B and E sharp

Why is it that B and E don’t have sharp notes? Is there any particular reason or is it “just because”? Are sharp notes somehow less important than the other notes, or is it just the name that they’ve been given?

These are the things that keep me awake at 2 in the morning. Help fight my ignorance and let me get a little sleep. :slight_smile:


they do have sharp notes, b# is c and e# is f . also… c flat is b and f flat is e…(though this’ll probably lead to more sleep loss )

Look on a piano: between the white keys there aren’t always black keys. “Sharp” just means the closest note up from a white key. For B and E, this is another white key. You can call them B# and E#, but they are the same as C and F.

Which frequency a named note refers to is a matter of convention. Pitch has gradually risen over the centuries, so what used to be an A used to be a A#.

I think it’s pretty much “just because.” There may be an historical reason, but there’s not really a musical one. It’s essentially convention.

A major scale in the key of C has no flats or sharps (all white piano keys). I could see where this might have something to do with how our Western system of music was set up.

Well as far as I know it’s different if you’re on an instrument such as violin than on a piano. The ideas mentioned above are true for a piano, although sometimes you see something like F## and you wonder why they don’t just say “G”, it could have to do with the key sign.

In singing and on a stringed instrument I think there is a slight difference between something like E# and F. But I’m not a string player, someone else should confirm this.

There is no difference between E# and F beyond the name. There are other tones in between, but within that naming convention, there is no difference. The reason why E and B don’t have sharps (or why C and F don’t have flats) is simply a matter of definition.

All musical notes are simply variations in frequency of vibration of air. The consonances and dissonances between notes are products of adding the frequencies. Small whole number ratios generally sound “Nicer”.

Western scales are defined in terms Half steps (H). A half step is one of 12 equal steps from a given frequency to its octave tone, which is exactly double its frequency. The frequency ratio of a perfect half step is constant, and is about 1.06:1. Two half-steps make a Whole Step (W).

The major scale, the one you’re used to hearing, that sounds upbeat and happy, and makes you feel good when the chord resolves is defined as W,W,H,W,W,W,H. The names of the notes are defined in terms of the Major scale:

C to D is a Whole step. (C#/D-flat is the note in between)
D to E is a W (D#/E-flat is between)
E to F is a Half Step (no note inbetween)
F to G is a W (F#/G-flat)
G to A is a W (G#/A-flat)
A to B is a W (A#/B-flat)
B to C is a H (no note in between)

Sharps and flats are simply named so because they are the notes between the whole steps in the major scale. You can sharp, flat, double-sharp and double-flat any note. That’s just the process of incrementing or decrementing the pitch by a half-step.

Look here for a little clearer discussion than mine.

Joe Cool has described the equal temperament scale. This actually represents a bit of a compromise. The real “pleasing intervals” use something called “just intonation”. The drawback would be that this would require a different tuning for each key, to use exact ratios 1, 9/8, 5/4, 4/3, 3/2, 5/3, 15/8, 2 to construct the scale.

The equal temperament scale which divides the octave into 12 steps allows these ratios to be approximated pretty closely in all keys via the pattern that Joe Cool described, and makes it practical to construct keyboard instruments. Players of instruments which do not have fixed stops, like a violin, can play with just intonation, which is what a player of such an instrument is getting at when they suggest that E# is NOT F.

As any guitarist knows, tuning of a fretted instrument represents a similar compromise. Take your guitar, and tune so that a folk D chord sounds absolutely, dead-on “right”. An A will sound horrid, because you’ve “cheated” your tuning so that the intervals produced in the D chord pattern are just. It drives a different pattern like the A even further off than tuning the strings to their exact equal temperament pitches and spreading the error, which is what most of us do in this age of electronic tuners.

Some background:


Gah, you beat me to it, yabob. But I will say, in answer to the OP, that there is such a thing as B-sharp, only in equal temperament it is the same as C. In other temperaments, it isn’t. If you start on C and move up by 12 perfect fifths (7 semitones), on a piano or guitar you’d end up back on C. But if you use the Pythagorean perfect fifth (a frequency ratio of 3/2), as people did before equal temperament was devised, you end up on a B# which is slightly higher than C.

OK, yabob and Usram, if there really is such a thing as B-sharp (as slightly distinct from C), at least for non-fixed-stop instruments, then how come we never hear about any composer writing a Prelude in B-sharp, or an Invention in F-flat, or a Canon in E-sharp? Or am I mistaken and such pieces really do exist?

