• Ask Jermaine: “When To Use Sharps or Flats?”

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

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    This week’s question comes from Bob Myers in Alabama.

    “Jermaine, I’m loving your lessons but I have one question that’s been on my mind for a while. When are you supposed to use sharps or flats? Sometimes I see flats, other times I see sharps. Thank you in advance for your answer.”

    My answer:

    Hey Bob, this is a great question and there are different layers to it.

    First, it depends on the key you’re in.

    If you’re in Eb major, your scale is:

    Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb

    So when you see musicians referencing the key of Eb, but calling the “4,” G#, that is incorrect.

    And to be honest, a lot of “ear musicians” do this out of habit. They usually stick with how they first learned the notes. They are hardly thinking about scales and being enharmonically correct (especially in gospel… most musicians got used to saying C# instead of Db in the beginning… yet they’ll say Eb for the second tone of the scale).

    On the other hand, if you want to be in C# major, that’s fine but you need to be consistent. The C# major scale is:

    C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#

    7 sharps!

    You can’t cheat! You can’t say C# Eb F F# Ab Bb C C#… totally incorrect.

    So, knowing your scale answers 80% of this question.

    But we all know songs don’t just stay within the confines of the major scale. They go outside the scale all the time (for variety) and you get things like “b3” or “b5” or “b7.” That’s “flat 3,” “flat 5,” and “flat 7” respectively. These are tones outside the scale. You’re literally taking the 7th tone and lowering it a half step.

    This is where people really mess up.

    Instead of literally flatting the 7th tone, they just use whatever note they like the best (which is fine if you’re being informal but since your question specifically asked when to use one over the other, I’ll point out the difference).

    If you’re going to say “flat 7,” and you’re in C major, your B must become Bb.

    It can’t be A# (which makes the same sound), because “A” is the 6th tone of C major. And by calling this A#, you’d be playing the sharp 6 rather than the flat 7. That distinction is important.

    So to recap, the first thing to identify is what scale you’re going to use (Db vs C#). Next, just make sure you stay consistent with the tones of the scale (even if you flat or sharp various degrees).

    Hope this helps Bob.

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    { 13 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Humberto

    OK, Jermaine, here is a related question
    Actually, two questions, I think I can guess the answer to the first but the second puzzles me.

    There are 15 major scales if you count the enharmonic scales of Db-C#, Gb-F# and
    Cb-B, and 15 minor scales if you count the enharmonic scales of Bb-A#, Eb-D# and Ab=G#.

    But there is no such thing as a G# major scale, for instance, only Ab. I imagine there are no enharmonic spellings for the other scales because you would get into double sharps and double flats,

    Another quesion that puzzles me, is why do you NEED different enharmonic spellings for three of the major scales? Are you not hitting the same piano keys anyway?
    Why would you choose one spelling over the other? In other words, what is different about a song being in the key of Gb versus being in the key of F#?



    2 Jermaine Griggs

    Yes Humberto,

    The reason I would choose Db over C# is because of the unfamiliar enharmonic notes like E# and B#, especially for purposes of teaching. So you’ll find flats much more popular for the black keys than sharps. However, when dealing in the minor, you’ll find sharps easier.

    Yes for ear-players, it really doesn’t matter. They all make the same sound. If taking music theory test, it would matter. I say for people just playing, call it Ab or G#, Db or C#, it’s up to you. This has never hindered the best players from reaching the top. In fact, many of them in our musician breakthrough have an issue calling notes the right technical name but could play CIRCLES around music professors.

    It’s good to know this but don’t take it too seriously in the “REAL WORLD.”


    3 Jackson S

    Hello, Jermaine.

    I’m a younger composer in his late teens. When there are accidentals in C-Major, are they sharps or flats? Does it depend on what key the measure is in?

    Thank you,


    4 meshech

    Hi my friend jermaine i would like to know how i can play sharps and flat in every key and pritable
    my regard


    5 Humberto

    Thanks, Jermaine for your “real world” answer, yes, I find it much easier to think of the black keys as flats.


