It's Time to Finally Learn the Difference Between Sharps and Flats

A# or Bb? What's the difference? Who cares? Why do I need to know this?

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A# or Bb? What's the difference? Who cares? Why do I need to know this?

You don't need to know, the terms are essentially interchangeable, and the only people who care are people who you normally wouldn't want to associate with anyways, i.e. the classically educated music snob.

But why SHOULD you learn? Because at this moment, that very same music snob has a piece of information that you don't. Information that he/she can, and will, hold over you, making you feel inferior at their very first chance. It's time to fight back.

A great way to think about it, for guitarists especially, is that the main scale we use, the major scale, has seven notes. The notes are represented by seven letters of the alphabet, and other notes occur between these notes. For example:

A - A#/Bb - B - C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab

Now when you think of a scale, pretend that every one of those letters needs to be represented in some way. Let's take D for example. It doesn't matter if it's D, D#, or Db, every key needs to have some kind of D in it. Now let's look at the notes in the key of E major.

E - F# - G# - A - B - C# - D# - E

The reason that the seventh note in that key is a D#, and not an Eb, is that the key already has an E, but if the seventh note were referred to as Eb, there would be no D note represented. Or look at the second note, F#. We could refer to that as a Gb, but then we'd have two Gs and no Fs.

One more example, the key of Bb:

Bb - C - D - Eb - F - G - A - Bb

This is referred to as the key of Bb, and not the key of A#. If it were the key of A#, the seventh note would still be an A. Everyone in the world will know what you're talking about but some will say it's "wrong" to be in the key of A#.

In reality, referring to the second note in the key of E as a Gb would only be problematic if you were writing the notation out on a staff (you'd be trying to cram two different notes into the spot associated with Gs note), but there will always be some snob out there trying to correct you, even when they know exactly what you're trying to say.

It all comes down to communication, and musicians of different skill levels and philosophies have always had issues getting their ideas across to each other. So be the bigger person here and throw the classically-trained musician a bone. Odds are, they hurt inside and are deeply jealous of the ease we guitar players achieve glory.


By Sean Daniel

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    MaggaraMarine
    Using correct note names also has to do with function. If we are in the key of E major and you say "the song has an Ab minor chord", it just sounds confusing. I would expect there to be a modulation or something strange to happen if I heard something like that. And how a note/chord functions is pretty essential to how it sounds like.
    P_Trik
    It never ceases to amaze me that something so simple is so controversial and I'm grateful for the people who influenced my early musical education. Take any occupation as an example, call their tools and terms by improper names and see what reaction you get from the people doing the job. Think doctor and mechanic. Knifey thingy and wrenchy thingy. Notes and scales are descriptive of their relationships within a musical passage. Knowing the names of these sounds and their interactions allows an educated musician to know what's going on in a song before they even pick up their guitar. It's unfortunate that ignorance is applauded and knowledge is scorned in some circles. Kudos to those learning musicians who read these articles and comments and are persistent and dedicated enough to continue learning despite the negative noise. Best to each of you
    gwangi7777
    Great comment! Mind that most people who start playing instruments do not realize it's "science" if I may use this metaphor. They believe it can just come to you and studying is for "snobs".
    NeoMvsEu
    "If it were the key of A#, the seventh note would still be an A." No. Absolutely not. The seventh note has to be a seventh away in general intervals. For the notes A B C D E F G, G is a seventh higher than A (a note to itself is a first away, more standardly known as a unison). In specific intervals, the G-type note has to be a major seventh higher A#. That places the G-note exactly where A should be, but it is called G double sharp. All diatonic scales contain the seven note names, regardless of accidentals.
    acglee
    You are nitpicking there. He didn't mean seventh note as in a (minor) seventh interval - he just meant the seventh occurring note in the scale.
    NeoMvsEu
    My point still stands for both cases. It still has to be a G-type note. But now that you've gone to defend him - why did you write only minor parenthetically? And really, who is the bigger snob: the classical theorist he postulates, or himself in his last sentence?
    eddievanzant
    Jeez man. Music theory isn't that hard. Snobs are lame but these comments are dumb as fuck. We use Bb instead of A# because saying G double sharp sounds dumb but it would technically be correct. Sheet music is written with the circle of fifths in mind. First flat is B (For the key of F). Then E (Bb), A (Eb), D (Ab), G (Db), C (Gb). Notice the note being flatted is a fifth lower than the last, and also ends up being the next key. At the very least try to understand the difference between I, IV and V j or Ionian, Lydian, and mixolydian. One fret is a half, two is a whole. From C in C It goes W W H W W W H From G in C it goes W W H W W H W That is known as dominant or mixolydian. It's the same notes but starts on the fifth note. The point is that the key of G is only one note away from the key of C because G is the fifth of C. All you have to do is make the F sharp and you've moved from dominant to Ionian. Theory is cool. It shows you how to borrow chords, how to shift keys, and how to know what notes you're playing (no way). Learn the key of G at first position. Now move those notes up and start at the fifth fret. Then D at 10. Add C in open position. I just showed you all the notes on the fret board for the key of C in only three shapes. Cool huh. There's four more shapes and only one note changes per shape.
    jvokes
    Great lesson well delivered. I always shy away from theory as it gets too bogged down in technicality for me, and most theory teachers in my experience, either talk down to you or don't really know how to teach. However, I have genuinely learned something here, so thanks.
    gwangi7777
    Thanks for the article. Personally, I think if a person genuinely loves their instrument, they'll try to be proficient in every aspect of it- theoretical or not. I don't get it when people say "Why do I need this?"- meaning they don't have a broad musical knowledge. Generally, almost all musical theory is based on keyboard instruments and theological music.So many aspects of it seem weird on the guitar, but it makes sense if you know piano. A lot of things that seem confusing were created for ease, but seem confusing at first
    r0b0tsquidz
    There still is no difference. That "music snob" is a wanker. Notes are frequencies, scales are the sets of intervals between them, which is why each scale exists for each note (and even pitches not on the western scale). It's bad enough having seven names when there are clearly 12 different notes, without introducing this nonsense to muddy the waters further. We should have dropped these note names when we moved to equal temperament. As for the guy claiming A should be called G sharp sharp - you're a moron. Go play a guitar instead of wanking over inconsequential detail.