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Understanding Sharps ♯, Flats ♭, and Naturals ♮ in Music 

 February 26, 2024

By  Kale Good

Understanding sharps, flats, and naturals is essential in learning how to read music and understand basic music theory. This article will dive deeply into sharps, flats, and naturals. By the time you're done, you'll know just about everything there is to know about sharps and flats. In fact, you might know too much. 

C C

Finding a C♯ on Piano. 

In this article, I'll use "key signature" and "key" interchangeably. 

Most people coming here will be playing piano or guitar. I'll be using piano keyboards and guitar fretboards to illustrate my points. 

We'll also be using English note names. Apologies if you name notes using fixed do or another naming system.

What are the symbols for sharps and flats?

Let's get this out of the way first. Here's a flat symbol (♭). It looks like a lowercase b. In fact, you'll often see a lowercase b used to represent a flat sign. 

And here's a sharp symbol (♯). This one often gets represented as a hashtag, number, or pound sign. No, not this pound sign £. This one: # 

Sharp Symbol

Flat Symbol


What are sharps and flats in music?

Sharps and flats are used to name specific music notes. They're also used to describe the action of changing the pitch of a note. 

Sharps and Flats as Note Names

I assume you're already familiar with the musical alphabet; the notes A B C D E F G. Those 7 notes are enough to make 95% of music (as long as we only play in C major). Unfortunately, you'd be limited to C major and A minor. And you couldn't give the song any unique extra color by using chromatic notes. 

Let's take a look at the musical alphabet on the piano keyboard and the guitar fretboard.

Remember, the musical alphabet repeats forever and ever and can start on any note.

C D E F G A B

Piano Keyboard with Musical Alphabet

notes on the guitar fretboard

Guitar Fretboard with Musical Alphabet

Obviously, there are many notes we need to use that are outside the musical alphabet. The black keys on the keyboard and the gaps on the fretboard are the notes that the musical alphabet doesn't give a name to unless we use sharps and flats.

 Here are the keyboard and fretboard with the sharps and flats filled in. 

C C D D D E E F F G G G A A A B B

Piano Keyboard with Sharps and Flats.

Guitar Fretboard with Sharps and Flats

Common Questions

Why do some notes have two names?

There's a term for this. Notes that share a name are called enharmonic notes or enharmonic equivalents. F♯ is the same as G♭; they are enharmonic notes or enharmonic equivalents. 

Why have two names for the same note? 

It all comes down to ensuring our music is easy to read. In fact, we'll see this as a theme as we answer a few different questions about sharps and flats. 

For example, here's a D major scale written using the correct accidentals needed to create a D major scale. Those accidentals are F♯ and C♯. The scale has one each note from the musical alphabet; D E F(♯) G A B C(♯) D. And the scale goes up the staff alternating between spaces and lines. This close visual relationship mirrors the close musical relationship of these notes. It makes it easier to read than most alternatives.

D major scale

Here is the same exact scale, written using the Enharmonic Equivalents. Instead of only two accidentals, we now have 2 accidentals (G♭ and D♭) and two naturals (G♮ and D♮). This isn't very clear.

D major scale written with Enharmonic Equivalents

Additionally, our scale doesn't move smoothly through the musical alphabet; instead, D and G have two versions while there is no version of F and C. Here's how it looks written out. D E G♭ G♮ A B D♭ D♮. Additionally, in this version of the scale, we have some spaces that aren't even used while some lines are used twice. All of this combines to make this very challenging to read. 

Why not just avoid flats altogether then? Well, we'd loose the enormous variety of scales, chords, and keys that we use to maximize our expressiveness in music. 

Why are there no C♭ or B♯? Why no F♭ or E♯?

First of all, these notes all exists but are rarely used. That's because they all have much more common enharmonic equivalents: 

  • F♭ = E.  
  • C♭= B
  • B♯= C
  • E♯ = F

How this happens will be clear once you understand how to adjust notes to find their sharped and flatted versions. 

But why aren't there extra notes between B and C, or E and F?

Why this is is more complicated, involves a lot of fractions and ratios, and won't increase your practical understanding of music notation. I'll give you a quick explanation to satiate your curiosity anyway.

Basically, humans like the sounds of simple fractions and ratios. The most important fractions are ½ and ⅔. A string divided in ½ will create a pitch 1 octave higher than the original. A string divided by ⅔ will create a very pleasant sound called a fifth.

You can keep dividing by ⅔ and eventually, you'll wind up right back where you started (except in a much higher octave, but we kinda ignore that and cram everything into one octave). If you do this, you'll end up with 12 notes dividing the octave.