    6 seun oladele

    thanks jermaine for all your lessons. may God continue to strengthen you. keep up the God work.


    7 Joel

    Hi Jermaine, Mine is to just say thanks a lot for your support and help to make me
    understand music, I have nothing to give back but to say; May the face of the Lord
    shine upon you. Thanks, Joel.


    8 michael

    hi jermaine. You are the man. God bless you and keep you. Thanks for blessing my life, with your knowledge. Thanks


    9 Clive

    I am no musician, but surely, the practical reason for sharps and flats comes down to music notation rather than personal preferences. Each line or space on the staff MUST represent a unique note A, B, .., G. On the treble clef, the bottom line is always E and the first space is always F. That’s what notation is, how we write music down! Adjacent lines and spaces represent adjacent scale degrees whether the interval is a whole tone or a semi-tone.
    In the key of Eb, you would normally place flats in the key signature on E, A and B to avoid accidentals all over the score.
    To answer Humberto, oh yes there is a G# major scale. It goes G#A#B#C#D#E#Fx. Every key has a major (and minor) scale, even Fx but it is simpler to use G. That’s why we seldom use G# or Fx. The difference between Gb and F# thus lies in the key signatures of the written scores. Also the notes would be placed in different positions in the two scores with Gb on the the second line up and F# on the first space. Simple really.
    The music should sound the same in equal temperament where all semitone intervals are identical. But that is not so for any other intonation e.g. Just where Gb and F# are noticeably different .


    10 mantey richard

    please Jermaine ,help me to be able to add fills to my chords and thank you for your lessons.GOD BLESS YOU.


    11 KakahsiLee

    I have a question about sharps, so I’ve been reading a music theory book and it said there is a specific order in which you add sharps, F, C, G, D, etc. But I am writing a simple music piece that requires only a G# with my F and C staying normal, how can I do this?
    Thanks in advance


    12 Art

    I am so glad that you finally answered this. It’s the single question that stops me from producing my own scores. (Actually, I compose classical music , mostly, on a DAW). Is it OK to have both sharps and flats within the same key signature? How do you decide which”? I’ve looked at scores by some of the masters, and find that they have all mixed them up. I don’t think that the performer really cares, so long as he’s able to figure out where to put his fingers in the right places. It would seem to be the least mysterious just to have them conform to the key signature in force at the time. Am I right about that?


    13 Jermaine Griggs

    This is a music theory question. The use of sharps and flats is not random. If you’re playing a C dominant 7 b9, you are not free to use sharps or flats as you please. You must be aware that tertian chords (80% of the chords we play) are built on thirds. Thirds skip an alphabet letter. The beginning of this chord must be C E G Bb. Not A#. A# doesn’t skip an alphabet letter, which is required in order to give me a third from the G. C (skip D), E, (skip F), G (skip A), Bb. Now because the chord calls for a FLAT 9, I must take the exact 9th tone of the scale (C D E F G A B C “D”)… D… and flat it. It must be D. It cannot be C# because it said “b 9” (flat 9). Therefore, D becomes Db.

    But say this same chord were introduced in another key like Bb.

    Bb7 b9 would be:

    Bb D F Ab (notice all of these skip an alphabet letter thus correctly creating third intervals between them) Cb. The reason we MUST use Cb is because C is the 9th tone of Bb:

    Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C.

    To flat C is to make it Cb. It is not to use “B.” “B” is not the same as “Cb” just like “there” is not the same as “their” or the same as “they’re.” Sounds the same but entirely different words.

    Thus, Bb 7 b9 is:

    Bb D F Ab Cb (not B).

    So I hope this illustrates that music has rules just like words have spelling and the types of chords and alterations made to those chords within the confine of a key will always dictate whether sharps or flats are used. You should never ever be in the dark. This is just a matter of knowing what type of chord you are creating and sticking to the rules.

    I hope this helps.


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