Should You Be Using Sharps or Flats When Transcribing Tabs and Chords?

We will create a chord chart for each key in the major scale. This will show you each chord in a key and when to use sharps and when to use flats when you are transcribing music into tabs and chord sheets.

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We will create a chord chart for each key in the major scale. This will show you each chord in a key and when to use sharps and when to use flats when you are transcribing music into tabs and chord sheets.

Creating a chord chart in the major (Ionian) scale

Take a look at this chord sheet of "The Lazy Song" on Ultimate Guitar.

This song is in the key of B. The contributor has tabbed out the chords of B, F♯, E, E♭m, C♯m and G♯m. When you are transcribing music in the major scale correctly, you will not have both sharp chords AND flat chords in the same key! If you look at the key of B in the chart below, you can see there is no E♭m in that key. There is a D♯m. These two chords sound identical and are played the same way.

It is known as an "enharmonic equivalent" when two chords look alike and sound alike but have a different name.

I am here to give you a basic understanding of what chords belong in any major key. I will teach you how to figure this out on your own from the ground up. Knowing how this is done will teach you why you cannot mix sharps and flats when you are writing music.

Before we start building our chart, we will review some very basic things:

1. There are 7 different notes in a scale (and seven different chords in a key): C D E F G A B. Once we are done with the seventh note, we start over with the 8th note, known as the octave. The octave is the same as the first note: C D E F G A B C.

2. Most of these notes will have sharps and flats that we can use. These are known as "accidentals." For now, there is no B# or E# and no C♭ or F♭! If you look at the piano keyboard, you can see why. The B and C are right next to each other, as are the E and F. There are exceptions to this rule, but we will cover that later.

3. This will give us 12 notes to work with when we build our chords: C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F-F♯-G-G♯-A-A♯-B
We can also write this with flats instead, depending on the key: C-D♭-D-E♭-E-F-G♭-G-A♭-A-B♭-B

Whole Tones and Semitones


A semitone (S) is the smallest musical interval commonly used in Western music. It is also referred to as a "half step." A to A♯ is one semitone.

Whole Tone

A whole tone (T) is made up of two semitones. It is also referred to as a "whole step." A to B is one whole tone.

Let's build a chord chart!

There are four things you need to know in order to start building a chord chart:

1. The key you are starting with. This part is easy. Just pick one! At the end of the tutorial, I will give you all the keys you can choose from. We will choose the key of A for our first chart.

2. From our key note, we need to know how many steps to go up. Sometimes we go up one semitone (S) and sometimes we go up a whole tone (T). Luckily, we have a pattern to follow for this. The pattern is T-T-S-T-T-T-S. Let's put that in our chart:

3. We also need to know is when to use a minor chord and when to use a major chord. There is also one diminished chord for every key, too. Since we are writing in the major scale, every key is going to start with a major chord and end with that same major chord. The pattern for this is M-mi-mi-M-M-mi-dim-M. We will add that too our chart, too.

4. The last thing we need to know is that, besides the octave, we can only have ONE of each letter of the alphabet in a key and that we put them in alphabetical order. This is the heart of why we cannot mix sharps and flats! Let's start with the letter A and write each letter, ending on A (the octave) again:

Now that we have our letters in place, we can start using our T-T-S-T-T-T-S pattern to put in our sharps or flats. We will work from the left to the right, starting with A. For now, we will be using sharps to move up to the next semitone.

1. We start with the A chord. The first step in our pattern is T which means we have to go up one whole Tone (two semitones): A > A♯ > B. This lands us on a natural B. No sharps or flats.

2. From the B chord, the next step is another whole Tone: B > C > C♯. Remember, there is no B♯ or E♯ !

3. The next step in our pattern in an S. We only go up a Semitone: C♯ > D.

4. From the natural D, we have to go up a whole Tone: D > D♯ > E.

5. Go up another whole Tone: E > F > F♯. There is no E♯.

6. From F♯, we go up another whole Tone: F♯ > G > G♯.

7. And finally, a Semitone will bring us back to our main key: G♯ > A.

Major/Minor/Diminished chords: You can follow the pattern M-mi-mi-M-M-mi-dim-M to figure out which chords are major, minor, and diminished.

Our pattern says the second, third and sixth chords are minor. That means our B is a Bm, our C♯ is a C♯m and our F♯ is an F♯m. Let's update our chart:

Finally, we can add our diminished seventh chord and our chart for the key of A is complete! We now know what the seven chords are in this key.