The short answers is that a scale with 7 note provides the widest available option of pleasant sounding chords and melodic lines. Those 7 notes can all be found using what is called a "half-step". It takes 12 equally sized half-steps to get from one note to the same note one octave higher.  

Why don't sharps and flats have their own names?

95% or more of most songs are written using the same 7 notes for 95% of the song (or more). The current way of writing music using sharps and flats is optimized to make it easy to see the relationship between those 7 notes and name them using the first 7 letters of the alphabet.  

Our current staff uses sharps and flats to make the relationship between those 7 notes very clear, regardless of which set of 7 (out of the 11 possible notes) you're using.

D major Scale

I did a mock-up of what a staff with a scale would look like if we expanded the names of notes and excluded sharps and flats. The staff is much larger, making quick identification more difficult. Additionally, this simple scale no longer alternates between lines and spaces. Its irregular spacing pattern makes it much more difficult to read.

C major scale on imaginary staff that has individual note names for each note

For a deep dive into the problems of music notation and attempts to improve it, check out my favorite YouTuber's excellent video, Notation Must Die: The Battle for How We Read Music

What Sharps and Flats Do In Music

Sharps and Flats as Actions Words

Sharp and flat describe a change in pitch; they make notes go higher or lower. 

To "sharp" (♯) a note means raising it's pitch. This means that a G♯ is higher than a G. In fact, G♯ is a ½-step higher than G. 

To "flat" (♭) a note means lowering its pitch. A flat (♭) note will be a ½-step lower. 

Another way that the terms sharp (♯) and flat (♭) are used is to describe out-of-tune playing. Here, people do not use sharp or flat to describe a ½-step difference because a ½-step difference isn't out-of-tune, it's an entirely different note!

If someone says, "You're playing the B a little sharp," it means you're playing out-of-tune, and the pitch is too high. You might be playing a note that is supposed to have 440 vibrations per second at 445 vibrations per second. So, to fix this, you need to play a little lower (or flatter). 


The Trick To Remember What Sharps and Flats Do

Flats go down: When your bike tire goes flat, it goes down. 

Sharps Go Up: When you dress sharp, you dress up. 

How to Read and Play Sharps and Flats in Music

So, we know why we have sharps and flats, how they look, and what they do. Next, we need to learn how to play them. 

To reiterate: A sharped note, such as G♯, is a ½-step higher than its un-sharped version (G). 

To play G♯, first find G, then play the next-highest note. 

Remember:

♯ Sharps Go Up ↑

♭ Flats Go Down ↓

On Guitar

The guitar is easier to visualize this on, so we'll do that first. Remember that 1 fret = ½ step.

To play G♯ on guitar:

  1. Find G
  2. Move 1 fret higher.
G G♯ Music engraving by LilyPond 2.24.3—www.lilypond.org

How to play a Sharp note on Guitar: G♯

Guitarists: Make sure you move to a higher pitch. That means closer to the body of the guitar, not the ceiling. 

Similarly, to play D♭, find D and move down a ½-step. 

D D♭

How to play a Flat Note On Guitar: D♭

On Piano

The piano is more confusing because some of the keys have two notes that touch them on either (or both) the sharp and flat sides. 

The rule for piano is: If there's a black key, that black key is the next ½-step. The white key is the next ½-step if there's no black key (however, you won't end up using those accidentals very often). 

Below is how you would find C♯on piano.

First, find C. Then, move up a ½ step to C♯

C C

Playing a C♯on Piano

For D♭, do the same thing. Find D, and then move down a ½-step to the black key. 

B B

Playing a C♯on Piano

Now you know sharps and flats and how to play them. But do you know what a natural sign does? Or what an accidental is? Or.... THE BAR LINE RULE?!?

What are Naturals in music?

Naturals are often skipped over when people first start learning about accidentals. Still, they're just as crucial as sharps and flats. Here's a natural: ♮

Natural Sign

What do naturals do?

Naturals cancel out a sharp or a flat. You may have sharped D for fun and want to go back to playing it the usual, diatonic way. Or your key signature has some sharps or flats in it, and you want to change those notes to play a chromatic note by using those notes without sharps or flats. 

The natural is how you make that happen. 

Music engraving by LilyPond 2.24.3—www.lilypond.org Same Note!

A natural Sign Cancels a Sharp or Flat.

How to play a natural

A natural note is just the regular version of the note. The natural symbol is only needed after a sharp or flat is applied to a note. 

