The Musical Alphabet

By October 1, 2016Lessons, Theory

The musical alphabet is made up of 7 natural notes and 5 enharmonic equivalents, for a total of 12 notes.

Natural Notes

The 7 natural notes in the music alphabet are: A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

These notes repeat again and again. So, when you get to G, you start over again at A. You’ll know that a note is natural if it is just a letter by itself (like A). Sometimes, the natural sign if also added behind the note, like so: A♮

Accidentals (Sharps and Flats)

Accidentals, also known as sharps and flats, fit in between the natural notes in the musical alphabet.

  • When a note is sharped (#), it’s equal to the natural note + one half step.
  • When a note is flatted (b), it’s equal to the natural note – one half step.

So: A# = A + one half step.

Or: Ab = A – one half step.

Sharps raise the pitch of a note while a flat lowers it.

Enharmonic Equivalents

As we stated at the the beginning of this lesson, there are seven notes and five enharmonic equivalents.

The five enharmonic equivalents are:

  • A#/Bb
  • C#/Db
  • D#/Eb
  • F#/Gb
  • G#/Ab

An “enharmonic equivalent” means two notes that have the same pitch but different names. In other words, A# and Bb are the same note, the same pitch, and played exactly the same way. Except you can call it by either name.

Why do these five notes each have two different names?

The reason lies in music theory. As you learn about harmonizing scales, you’ll begin to understand the importance of using enharmonic equivalents and knowing when it’s proper to use a sharp or a flat.

To put it simply, when you write out scales and keys, they should include one form (flat/natural/sharp) of every note: A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

That means that the A major key contains the notes: A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#

See how no notes repeat?

If you were to write it incorrectly with flats where they don’t belong, you’d get: A-B-Db-D-E-Gb-Ab

Both A and D would repeat twice and there’s no C or F to be found! While it’s played the same, the strict rules of music theory say that it’s incorrect.

Trust us, it matters: Get in the habit of writing keys/scales correctly following the 7 note rule. Do not repeat notes!

When to Use Sharps or Flats

When writing the musical alphabet, you’ll typically see just sharps included (or if it includes all enharmonic equivalents, it will be written like: A-A#/Bb-B-C-C#/Db…).

Use sharps when going up: Thinking musically, if you play an A note on your instrument and then go up to the next note, A# would be the proper name (since you’re going up in pitch and a sharp raises a natural).

Use flats when going down: However, if you play an A note and go down to the preceding note, you’d call it Ab instead of G# because you’re going down in pitch and a flat lowers a natural.

It’ll all make a lot more sense when you put it into regular practice!

Half Steps & Whole Steps

B#/Cb and E#/Fb do not exist (well, only if you’re dealing in micro tonal music, but that’s a lesson for another day!).

These notes do not exist because of how the standard musical alphabet is constructed. In music, we measure distances in “steps” (or “tones” in Europe).

Obviously, 2 half steps make 1 whole step. Keeping that in mind…

Observation #1: All notes in the musical alphabet are 1 half step apart

There’s a half step between each of these notes: A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#

So, A to A# is a half step (therefore A to Bb is a half step), B to C is a half step, D# to E is a half step, and so on…

Rule 2: All natural notes are 1 whole step apart, except for B/C and E/F

As we just said above, B to C is a half step. E to F is also a half step. Why? Because B# and E# are not notes (so neither are Cb or Eb)!

Octaves

There are only 12 notes, but they can be played in many different octaves. For example, if you play an E note at the lower end of a piano keyboard, it’ll sound very low. But if you play an E note at the higher end of a piano keyboard, it’ll sound very high. They’re both E notes, but the pitch differs dramatically. Why? Because they’re in completely different octaves (pitch voicings).

If you play all the way through the musical alphabet until you end up at the same note,  you’ll have reached the next octave. Here’s how…

An octave equals 12 half steps.

If you go up 12 half steps from any note, you’ll be back at that note, but the pitch will be exactly one octave higher.

If you go backwards from any note 12 half steps, you’ll arrive at the same note, exactly one octave lower.

A piano is a great instrument to hear multiple octaves voiced, most pianos have a range of seven octaves.

Moving On….

Now that you know the musical alphabet, start applying it to your instrument! Learn how half steps and whole steps translate to what you play and practice often. Here are some hints:

For guitarists, each fret is a half step apart. Play the open A string, that’s A natural. Play the first fret of the A string, that’s A#! The second fret is B, etc. And a handy tip: the 12th fret is the same as open string notes. How? Because there are 12 notes in the musical alphabet, each a half step apart. A half step = 1 fret, so 12 frets and you’re back to where you started. Learn more here.

For pianists, the white keys are the natural notes and the black keys are the accidentals. Notice how there are some “missing” black keys where two white keys are side by side? That’s where B+C and E+F are!

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