The Key Signature Guide to Sharps and Flats

Learning to read music is like learning a new language. Music notation tells you what pitches to play and how fast or slow to play them. It also provides clues that help you express the music’s emotion.

Among the most common and useful symbols are sharps and flats [1].

What do these symbols mean? How do they affect the notes you’re playing?

If you’re new to music, don’t worry! Figuring out what sharps and flats do to pitches is simple once you understand a few basic concepts. We’ll go over them here so you’ll be able to read music like a professional. Let’s go!

Introduction: Sharp and Flat Notes

To understand sharps and flats, try visualizing a keyboard. You can play these altered pitches on any instrument, but, for now, it helps to picture a keyboard’s white and black keys.

The black keys follow a pattern, forming ascending groups of twos and threes. Below each group of two black keys is the pitch C. This is true for the entire keyboard.

Starting at C and continuing up the white keys are the following pitches: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. After B, the pattern repeats.

Whole steps or half steps separate these pitches from each other. Between E and F as well as B and C are half steps. Whole steps separate the other white-key pitches:

  • C to D
  • D to E
  • F to G
  • G to A
  • A to B

This half-step, a whole-step distinction is an important point we’ll discuss later. For now, let’s see what happens when you add sharps and flats.

The Differences Between Sharps and Flats

What happens when you add either a sharp or a flat to any of the above pitches? The sharp sign or symbol raises the note’s pitch by a half step. A flat symbol, on the other hand, lowers it by the same.

For example, a notated C tells you to play the white key C on the keyboard. But, a notated C-sharp alerts you to raise that C by a half step. You’d then play the black key to the right of C.

This rule applies to any sharp even for the double sharp.  It always raises the notated pitch by a half step.

The flat symbol tells you to perform the opposite action, lowering the pitch by a half step. For example, if you see a written B-flat, you lower B by a half step, playing the black key to the left of white-key B.

Again, a flat symbol always tells you to lower the pitch by a half step. It doesn’t matter what the original notated pitch is.

That’s all there is to it. In the next section, let’s look at some quirky concepts that can be confusing.

Flat Versus Sharp: Some Common Misunderstandings

Some pitches have more than one name.

Take the note G. To raise it a half step, add a sharp and play the black key to the right of white-key G. That’s G-sharp.

But, now, look at A. To bring it down a half step, add a flat. That’s A-flat, located to the left of white-key A.

Notice here you play G-sharp and A-flat with the same black key. This single pitch, then, has two different names.

Which one you use depends on whether you want to raise or lower the original pitch. Enharmonic notes are the fancy name for pitches that have different names but sound the same [2].

One Last Note About Adding Sharps and Flats

Remember that some white keys are separated only by a half step. They’re E and F and B and C.

What happens, then, when you add a sharp to these pitches? Do you play another white key?

The answer is yes. E-sharp raises E by a half step, giving you the note that sounds like written F. For this reason, play F when you see E-sharp.

The same goes for C-flat. The flat symbol lowers written C by a half step, giving you the same pitch as B. You’d play B on the keyboard.

Composers notate pitches this way for a reason. For now, practice your scales and arpeggios in many different keys (including ones with lots of sharps and flats). That’s the best way to make playing C-sharp as easy as C!

Conclusion: Sharps and Flats

Now you understand what sharps and flats do to pitches. You’re on your way to playing music like a pro!

With time and practice, you’ll be able to read music in any key, no matter how many sharps or flats it contains!

You also need to familiarize yourself of the music note names and ledger lines.

Stephanie Su

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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