So, G♮ is just an instruction to play a regular G. It is not an enharmonic equivalent or a unique name for G. It only means to play a regular ol' G. 

Wait, What's an Accidental?

As you get comfortable with sharps and flats and further learn how to read music and understand theory, you will encounter some vocabulary around sharps and flats that can be confusing. 

Let's start by breaking things down into the Absolute category and the Relative category. 

Absolute

Vocab terms in this section are always the same; it doesn't matter what key you're in or what other notes are being played around your sharps, flats, and naturals. For example, a G♯ is always a G♯. 

  • Sharp: higher
  • Flat: lower
  • Natural: normal

Relative

Vocab terms in this section depend on what key you are performing in (if you don't know what a key or key signature is, think about it as the scale you're using for the song). Throughout this example, we'll use the D major scale as our example scale. 

  • Diatonic Notes: The 7 notes of the scale. Depending on the scale, there may be either sharps or flats (but never both) and natural notes. These notes are the ones used to play almost all of the music in the piece. Let's use the example of D major. The diatonic notes in D major are D E F♯ G A B C♯ D (note: everything without a sharp in this scale is a natural note. We don't write out the naturals because they are assumed). 
  • Chromatic Notes: Notes that are not in the scale. Using these notes gives the music a lot of color, hence the name chromatic (chroma = color). When using the same D major scale above, G♯ would be a chromatic note because it's not in the scale. 
  • Accidentals: Accidentals are the sharps, flats, or naturals applied to a note to make it chromatic. The ♯ we used to make G♯ is an accidental. Similarly, the ♭ on E would be an accidental. Finally, it's essential to realize that a ♮ sign on the F♯ in D major would also be an accidental, because F♯ is a diatonic note and playing an F♮ would be a chromatic note. However, a D♮ wouldn't be an accidental, as D is in the scale (diatonic). 
    • Some people also use accidental to refer to chromatic notes. 
Music engraving by LilyPond 2.24.3—www.lilypond.org Chromatic Notes Accidentals

Chromatic notes are different than the key signature. 
Accidentals modify notes.

Unlabeled notes are all diatonic (unaltered from what the key signature indicates).

Why does my accidental appear in parenthesis?

Throughout this article, I've occasionally interjected the accidental symbols inside the parenthesis (♯) to help you remember the symbols. 

However, you may be surprised to learn that parenthesis around an accidental is something that you may run into in music. 

These accidentals are called "courtesy" or "reminder" accidentals. They're usually used in confusing sections of music or in beginner-reader books to remind the performer what a note should be played as.

Courtesy Sharp

Courtesy Flat

Courtesy Natural

You'll play many wrong notes if you don't know the Accidental Rule. 

This crucial rule is tricky to get the hang of but crucially important. In fact, it's one of the most common causes of mistakes for beginners and one of the most frequent places you may see courtesy accidentals in beginner-reader music books. 

  1. Accidentals (remember, that's ♯, ♮ , and ♭, depending on the key signature) apply to all notes of the exact same pitch until they are canceled out. 
    1. When I say exact same pitch, I mean exact. Accidentals in one staff do not apply to notes in the other staff (because they are a different pitch). Accidentals in one octave do not apply to notes of the same name in a different octave (because they are a different pitch). (however, the sharps and flats in a key signature do apply to all notes of a certian name... but that's for a different article)
  2. There are only two things that can cancel out an accidental:
    1. another accidental
    2. a bar line. 

Those rules seem simple enough, but they can lead to significant confusion because notes that look the same can be very different. Take the following example:

Music Snippet showing the complexities of accidental cancellation. 

Here is how that example works. In order:

  1. F. No changes to it. 
  2. This note is also just F. 
  3. F♯. Because of the sharp sign. 
  4. This note doesn't have any sharp sign. But it's still sharp! That's because this F was sharp (by the previous note), and that sharp has yet to be canceled. 
  5. This note looks precisely the same as the one before it, so surely it must be an F♯, right? Nope! The barline has canceled out the sharp. This note is F. 

And, as confusing as that is, that's an example written for clarity's sake. It is typically much more challenging to keep track of accidentals in actual music because the musical line moves around a lot more. 

It's essential to remember these rules, so I made some music theory memes to help them stick in your mind. 

There is a distinction between accidentals and sharps and flats in key signatures. Sharps and flats in key signatures apply to all notes of a specific name (for example, every A in every octave will be A♯ if the key signature contains A♯).

