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How to Read Music, Part IV: Accidentals and Key Signatures

By Edited Aug 27, 2015 0 0

In Parts II and III of the How to Read Music Info Barrel series we talked about rhythms, rests, and meter. Now it's time to leave rhythm alone and go back to talking about notes.

Accidentals

The musical alphabet consists of the notes A-G. We talked about where to find these notes on the staff in part one. As many of you already know, there are extra notes in between these called accidentals. The full musical alphabet is shown below, along with each note's position on a piano keyboard.

The musical alphabet (21351)

These "in-between" notes; the black keys on a piano, are labeled with the "#" or "b" symbols. A "#," or "sharp," raises a note while a "b," or "flat," lowers it. Each black key has two names, one sharp and one flat. Notice that there is no "b#/cb" or "e#/fb."

In musical notation, notes that are altered with a "#" or "b" are known as accidentals. The symbol is placed immediately to the left of the notehead, as in the excerpt below.

An excerpt with accidentals

Notice that the second "b' in the first measure doesn't have a flat symbol. However, this note is still a "b-flat." An accidental before a note remains in effect for the rest of the measure. An accidental can be canceled later if necessary by a natural symbol (

Natural symbol
).

Key Signature

Exceprt with a key signature

Look at the excerpt above. See the two flats to the right of the treble clef? This is called a key signature. This tells us that we are to play every "b" and "e" in the piece as a "b-flat" or "e-flat" (except, of course, for the "e-natural" in the fourth bar).

An explanation of key signatures would be beyond the scope of this series. All you need to know for now is that a key signature gives us accidentals that apply to the entire piece (or until the key signature changes).

That's all for Part IV of the How to Read Music Info Barrel series. We've now learned everything we need to know to read music on a basic level! The rest is just icing on the cake. Here's a review of the vocabulary from this article:

  • sharp (#): a symbol that raises a note in pitch.
  • flat (b): a symbol that lowers a note in pitch.
  • natural: a symbol that cancels an accidental.
  • accidental: a written note that has been modified with a sharp or flat. Accidentals remain in effect for the entire measure unless cancelled by a natural.
  • key signature: a symbol that defines accidentals which apply to an entire piece or until a change of key signature (unless cancelled by a natural).
<---RETURN TO PART III | PROCEED TO PART V--->


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