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Natural accidentals

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Trusted Member
Joined: 14 years ago
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Hey there, quick query.

I was reading up about natural accidentals and unless there are more, let's say, "c" sharps in a piece than "c" naturals, then a sharp is put in the "c" space at the key signiture to symbolize this. Is this right? It's just that I've been learning a simple song from a hal leonard book and it has more accidentals than it has sharps notes. Why might that be? There's also some accidentals that aren't accounted for but remain as sharps (i have a cd and can hear how things should be). Maybe, the book's wrong?


Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

I'm having a bit of a hard time following the questions, so I hope I'm understanding them right.

1. If you want only the C notes to all be sharp, you can't just pop one sharp into a key signature. Key signatures define keys, and there are a fixed set of them* - there are only 15. At the very least you'd have to sharp all the F notes as well - which would put you in the "key of D".

2. Because the choices of key signatures are limited, you could easily end up with a song that needs lots of accidentals within the measures. This is especially common in blues, and modal music. You'll also see it when a song modulates (changes keys), but only for a short period of time. And if a song uses a lot of chromatic runs, it can actually be easier to read if you use more in the measures, and less in the key signature.

3. If you put a sharp in a key signature, it will change every note of that letter name (i.e. all the "C" notes) in the entire song, no matter what line/space they're on. If you place a sharp within a measure, it will change every note ONLY on that line or space** until the measure is over. So if you put a C# on beat one, and there's another of the same C on beat 4, beat 4 is sharp - it doesn't need a new accidental.

4. It's entirely possible the Hal Leonard book is wrong. I've found tons of errors in their books - enough to make me suspect they're doing it deliberately. But I'm usually finding just one error per page. I'd be surprised if they made dozens of errors on accidentals in one song.

* - there are non-traditional key signatures which could include only a C#. They're only used in avant-garde "art music", and as a rule musicians hate them. From the performer's point of view, its best to stick to the standard ones.

** - within a measure, a sharp on the C space will NOT sharp a note on the C line. Because this can be very confusing, almost all publishers will use a "courtesy accidental" (one that's not musically required, but makes things easier to read) showing you that the C on the line is a natural. Many, but not all, will put the courtesy accidental in parenthesis.

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Prominent Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 830

Noteboat.....are some keys standardly written with flats & some with sharps.....for example...Bb would be common but A#.... would not, I would think.....why is that? You would hear of F# but probably not Gb...another example..

Did I open a can of worms?

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

Not really a whole can... maybe just a spoonful.

Key signatures are associated with major scales, and the major scale has a pattern WWHWWWH (or TTSTTTS if you prefer the British expression of it). If you start from C, D is a whole tone up, and E a whole tone up from that, then it's a half step to F, and so on. So the C major scale has no sharps or flats, and a key signature with no sharps or flats can be called the "key of C" (even if the tune is in A minor, we can still say it's the "key signature" of C)

Start from any place except C, and you'll have at least one sharp or flat to make the major scale. If you start from D, WWHWWWH gives you D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D, so the key signature of D has two sharps (F and C).

There are 12 tones in a chromatic scale, so we could start with 12 different sounds. Each one of them can be called by more than one name - we could have called that C sound B# if we wanted to. But here's where the worms come in:

Major scales must be diatonic. That means you use ONE of each letter - you never have both B# and B in the same scale. So if we start from B#, we have to write the scale B#-Cx (C-double sharp)-Dx-E#-Fx-Gx-Ax-B#. That's going to be hard to keep track of. So we don't use key signatures that have double accidentals, which limits us to 15 key signatures:

1# = G; 1b = F
2# = D; 2b = Bb
3# = A; 3b = Eb
4# = E; 4b = Ab
5# = B; 5b = Db
6# = F#; 6b = Gb
7# = C#; 7b = Cb

As a practical matter, C# and Cb are rarely used (but I've seen both). If there's no compelling reason to use them, it's easier to write B instead of Cb, and Db instead of C# - that's usually easier to read. For F# and Gb, there's no difference - six accidentals either way.

Up top I said the key signature of C is used even if it's in A minor. Minor keys can use a lot of accidentals outside of the key signature, because there are a lot of minor scales. Some folks have argued that A harmonic minor should be written with a G# in the signature, or even mixed signatures - D harmonic minor has Bb (in the key signature) and C# (in the scale). I've seen those signatures in avant-garde pieces; personally, I find them confusing and hard to keep track of. That line of thinking really hasn't caught on.

Hope that helps.

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Honorable Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 646

Here's a table that you might find helpful, tinsmith.

Major Relative Key I ii iii IV V vi vii°
Key Minor Signature 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C major A minor C D E F G A B
G major E minor # G A B C D E F#
D major B minor ## D E F# G A B C#
A major F# minor ### A B C# D E F# G#
E major C# minor #### E F# G# A B C# D#
B major G# minor ##### B C# D# E F# G# A#
F# major D# minor ###### F# G# A# B C# D# E#
F major D minor b F G A Bb C D E
Bb major G minor bb Bb C D Eb F G A
Eb major C minor bbb Eb F G Ab Bb C D
Ab major F minor bbbb Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
Db major Bb minor bbbbb Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
Gb major Eb minor bbbbbb Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F

Helgi Briem
hbriem AT gmail DOT com