A very common sight on the battlefield that is musical notation is the accidental.

An accidental is actually not usually an accident (surprise!), but rather a way to modify the pitch of a note that doesn't fit into the key or expected key center.

There are three very common accidentals that are used very often: The Sharp (#), the Flat (b) and the Natural. Essentially, The Sharp (#) is responsible for raising the note in question by one semitone while the Flat (b) is responsible for lowering the note by one semitone. The Natural is responsible for taking the note and basically returning it to what it sounds like in the key of C (i.e. A Bb will turn into a B natural with a Natural accidental).

Now, that is the basic idea behind it, but it gets a bit tricky after this point, so bear with me.

Depending on the Key Signature present (More coming later), an accidental may have no effect on the note that is being altered. For example, if you're in the key of F Major (one flat/Bb) and you try to place a single flat accidental on the note "B", it wont change the note. If you also decide to place a sharp on the same note, you will be raising the note by TWO Semitones, not just one.

When it comes to sharps and flats, they affect the note as though it was always in the key of C. Therefore, a C without an accidental or with a natural accidental is always a C. Any accidentals that follow or are attached to the note act as though the key signature doesn't exist (Therefore, a Natural will ALWAYS make it a C, a Sharp will ALWAYS make it a C# and a Flat will ALWAYS make it a Cb).

One more thing that I would like to touch upon while I'm here is the idea of Key Signatures (See? Told you it would come up again!).

A Key Signature is something that is placed in much the same way as the Time Signature is, but that affects the Overall Tonality of the piece instead of the way the music is felt as the Time Signature does.

A Key Signature is useful when you're writing or playing something that has a note that is commonly made flat or sharp. By placing a certain series of flats or sharps at the beginning of a piece, you can change the overall tonal center of a piece to reflect a feeling or certain sound that you're trying to get with your music.

Here is a quick overview of how they work from a usability point of view (Remember that you just have to understand HOW they work right now, not how you should be using them along with all of their intricacies):

Most pieces of Music are centered (Built around) a Tonic (Center or Main) tone or note (i.e. Something in C Major is built around the note "C" and something in Eb Minor is built around the note "Eb").

For most pieces of music built around Tonic Centers, there are certain notes that are consistently made Flat or Sharp due to their harmonic relationship to the Tonic Center. By putting a Key Signature in a piece, the composer doesn't have to worry about remembering to put an accidental before each note that needs one.

Here are the keys:

A great device for remembering the Keys is called the "Circle of Fifths".

This is the Circle of Fifths:

While it might look like a Medieval Rune or some sort of torture device, it's actually a handy little device that is very helpful when learning the keys.

On the right side of the Circle, you have the Sharp Keys (G-F#) and the Flat Keys on the left side (F-Db). The inside of the Circle contains the related Minor Keys (i.e. The Related minor key of E Major is C# Minor).

(One thing to note: There is one Sharp Key missing and two Flat Keys missing: C#, Cb and Gb. C# and Cb are both the same as their Major counterparts, except that EVERYTHING has been either sharpened or flattened, so they really aren't all that different from C except that everything is one semitone higher. Gb has six flats, and as such, you wont see it all that often. You should still be aware of it though.)

Here is a Mnemonic Device to remember the Flat Keys: "Fat BEADs Grow Corn."

A Mnemonic Device for the Sharp Keys: "Guide Dogs Are Everyone's Best Friend."

The order that the notes go flat is: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb.

And the order that the notes go sharp is: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds. (F,C,G,D,A,E,B)

If you want to get good practice, I would suggest writing out the Circle of Fifths a few times and learning the Mnemonic devices.

Something to remember:

The more Sharps or Flats that a key signature has, the less likely you are to run into it. The Keys of F (One Flat) and D (Two Sharps) are much more likely to be found and read than the Keys F# (Six Sharps) or Gb (Six Flats).

Once you feel at least decently solid with these ideas, you should move on to my Next Lesson and continue on your journey to learning to read music!

Return to the Reading Music page from the Accidentals page

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