Saturday, April 9, 2011

Accidentals - Naturals, Sharps, Flats

In this lesson, we will now learn about the function of the black keys on the piano.  As you may have noticed from the previous lessons that we have mainly covered the white keys of the piano. But what does the black keys represent?

Now think back to the lesson on the piano keyboard layout; you may remember that each white key represents the letters: A,B,C,D,E,F, and G. You may also remember that there were groups of 2 black and 3 black keys.

Often in music pieces, you will come across musical symbols placed in front of notes called accidentals. These accidentals indicate that the pitch of the note is to be raised (sharped or sharpened) or lowered (flatted or flattened) by a semitone or half step. A semitone is the smallest step located on the keyboard; ie it is the distance between two notes which are next to one another in pitch

This is easy to see with a picture of a piano keyboard. The distance between two white keys that are side by side is a whole tone if there is a black key in between them but it is a semitone if there is no black key between. A whole tone is the distance between two notes that are separated by one other note in pitch.

Let's look at the image below of the piano keyboard as an example. If you go from a white G key to a black G sharp (or black A flat) key or from a black G sharp (or A flat) key to a white A key, it is a semitone. To go from a white E key to a white F key is a semitone. But to go from a white G key to a white A key, it is a whole tone since there is a black key between 2 white keys.

In the above image, you will probably have noticed 3 musical symbols in front of the whole notes that are new to you. These musical symbols are the accidentals that we talked about before. There are 3 main accidentals you need to remember for a beginner and they are the natural, sharp and flat signs. 

The image below shows you the musical symbol of a natural note. Do you notice the symbol placed in front of the quarter note? This symbol is the natural sign and is only used when restoring a note that was previously altered by a sharp or flat back to its original pitch. I will go into this in more detail later on. But one very important thing to remember is that all the white keys represent the natural notes.
Natural Note
The next accidental we will go into is the sharp and the flat and it can be seen in the image below. A sharp sign means that the note played is a semitone higher than the natural note while a flat sign means that the note that is a semitone lower than the natural note.  
Sharp Note
Flat Note

What does the sharp and flat mean on a piano keyboard? 

Let's have a look at the image below. I am sure you have noticed that the sharps are the black keys to the right of the white key while the flats are the black keys to the left of the white key. Also notice that one black note has both a sharp and a flat that sounds the same but is named differently. Notes that have different names but sound the same are called enharmonic notes. For example, the C sharp and the D flat are played on the same black key on the keyboard; they sound the same. Another example is that F sharp and G flat are enharmonic notes, as are E sharp and F natural.

Another very important thing to remember is that sharp, flat, and natural signs can appear either in the key signature just after the clef, which we will go into in the next lesson, or right in front of the note that they change as an accidental. For example, look at the image below, if most of the C notes in a piece of music are going to be a sharp, then a sharp sign is put on the C space at the beginning of the staff, in the key signature. But if only a few of the C notes are going to be sharp, then those C notes are marked individually with a sharp sign right in front of them.

Another thing we need to know is the effect of the accidental in a piece of music. An accidental affects not only the note that it is placed in front of but also all the other notes of that pitch when in the same bar or measure, unless another accidental cancels it.

Let's look at the image below for an example. You will notice that there is a sharp symbol in front of F note, which makes that note an F sharp. As there are 2 more F notes of the same pitch as the first F note in the bar, this means that these 2 F notes become F sharps. However the 4th F note is outside the bar and is in a new bar, this means that this note is F natural not an F sharp.

The next thing you will notice is that there is a flat symbol in front of the A note making it an A flat in the image below. The 2nd A after that is also an A flat but you can see that there is a natural symbol in front of the 3rd A note. Remember that a natural symbol restores a note that was previously altered by a sharp or flat back to its original pitch. So this means that the 3rd A note is A natural not A flat. The 4th A note is also A natural since it is in the same bar as the 3rd A note.

Below is a short music piece you can practice on the piano. Remember to play the naturals, sharps and flats when indicated to.


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