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The Accidental Musician: Tips on Reading Music

Updated on February 20, 2017
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Trying to piece together all the bits of music notation can be a real challenge
Trying to piece together all the bits of music notation can be a real challenge | Source

Accidentals Defined

According to Wikipedia, an accidental is:

"... a note whose pitch is not a member of a scale or mode indicated by the most recently applied key signature."

In other words, an accidental is a sharp, flat, or natural written into the music by the composer to create an effect, but that doesn't belong to the key signature.

Reading music can be a complicated business. You just get your head around the concept of key signatures, when suddenly you're presented with a piece of music that seems to break all the rules, with extra sharps, flats or naturals here, there and everywhere.

These "extra" notes or signs are known as accidentals, and hopefully this article will take the mystery out of them once and for all.

Understanding Accidentals

Accidentals are sharps, flats and naturals appearing in music that don't belong to the key of the piece. If that sounds confusing, let's take it from the beginning.

Most pieces of music are written in a particular key, such as C major, D minor, and so on. These keys dictate which notes are used in the course of the piece, and any sharp or flat notes are indicated at the start of the piece and also on each subsequent staff. Here's an example of what a standard key signature looks like:

A Typical Key Signature

The key signature for A major and F# minor
The key signature for A major and F# minor | Source

What Key Signatures Tell You

This is the key signature for A major and F sharp minor. Like every key signature, it's a type of abbreviation. By displaying the sharps at the beginning of the piece, there's no need to write them into the music over and over again. Players simply recognize the fact that whenever they come to the notes F, C and G, they need to play F sharp, C sharp and G sharp.

This technique has the benefit of keeping the music score neat and tidy, and it also makes it easier to identify accidentals when they occur. Those more astute amongst you will realize that the key of F sharp minor (and every other minor key) uses an accidental to raise the leading tone. Here's an example of the scales of A major and F sharp harmonic minor to illustrate the point. Notice how the naturally-occurring sharps (black arrows) are not written into the music, while the accidental (E sharp, the leading tone, or the red arrow) IS written into the scale of F sharp minor:

The accidental for F sharp minor is written directly into the music, and is not included as part of the key signature
The accidental for F sharp minor is written directly into the music, and is not included as part of the key signature | Source

Accidentals in Piano Music

Below you'll see part of a melody in C major. We know it's probably in C major, because there are no sharps or flats in the key signature at the beginning of the piece. However, in the second bar we can clearly see the note F sharp written into the music. That note isn't part of the C major scale, so it has to be -- an accidental.

F Sharps Written In

Accidentals (F sharps) need to be written in separately from the key signature
Accidentals (F sharps) need to be written in separately from the key signature | Source

NOTE: You can see, hear and print this music by following this link.

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Flats are Accidentals Too

Flats are the opposite of sharps. While sharps raise a note by one semitone, flats lower a note by one semitone. If you see a flat written into the piano music that doesn't appear in the key signature, then you know it's an accidental.

And here's something else you might not have known. Ever wondered why the blues scale is always written out, and there's no key signature as such? The answer is surprisingly simple. It's because the blues scale contains both sharps AND flats, so a key signature is impossible. You'll recall that key signatures have either sharps or flats in them, but never both.

Here's an example of a simple melody that includes an accidental in the form of a flat:

B Flat Written In

An example of an accidental in the form of a flat, which is B flat
An example of an accidental in the form of a flat, which is B flat | Source

Naturals as Accidentals

So far we know that sharps raise a note by one semitone, and flats lower a note by one semitone. The third member of the accidental family is called a natural.

This sign is used to "neutralize" the other two. For example, an F sharp can be returned to plain F by using a natural, or a B flat can be returned to plain B by using a natural. Here's an example in a simple piano melody, very similar to the melody above containing F sharp accidentals:

An F sharp (accidental) is used, and then restored to F using a natural sign
An F sharp (accidental) is used, and then restored to F using a natural sign | Source

How Accidentals Work

Sharp
Flat
Natural
Raises a note by 1 semitone
Lowers a note by 1 semitone
Returns a sharp or flat note to its initial form
F becomes F sharp, C becomes C sharp
B becomes B flat, E become E flat
C sharp becomes C, E flat becomes E
Can be cancelled by a Natural
Can be cancelled by a Natural
Cancels a sharp or flat
Lasts for the whole bar, or until another accidental appears
Lasts for the whole bar, or until another accidental appears
Lasts for the whole bar, or until another accidental appears

Accidentals are Often Short-Lived

One other thing you need to remember about accidentals is this: they don't last long. The key signature applies to every bar of music UNLESS an accidental is written in. But in the very next bar (if there are no accidentals, and unless the accidental is tied over) the key signature comes back into play.

Occasionally you'll see flats and sharps combined in a piece of piano music. This can be confusing, as in examples like the one in the picture below, but it does make sense when you understand it.

This is an excerpt from my arrangement of the song Aura Lee. Notice in the left hand there are some C sharps, followed by a D flat in the next bar. Well, those two notes are actually the same keys on the piano. So what's that all about?

Sharps and flats are both being used as accidentals in this short excerpt
Sharps and flats are both being used as accidentals in this short excerpt | Source

NOTE: You can see, hear and print this music by following this link.

Basic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music
Basic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music

Takes you through the world of written music with a clear, concise and friendly style using lessons that are short, well-paced, and enjoyable.

 

Remember that sharps raise a note, while flats lower a note. Often when the music goes UP a semitone, a sharp is used. Then when it goes DOWN a semitone, a flat seems more appropriate. This is traditionally accepted because it makes sense, as in:

  • A sharp RAISES a note (goes up) by one semitone
  • A flat LOWERS a note (goes down) by one semitone

So the idea of using a sharp to go up one melody note and a flat to go down - even though they might produce the same sound - comes from this concept. And when two notes that sound the same but have different note names are used (such as B flat and A sharp) we call that an enharmonic change.

Now take the quiz below to discover how much you've learned!

Accidental Quiz!


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    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 3 years ago from Japan

      Nice lesson, I don't really know much theory but can play the scales by ear.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks Hezekiah. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • LKMore01 profile image

      LKMore01 3 years ago

      Beautifully written and executed HUB, John. This article is educational, informative and a reminder of why we all love music so much.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks LKMore01 for your brilliant feedback! Much appreciated...

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