• 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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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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