One of the reasons that no one wrote pieces like that is that for instruments such as the violin, where B# really means something, one of the things it means is that it is a passing note on the way to the next note up - C#, in this case. In other words, it often functions as a leading tone (trust me on this) to a higher note. Consequently, it’s not a very good stopping or starting place. This is a performance issue. It does exist in a lot of music written in the key of c# minor, a fairly common key, and in the key of C# Major, a less common key. But, as a practical matter, to write a piece in B# major, you’d have to write the piece in a key signature that no one would be able to read and it would be extremely cumbersome. As I think about it, I believe the key of B# would have to have three sharps and four double sharps. And god help you if you modulated to a key of secondary dominance, or farther. No - it’s pretty much of a theoretical notion that performers FEEL, but the distinction becomes pretty meaningless when you try to write music in such a key. (I bet this doesn’t help much.)

I knew I forgot something. I really did mean to include this, but in all the re-edits I ended up leaving it out. thanks for the save. :slight_smile:

I think it is simply because there is a convention that each note in a musical scale is represented by a different letter (it makes musical scores easier to read). Take the G#-major scale; one way of writing it is G#, A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, F##, which includes the ugly double-sharp F##. But whichever way you slice it, you can’t avoid using F##, if you want to assign a different letter to each note. That’s why you sometimes see things like F##, and indeed B#.

I’d guess that it’s because, before equal temperament arrived, composers only used the keys that ‘worked’; after equal temperament, they could use any key they liked, but there was no point in using B-sharp, because they might as well call it C.

I came in here ready to educate, but Joe Cool covered it in a slamdunk with some whipped cream on top.

Whole step
Whole step
Half step
Whole step
Whole step
Whole step
Half step

B# IS C.
E# IS F.

A lot of it depends on what instrument you’re playing and what key you’re playing in. Chuck Berry used a lot of “piano” chords/constructions in his music. A guitarist would normally call it F#, but Gb is the same animal with a different name. You just learn to play it on the fly, and the name be damned. Some folks say Germany, some call it Deutschland. No one has any question about where it is that you are discussing.

Most has already been covered, but B and E sharp certainly do exist in conventional notion, as do C flat and F flat. Much of musical notation has to do with theory. For example, in an augmented chord, you raise the fifth. So, for the key of C, the notes are C-E-G#. Now, in the key of A, your major chord is “A-C#-E,” but the augmented chord should properly be written as “A-C#-E#” not “A-C#-F.”

A similar thing happens with minor chords. In a minor chord, the third is flatted. So, the proper notation for something like an A flat minor chord would be “A flat - C flat - E flat” NOT “A flat - B - E flat.”

There are a bunch of conventions which determine how you notate enharmonics (i.e. notes with the same pitch). This explains the use of those nasty-looking double sharps, double flats and other notational oddities. (For example, a full-dimished 7th chord in C should be properly notated as C-E-G flat-B double flat, as the dominant 7, the B flat, is being diminished.)

I know this is an SDMB naughty, and I promise to behave in future, but can I just chime in with something that isn’t actually an answer to the OP but which I feel is worth saying anyway?

Namely, that I do wish all of you who care about music, know about it, understand it, want the world to appreciate and love it and share it more, would please do something to simplify the sheer unadulterated mind-squishing logic-lite dumbness of conventional musical theory. Then, perhaps, sane and normal people might be able to get on with it.

Look, I’m probably not the sharpest tool in the box. But I’m not thick either. I did well educationally, and I can get my head around most subjects. But music… aaargh. I’ve learned to play three or four instruments in my time. I’ve had good music teachers. I’ve had good, talented musical friends who can explain stuff to me. And I am still stunned to gobsmacked that nobody wants to update music theory a little, just to chuck out some of centuries-old barnacle junk, so that it even comes close to sensible.

First of all, some big news for ya. ‘C’ is not the first letter of the alphabet! So if we’re going to have one key which is the ‘plain vanilla’ one, without sharps and flats, and which is usually taught first, then, hey, let’s use the first letter of the alphabet. Which is ‘A’. It is not ‘C’.

Secondly, what in all of sweet creation does raising the pitch of a note have to do with ‘sharpening’? Or lowering pitch to do with ‘flattening’? Answer: nothing at all. Can’t we even use words to mean what they mean? What would be so criminally wrong with referring to ‘raised’ or ‘lowered’ notes?

Thirdly, why express some notes as ‘raised’ or ‘lowered’ versions of others? B and G are different notes, so they get different names. Well, C and C sharp are different notes. So… different names. Do you hear mathematicians referring to ‘2 sharp’ or ‘2 raised’? No, they refer to ‘3’. And the world gets by just fine. Do you hear writers referring to ‘N plus 1’ or ‘N sharp’ or ‘N raised’? No, it’s a different letter, so it has a different name: O.

Fourthly, would y’all please stop reciting the same junk you were fed by your music teachers and which you have never, ever questioned, even though it’s crap? I refer to all this stuff about music in certain keys ‘sounds happy’ or ‘sounds sad’. This is palpable nonsense. You keep saying it because you were taught it. There’s plenty of music that cheers me up which is written in a minor key, and plenty of dreary crap that is written in a major key. And it’s subjective anyway.