Let's chart one more key:

Even though this key might use flats (spoiler: it does!) we will still be using sharps to move up to the next semitone for now, just like the last chart. I always start with sharps until I discover which accidental the key actually uses. I will show you how to figure this out for yourself in a moment

1. We will start in the key of F and fill in all of our chords using only one of each letter in alphabetical order:

2. Using our pattern T-T-S-T-T-T-S, we know we have to go up one whole Tone: F > F♯ > G.

3. Again, for the next chord we go up one whole Tone: G > G♯ > A.

4. Here is where things get interesting! Our next move is to go up one Semitone. Since we are using sharps to move up, you would normally go from A > A♯, but we cannot do that because it would give us two A chords. As you know, we can only have ONE of each letter in our chart. If you have filled in your letters, you will see that there is already a B waiting there. This tells us that we need a B♭ in the next spot and NOT an A♯!

!!!Now we know we are working in flats instead of sharps!!!

5. Back to our pattern, we go up another whole Tone from B♭ > B > C. Remember, there is no C♭!

6. Next in the pattern is a whole Tone: C > D♭ > D.

7. We go up another whole Tone: D > E♭ > E.

8. Finally, to get back to our key, we go up one Semitone: E > F. Remember, there is no F♭!

Major/Minor/Diminished chords

You can follow the pattern M-mi-mi-M-M-mi-dim-M to add in our minor and diminished chords to finish off our chart:

So now what?

Remember our cord sheet of "The Lazy Song"? If we used the chords that this contributor suggested, our chord chart for the key of B would look like this:

Can you spot the problem? Using the chords that are provided incorrectly, we are missing the D chord and we have two E chords. This is what happens when you write music and mix sharps and flats - you end up mixing keys!

The key to knowing whether you need a sharp or a flat is to follow the alphabet! If we take that key of B and write out our notes alphabetically, we would know that we need a D in the third spot like so:

Just follow your T T S T T T S pattern to determine your sharps or flats and then fill in your minor and diminished chords and you have correctly charted this key:

What key am I in?

Before you can write chord sheets, you have to figure out what key the song is in. This can be a simple answer or a complex one, depending on the song! Some songs switch keys in odd places, then switch back. Some pieces borrow chords from other keys throughout the whole song! There are a couple of rules that will help you determine what key you are writing in.

1. This may sound over simplified, but the first and/or last chord that is played in a song will often be the key you are in. Take our Bruno Mars song for example. It starts and ends on B.

2. How many chords match? If you have three or four chords from the key of B that match with the song, then your song is in the key of B, even if it doesn't start with that chord. Take a look at this version of "Runaway" by Ed Sheeran. The song does not start with a B chord, but it contains a G♯m, C♯m, E, F♯ and B. This is a pretty good indicator that the song is in the key of B.

This can also be referred to as the key of G♯m. It is called a "relative minor." The sixth note on our chord chart will always be our relative minor.

You should be able to use our patterns now to write out the rest of your chord chart! There are only a few more things to know before we are finished:

1. There is not a separate key for every single note in our scale. For instance, there is no key of A♯, but there is the key of B♭ which sounds the same. The circle of fifths below will show you what keys your chart should contain.

2. You will run into issues where you have to use chords that you have been taught do not exist! Yes, you will be writing out E♯, B♯, C♭, and F♭ on your chord chart! I will talk about this a little more on the next page.

3. The circle of fifths below will also show you how many sharps or flats are in a key. You can use this as a "cheat sheet" when building your chart. Earlier, we charted the key of F and we ended up with only one accidental: B♭. You can check the circle of fifths and it shows you that there is only one flat in that key, so you know our chart is correct.

4. The smaller letters on the inside indicate the relative minor of the key.

Exceptions to the rules:

Take a look at our completed chord chart below:

Yes, I know. I told you they did not exist, yet there they are! This is somewhat complex to explain, but I will try.

1. E♯, B♯, C♭, and F♭ do not technically exist as semitones in the major scale. There is no half-step between the notes of E and F or between B and C. If you look at a piano, you will see these as white keys next to each other. There is no sound between these notes.

2. That said, you can still use these names to identify a sound if you need to. One semitone up from B would normally be C. One semitone up from B could also be called B♯ but would still sound like a C. This is two names for the same note; the note that is next to B. One semitone lower than C would usually be a B in the major scale, but, you could call it a C♭ and it would still sound the same as a B.

