Basics in Music Notation #5: Accidentals and Distances Between Notes

Sometimes, in a grocery store parking lot, some jerk will park so close to your car that you can't open your driver-side door all the way.  

The lines are clearly marked, and the distances carefully measured to prevent things like this from happening.  

Therefore, who's to say who is at fault when their car gets dented and scratched to high hell.  If the ice cream is melting and "Ru Paul's Drag Race" is on in 15 minutes, no one is going to wait around for jerk face to come back and remind them how parking spaces work.

So, decent human beings know how to judge distances between parked cars.  

But what about distances between notes?

You'll be happy to know that its less arbitrary than some people treat parking spots.  

Let's look at an octave (C to C, ascending in pitch) on a keyboard so we can get a clearer picture about this crazy concept.

Most appropriate time for your best "Why are you this way?" meme.  

The musical alphabet seemed like it was going to be so simple, didn't it?  Then we had to go and pull this bull jive.  This is just the way it is; you can be pissed and complain it doesn't make sense, or you can adapt and learn something.

The distance between two white keys (or notes with an adjacent letter name) with a black key in between, is called a tone, or a whole tone, which its measurement of pitch.  C to D, or F to G is a distance of a whole tone.

This is not the smallest distance between notes.  In western music, this is called a semi tone.  It is the distance of one fret on a guitar fretboard.  On our keyboard above, it is one key to the next WITHOUT a key in between.  

Looking at the keyboard, C to C# is a semitone.  E to F is also a semitone, as is B to C since there are no black keys between them.

You may notice that the black keys on our keyboard chart have two note names.  How can they be both?  Well they can.  C# and Db are the same pitch, as are G# and Ab.  

This is called Enharmonic Equivalency; same pitch, different note name.  

We will talk about this in later chapters, so don't worry too much now.

This is tricky, and a rather nasty prank to play on someone.  I highly suggest taking the time to memorize this chart.  It will take your ease of understanding the lessons in the next chapter miles ahead if you aren't fumbling around with where to place the semitones between note letter names.

Now, how would you go about indicating the black key notes on the musical staff?  

It isn't with pictures of Dan and Glasses Boy from The Black Keys.  Those are too big and distracting on a musical staff, and they should probably start making music they like again because they have enough radio money.

The answer is a little trick with symbols we call ACCIDENTALS

Accidentals are used to modify a note letter name to appropriately reflect its pitch.  It will affect all notes that succeed it on the line or space, until cancelled out by another sign.

A SHARP raises a note by one semitone (C to C#)A FLAT lowers a note by one semitone (B to Bb)

A NATURAL cancels the previous accidental on that line or space (C# to C)

A DOUBLE SHARP raises a note by a whole tone, or two semitones (F to F# to Fx)

A DOUBLE FLAT lowers a note by a whole tone, or two semitones (B to Bb to Bbb)

To help organize note writing on the staff, keeping things uncluttered and easier to read, KEY SIGNATURES help eliminate the use of too many accidentals.  

A key signature is a group of accidentals placed on lines or spaces at the beginning of the staff.  

This way, you don't need to use an accidental on every single note that needs one.  

The accidental in a key signature will apply to all notes on that line or space that follow it unless changed by an accidental.

We will go more in-depth about key signatures in a later chapter.  For now, just know that they exist and will make your life so much easier once you memorize them.

A whole tone is a whole tone, nice and simple.  There is no splitting hairs or semantics there; a whole tone just gets right down to business.  Not so with semitones.  

There are two different types of semitones: chromatic and diatonic.  

Why the need for distinction?  It is simple:

Chromatic is a semitone that has the same letter name: like C to C# or B to Bb

Diatonic is a semitone that has a different letter name: like E to F or C to B

This brings us to the end of the first chapter.  We have covered the absolute basics of musical notation (there is lots more we can cover in other lessons and articles) and hopefully, I could make it a little less dry.  

I feel like once the lessons in this chapter are understood, and we can move on to bigger and better things, the stigma around music theory that so often plagues people can begin to melt away.  

We are going to cover some really interesting stuff along the way, and the more you learn, the more you will be able to learn.  

The information growth rate is exponential in music.  

When you begin to see your instrument in completely different ways, the hunger for knowledge will awaken.  Each new chapter will challenge you, but the obstacles overcome will transform you.

Head over to the EXERCISES here and cover these topics:

Previous article in this chapter:

Basics in Music Notation #4: Time Values

Next Chapter:

Intro to Scales #1: What is a Scale?

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Lazer Monk

Lazer Monk

Hamilton, Ont