What’s more, you can take any piece of music you want, in any key, and transpose every single note down by exactly one tone, and 99% of laymen will tell you it’s exactly the same piece of music - and it is, because the relationships between every note are preserved. This will not affect whether it sounds ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ even though you’ve changed the key.

Fifthly, and a real brain-derailer if ever there was one, please get rid of scales which contain certain notes on the way up and different notes on the way down. Melodic and harmonic minors, I think. Please, a scale is one set of notes. Not two, or three… one set of notes.

I could go on. But that’s enough for now. And I promise to be good from now on, but this did need saying.

Well, ianzin, please, don’t hold back. Obviously, for you its different, but for me, the theoretically conventions work more-or-less. You’re obviously misunderstanding the use of “happy” and “sad” to refer to “major” and “minor” chords. Who the heck has ever said all songs in major keys are happy, and all in minor keys are sad? Nobody I know of. It’s just a convention. When people first begin learning about tonality, it’s easier to remember the sound of a major vs a minor chord by ascribing an emotion to go with it. I think 99% of laymen would say that a C major chord sounds happy vs. a C minor chord.

As for your minor scales changing ascending vs. descending, harmonic vs melodic…Well, sorry. The notes from a harmonic minor scale don’t sound strong or particularly great if the melody is played with a harmonic scale. You don’t need theory to know this; just listen. The theory just puts into notation what seems to work in Western music.

Re: keys and emotional associations. I’ve never been taught this. Some people with perfect pitch associate different keys with different feelings, but I think that’s more subjective than it is objective. I find A major bright and strong, while D flat major is somehow more “mellow.” I don’t have perfect pitch, either. But, you’re right, most lay people probably wouldn’t notice a distinct difference between “Stairway to Heaven” in A minor vs “Stairway to Heaven” in G minor.

But I don’t think most music students would try to convince you that the key of C is one feeling and one feeling only, while the key of D is another. Bollox.

Nice rant, ianzin.
The one I hate is that, even if you accept that there are seven notes in an octave (Seven = octave? Nice logic, guys), why are there nine positions in the musical stave (five lines with four gaps)? Or eleven, if you include the two outer spaces.
But why not a multiple of seven? That way, each note would always appear in the same place. As it is, an F can appear in several different places, which you have to memorise.

I think that’s a throwback to the days before equal temperament, when different keys really did sound different (i.e. the intervals between the notes were physically different). But I agree, unless you have perfect pitch it is complete cobblers nowadays.

Only they call their B’s H and the Bb’s B. :slight_smile: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=107696

I know it’s naughty to reply to a hijack, but I just can’t leave this one alone.

Deer ianzin,
Wile weer at it, mabe we shood do sumthing about the sheer unadulterated mind-squishing logic-lite dumbness of the Inglish langwij. Speling is so ilojical, i don’t no how anywun can get ther mind arownd it.

What I’m saying is that the Western musical tradition is the way it is because it’s evolved over centuries. It’s a lot like learning a new language, in that it makes no sense and seems ridiculously difficult, but when you’ve immersed yourself in it for long enough, you get so you can’t imagine it any other way. What you refer to as ‘updating’ musical theory would in fact be equivalent to chucking out centuries of musical thought and understanding.

I reiterate, because it’s important: notation and tonality and harmony and all those things weren’t designed or invented, they grew and evolved. I wouldn’t for a moment try to say that it’s logical, but it does make sense to millions of people around the world who have learnt to understand it.

Oh, and in reply to the OP, pretty much what Joe_Cool and yabob said. B# does not equal C, and Cb does not equal B, but because they look the same on the piano keyboard, we tend to be a bit lazy and presume that they do.

jeez, I wonder if responding to a rant in a general questions thread is also a departure from our standards, but I’m more amused than anything else at the fervor of the displeasure with music theory. As in many fields, theory is basically descriptive of practice and derives from it. And, in some ways, it also guides
practice too, often as a matter of convenience and convention. There are a lot of people who have, railing against convention, tried to create different notation systems. And who knows, maybe in 500 years, one or more of these systems will have supplanted the one most Westerners use. But there’s something peculiar about becoming angry about a system that has taken hundreds of years to develop and that has worked pretty well up to now. There’s probably something here about insiders and outsiders, too. Those outside the system, who don’t take advantage of its intracacies and features, who don’t really speak that language, often feel disenfranchised by it, and direct their anger at it. While those inside are just fine with the way things work. What you don’t perceive, you disparage. That some people can point to certain sensations when listening to music (e.g. certain keys generating certain emontions) is no reason to criticize them or to gainsay their observations. Music is a type of communication, a type of magic, a way of life, a way of being, a world in itself, and a way of seeing the world, and those who inhabit it have some mysterious ways about them. The rest of the world has to use what they can of their language and ways and participate as they can. But it really shouldn’t make us angry (unless we desperately want in and just can’t get there, I guess).