3. This is a confusing concept, and it is much easier to say that these notes do not exist since most people will not have the occasion to use them. However, when you are writing out a chord chart like the one above, we do need to use them. Again, we go back to one of the golden rules in finding the chords in a key: we can only have ONE of each note in a key, in alphabetical order.

4. Take a look at the key of C♯. If you look at your circle of fifths, you will see that we need seven sharps in that key! Well, there are only seven different chords in a key. That means every single one is going to be a sharp, even the E♯ and B♯. Since we have to use each letter once, there is no way around it.

About the Author:
By Carrie Petri. Please contact me for comments or corrections: carriep63[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

26 comments sorted by best / new / date

    wow this is excellent work, don,t know much about music theory and can't read music, I just play by ear, but this is well helpful, great job
    B major and G# minor are different things. A song that is in G# minor can't be in B major at the same time. I mean, you must have heard about the "minor sounds sad, major sounds happy" generalization. It's a stupid generalization but it makes you understand that there's a big difference between a song in G#m and a song in B major. How to figure out whether you are in major or minor? You need to listen. Use your ears. Which of the chords feels like the "home base"? That's your key. That's the best way of figuring out the key because many songs use accidentals. For example if the progression is Em-A-C-D, how can you know whether it's in Em or D major? I mean, if you just look at the chords, three of them fit the Em scale and three of them fit the D major scale. It starts with Em but ends with D major so either of them could be the key, right? But if you listen to the sound, Em just feels like it's the tonic. When you play that D major chord, it doesn't feel complete. But if you end the progression with Em, it sounds complete. And how do you know if it's Em or G major? The scales have the same notes? As I said, Em feels like home so it is our key.
    Well said, MM. Theory without using your ear means as much as using your ear and ignoring the names of the sounds you hear. I think this issue is more about seeing transcriptions that use an A# in the key of F instead of a Bb. Yeah - same sound, but because it's a different relationship to F, an augmented 3rd, it can be confusing to the learning musician. Name notes within keys according to their relationships and everyone will hear them clearly in every context.
    Wow. GREAT lesson! I loved it... Being a music teacher and hopefully one day a university professor, one of my pet peeves is when musicians get the flat/sharp thing wrong. I think I got that from my theory / composition professor. Great job addressing it and I look forward to more lessons! -GS
    Great leSson, Carrie, and long overdue. Ten out of ten. It doesn't matter if you flat tune or modulates to another key, notes and therefore harmony, the chords maintAin their relationships. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or delusional. If this lesson makes a difference in only a handful of people on UG it will be worth your time and efforts.Those who choose to ignore key signatures and thereby the relationships of the sounds within it will do so no matter how much information they come across. I appreciate that you did this for the musicians who are passionate about learning the fundamentals of music. Thank you
    One trick I like to tell to my friends is this: You have to visualise the scale as a staircase,with each step being an individual note.Now in order for your staircase to be stable,each step needs to be small without long gaps in between. So if you were to write B Major as this B C# Eb E F# G# A# B You create a huge gap between C# and Eb .There is a D note that is missing there.And you also have E appear twice,which is prohibited too. Let's try again with D minor .Most people write it like this: D E F G A A# C D You have A appear twice,while there is a B missing between A# and C.So replace that A# with it's harmonic equivalent which is Bb and write the scale again. D E F G A Bb C D There it is.All you need to do is remember that each letter needs to appear at least once and only once.If a letter is missing you know for sure that you wrote something wrong.
    You've just sumed up the entire lesson. The lesson is very good, don't get me wrong, but your way of putting it is way easier to comprehend for those who don't have much theory knowledge.
    My problem with this idea is that you effectively treat A and A# as the same key, which they're not. They are two completely unique keys whose nomenclature happens to both stem from the major scale. This only really applies to Western music theory. To put it simply, there are 12 notes in an octave, not 7. What is wrong with having big gaps or multiple letters in the same scale? It happens all the time in non-heptatonic scales. In my opinion, #s are purely useful when indicating that a note or key has been augmented, and bs when diminished.
    Yes,you are right.I'm not saying it's the holy bible of scale theory.As I've said it's a little trick and tricks always have exceptions.But for most western music it's an easy and fast way to check for errors and most of the time it get's the job done. I still think you should learn theory though.
