Why There Are Sharps and Flats

For about three hundred years, the ancestor of the piano had only white keys. This brought about the five-line staff lines. For the seven notes on the keyboard, the five lines and four spaces were more than adequate. Since you had the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, you could write more than an octave on both the treble and bass clefs. In addition to that, you had middle C on a line in between the bass clef and treble clef with a space above it for D and a space below it for B. Above C line, the space which was used for the D note was considered to be the space below the bottom line if the treble clef, which was the E line. Below the C line, the space which was used for the B note was considered to be the space above the top line if the bass clef, which was the A line.

If you then looked at all the notes on the bass clef and treble clef from the bottom line of the bass clef to the top line of the treble clef, you would see the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, middle C, D, E, F, G,A, B, C, D, E, and F . This gave the writer almost three full octaves of notes to use in writing music. That was quite a range of notes for the music of the time.

However, somebody noticed that you did not have the ability to play the major scale sound properly from the F note, the same way you could from the C note. I read that the first black note introduced was a note in between A and B. For the purposes of this article, the name of that note which is called A sharp or B flat will be shown as A# or Bb. The lower case b will be used to indicate the term flat. This made it possible to get the do-re-mi major scale sound from starting with the C note, and the F note.

Now, I am not sure exactly how the double name A# or Bb came about, but consider the following. If you have a first and middle name and lived in a two story house growing up, and your parents called you by your first name every time they addressed you after you came downstairs from your room, but addressed you as your middle name every time you came in from outside, you would probably be emotionally impaired, or at least confused. For sure, you would sooner or later ask why.

Supposedly, the next note added was the Eb note. As time went by, there were a total of five notes added to the keyboard, thus enabling the major scale sound to be played from every key on the keyboard. To do this, you had to play the starting note, move up two notes, then two more, then one note, then two more, then two more, then two more, then one more. No matter where you started, the sound was the familiar major scale sound.

This made the keyboard too wide to comfortably play, so the new notes were made thinner and recessed to be shorter than the standard original keys, A through G. Not only did they make them shorter, they made them a different color, called them accidental notes, and gave each one a double name, the sharp name and the flat name. Now you had the notes on the keyboard being A, A#or Bb, B, C, C# or Db, D, D# or Eb, E, F, F# or Gb, G and G# or Ab, repeating as they got higher in pitch. Now, the staff line with five lines was no longer able to hold even one octave without making the sharp notes appear on the same line or space as the natural notes and the same with flat notes. The result was that A# would be on the A line or space and the Bb note would appear on the same line or space as the B note. Each had to have the sharp sign or flat sign preceding it.

Inserting the sharp and flat signs was not only cumbersome for the transcriber of the music, but it was clutter for the eyes of the musicians trying to read the notes. Thus, the key signatures were created. This brought about a great deal of memorization and new rules, as well as a new symbol called the natural sign, for when a note was to be played as a natural note in a measure where that line or space would usually be played as the sharp or flat note. The bottom line of the bass clef is still the G note but the bottom line of the treble clef is still the E note, requiring memorization of different locations on the two clefs for the same note names. The G note is the bottom line of the bass clef but is the second line from the bottom on the treble clef. Because of this, the key signature is displayed differently on each clef.

Before the sharps and flats, it was a step from one note to the next and after the sharps and flats you had to call F to F# a half step. Consequently, B to C is now a half step when it used to be just a step. The same is true for E to F. From C to D now has to be called a whole step. Sometimes the move from one white note to the next white note is called a half step (B to C and E to F) and all the other times it is called a whole step. This is not an easy concept to grasp for beginning piano students and the black keys are usually not mentioned until the student has become very familiar with reading the white notes on the staff line. Then they have to learn and memorize all the key signatures along with the rules for using them. This can take a considerable amount of time and effort.

It would seem that at least one man of logic would have prevailed by saying that since there were now twelve notes, you could just add one more line and space and each note would require only one name, each clef could show an entire octave, both clefs could begin with the first letter of the alphabet instead of different notes, no key signatures would be needed, no new rules would be needed to identify each note, music transcription would be faster and easier, and students could avoid a great deal of confusion.

The Music Notation Project, formerly called the Music Notation Modernization Association (MNMA), has several submissions of different transcription methods. It seems, however, that the six line staff method would be the easiest to grasp and use. One method, the NUME methodology has a tutorial that is a single page, rather than taking months of study.

Copyright 2009 Mike Ellis Music Instruction