However, accidentals only apply to the exact note in the exact octave they are written on. So if A440 is sharped by an accidental, A880 is not.

Now I know how to read accidentals. why do we need them?

This can be broken down into 2 sub-questions. The first (Why don't we give them their own names?) was answered above; using sharps and flats means every key has some combination of the notes A B C D E F and G, which makes reading and understanding music much more manageable. 

The second question is, "Why do we use them in music?"

First, we can use any key when sharps and flats are used to make key signatures. Without accidentals, we're limited to C major and A minor. With accidentals, we can use any key we want. 

Using sharps and flats to create key signatures, we can write songs in B♭ major, G♯ minor, or any key we want. Among other benefits, this range expansion allows us to make the music fit people's voices and individual instruments better. 

When accidentals are used to alter notes in a piece of music, they heighten tension and create an incredibly dramatic feeling. They're often called chromatic notes becayse they add color (chroma) to the music. 

And, for maximum drama, you can combine these two things and change keys in the middle of a piece of music. 

Why are sharps and flats written in front of the note?

By now, you may have noticed that I'm consistently writing the sharp after the note in the text of the article (F♯). However, it appears in reverse order in the actual music (♯F). 

This is because, when reading music (especially sight reading music), the performer must know that they must alter the note before they play it. So, the accidental goes first. Just imagine the disaster of someone playing music for the first time, playing an F, and only then noticing the sharp sign that follows it. 

What are all the Sharps and Flats?

The most common sharps are:

G♯ A♯ C♯ D♯ F♯

The most common flats are

A♭ B♭ D♭ E♭ G♭

But every note has a sharp and flat version. Even though there's no black key for the, there are C♭and B♯, as well as F♭ and E♯. 

What other kinds of accidentals are there?

Oh boy. There's a whole world of accidentals out there that you'll never run into. The most common, by far, is the double sharp (𝄪) and double flat (𝄫), which mean to move two ½-steps rather than one ½ step (If you're good at math, you'll know that means that a double sharp = ½ step + ½ step = 1 whole step). 

There are also microtonal accidentals, although they're scarce. They move the note less than a ½-step (. Now, a half-step is the smallest space between keys on a piano and between frets on a guitar. That means you can't play these on piano and can only play them on guitar using bends. 

Here's a list of double-, quarter-, and three-quarters sharps and flats. 

Double Sharp

Double Flat

¼ Sharp

¼ Flat

¾ Sharp

¾ Flat

Double Sharp

Double Flat

¼ Sharp

¼ Flat

¾ Sharp

¾ Flat

What is the order of sharps and flats?

When used as accidentals, there is no "order" to sharps and flats; they show up when needed. 

When used in key signatures, sharps and flats appear in the order that they occur in the circle of fifths. That'll be covered in-depth in a different article, but I'll give you the basics here: 

Flats appear in the following order:

BEADGCF

That's easiest to memorize by breaking it in two: BEAD-GCF (the word bead, like a hair bead or a bead of sweat, plus GCF)

Sharps need a slightly more complex mnemonic. I remeber them as BEAD-GCF in reverse.

Sharps appear in the following order:

FCG DAEB

You can use a clever phrase to help you remember the order of sharps. I like "Funky Chickens Get Down At Every Barnyard".

What is the Unicode for sharps, flats, and Naturals?

If you want to type Unicode music symbols in your text as I've been, you can use the following Unicode input

: u+266f

: u+266e

: u+266d

In summary, the rules of sharps and flats. 

Sharps go up, flats go down, naturals revert to the basic note. 

Accidentals persist until the barline. Accidentals do not pass through a barline. I SAID ACCIDENTALS DON'T CARRY OVER A BARLINE

Accidentals only apply to a pitch of a specific octave (vs. Key Signatures, which apply to any octave). 

Finally

To understand sharps and flats and how to read music, you need to read my how-to-read music guide and my forthcoming guide for key signatures. 

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

  • I have a question…does an accidental in the treble clef carry over to the base clef? I am doing some work on the Rach #1 piano concerto and I was told that I should be using C#s in the base when clearly C naturals are in the treble clef.

    • Great question! Accidentals do not carry over into a different clef. In fact, unlike the sharps and flats in a key signature, accidentals (written in the music next to notes) don’t even carry over into the same note in a different octave, much less into a different staff.

      And, small spelling tip: Bass clef is spelled like the fish (Sea Bass), but pronounced like the bottom of something (how you spelled it; base).

  • Thanks for writing this up. You answered my novice-level question: what’s the notation to sharp and sharp or flat a flat!

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