A#, you'd have two A's. I'm sure there are other theoretical reasons for this, but that's the best practical explanation I can give.

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    Thanks Meaghan,

    It's beginning to make more sense to me now. And I hadn't thought about bowed instruments before, but you're right, of course. I had just thought about all instruments as having "fixed places" to play the various notes, but I guess that doesn't apply to bowed instruments.

    Thanks again,
    Louis

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    Quote Originally Posted by LBrandt View Post
    ... (I realize that there is no B sharp or E sharp)
    I guess that you do not realize that the sharp raises the pitch of the note by half tone and the flat reduces it by half tone. Therefore B# is played as C, E# is played as F, Cb is played as B, and Fb is played as E.

    Are you aware of the double sharp, which raises the pitch of the note by a full tone, and the double flat, which reduces it by the same amount?

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    Senior Member Rasa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AmateurComposer View Post
    I guess that you do not realize that the sharp raises the pitch of the note by half tone and the flat reduces it by half tone. Therefore B# is played as C, E# is played as F, Cb is played as B, and Fb is played as E.

    Are you aware of the double sharp, which raises the pitch of the note by a full tone, and the double flat, which reduces it by the same amount?
    And to be absolutely correct, 1/2 tone = 5/9ths of a tone.

    But, I don't understand your second statement about a sharp being technically higher than the corresponding flat.
    That one 1/th of a tone makes a tone more "leading" towards another tone (for example, an Fsharp leading to the G in the key of G, or an A flat towards G in they key of C minor). To hear it you need exceptional hearing, but often people "feel" that this not goes somewhere and automatically adjust it

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    Quote Originally Posted by AmateurComposer View Post
    I guess that you do not realize that the sharp raises the pitch of the note by half tone and the flat reduces it by half tone. Therefore B# is played as C, E# is played as F, Cb is played as B, and Fb is played as E.

    Are you aware of the double sharp, which raises the pitch of the note by a full tone, and the double flat, which reduces it by the same amount?
    Yes, I was already aware of those facts. My question was simply to ask why there are both sharps and flats.

    Louis

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    Quote Originally Posted by Meaghan View Post
    As far as sharps being slightly higher than corresponding flats, the people who actually have to take care to play them that way are mostly bowed string players. I don't know if that's something you have to worry about on a fretted string instrument like guitar. Your book would probably tell you if you did. On an instrument with fixed tuning, like a piano, they are exactly the same because you're pressing down the same key whether you're playing an F# or a Gb.
    Outside the non-tuned percussion section, orchestral instruments are capable of these distinctions of tone. The ability to play vibrato means the pitch is not exactly the same. A woodwind or brass player can use the same fingering for B-flat as A-sharp, but make the pitch that fraction different.
    I once saw on some music documentary a piece played on two harpsichords. One harpsichord was 'tuned' in the key of the piece (ie; well-tempered), the other was tuned to equal temperament. And given the instruments were played in that order, it was funny how 'out-of-tune' the equal temperament one sounded.
    cheers,
    G

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