    In formal (and yes, Western) music theory, scale degrees and not half/whole steps are discussed. And the diatonic scales (major, all minors) must include members of each letter (A, B, C, ..., G). So starting with D natural minor, we write the letters down: D E F G A B C D The natural minor scale formula is WHWWWHW (W = whole step, H = half step), so we must change the B to B-flat, resulting in: D E F G A Bb C D TL;DR - diatonic scales are named based on letter order FIRST and accidentals second. If we're going the non-Western theory route, I propose to you that there are infinitely many possible notes in one octave. We're just used to instruments that are divided into 12 roughly-even notes. But scales are different. I'm not sure what you mean by augmenting/diminishing a key, but again, scale (and indeed chord) construction lies first in the intervals. Any third above D will have an F in its name, and the accidentals are added after the fact based on interval size (for D-natural, Fb = diminished, F = minor, F# = major, F## = augmented). Hope that makes sense!
    I think you are refering to Joeseye and not me,right? If that's the case I think that by key he means 'piano key' not 'musical key',so both of you are saying the same thing.(which is exactly the way accidentals and intervals should be approached). Unfortunately music theory does not translate well into text,so I think we should stop expanding on the topic in order to avoid confusing future readers
    Yeah, I don't know what happened to the reply thing, it was directed to Joeseye, sorry I think my disagreement was mainly on the last two lines: defining "large gaps" and how to approach naming scale notes. But with the clarification (and a bunch of rereading, since I can't interpret premise without more text), it seems like all three of us are pretty much in agreement. And fair enough on the last point. Theory is easier done than said (or written)!
    Homey Cool
    Yes, I am new to anything theoretical in the physical realm and I feel I learned 3 different ways of accomplishing/understanding the same complex simplicity of what the hell it is I'm hearing/playing/writing. Excellent knowledge and advice from all. Bravo Gents - TheHomeyOne
    Thanks for the great article. Maybe as a follow-up, it would be good to talk about minor keys and leading tones, as well as secondary dominants and the different types of diminished 7th chords. This definitely covers 80% of the nomenclature-related theory, though!
    Fantastic article!! I've played by ear all of my life with very limited music theory knowledge. I took one guitar lesson years ago and the guy told me 'well you can already play, so take a look at this' and handed me a chart of the circle of fifths. It meant nothing to me. I finally understand how to build a chord chart and where the circle originates! Can't wait to learn more
    You have gone way into stuff that people never use... Especially nowadays. This is why bands tend to focus on the 'normal keys' like A minor or E minor or G major. Classical musicians did that too. especially in the guitar you can use a capo and solve all of your transcribing problems.
    Not for those with perfect pitch, and for transcribers. High-quality official transcriptions require a measure of music theory knowledge combined with an ear to apply the theory. Players can then read the sheet music/tab just fine, and theory-trained players can find patterns or simplify songs down quickly. The second part, about musicians, is an incorrect generalization. Up until about 300 years ago, there were different, non-equal temperament (ET) tuning standards that rendered some keys nigh unplayable. But somewhere in the middle of the history of tuning, some composers cared for the uneven character of some keys and put them in songs anyways. (Also, ET tuning algorithms weren't stabilized until about 100 years ago.) Thus, the tuning instability (that still exists today, but to a limited extent) gave color to the keys. I am writing as a principal pianist who took up guitar, but you should also look at jazz, whose guitarists do not often use capo unless necessary.
    Thanks man! I always like to learn stuff from schooled musician like yourself. I have never taken any lesson what so ever, so I cant know much...
    No problem! If you look hard enough, there are definitely free theory and technique sites out there. Feel free to ask more questions - that is what the world lacks!
    I don't think guitarists care that much about what key they are playing in because most don't use notation but think more in fingerings. I would say the most common keys for guitar are (both major and minor) E, A, D, G, C, B (mostly minor) and F# (mostly minor). Why those are common keys is because of the open strings. But many guitarists tune 1/2 step lower. For example Hendrix played in 1/2 step down tuning so many of his songs are in the key of Eb or Ab minor. Also, sometimes you modulate and then a "normal key" may not be an option. Modulating a half step up isn't that rare. For example if you are in Am and modulate a half step up, your new key is A#m or Bbm. And that's not rare at all.
    But some people like me will use this. Sometimes I'm composing in wierd keys, because I'm too lazy to transpose and I like to keep my sheets clean (pun intended).
    Great lesson! Very complete and understandable explanation. Great job!! Thanks FP