• Naming Notes Correctly (“Musical Spelling Bee”)

    in Theory

    naming notes correctly

    When it comes to naming notes correctly, most Ear Musicians could really use a crash course on musical spelling.

    Truth be told, I’m guilty of some of the very things I’m going to point out here. But when I do it, I’m usually making a conscious decision to speak in “slang.” I’m usually quick, however, to point out the correct way to do it whenever I purposely choose to be lax in my language (more on this later).

    For example, Cb (“C flat”) is a real note name in music but a lot of musicians would incorrectly call that B in the key of Gb major.

    E# (“E sharp”) is just as real but a lot of musicians would call that F in the key of F#.

    We all do it.

    Some may argue that it’s the difference in addressing a buddy you know very well with “What’s up” vs “Hi, How are you today?” Some prefer “what’s up.”

    But if you’re a stickler for correct spelling, you probably dread when you see “there” used in place of “their” or “they’re.”

    “They’re” different words and each has its specific usage.

    In the same way, a Cb is not the same as B.

    E# is not the same as F.

    But here’s the thing.

    If no one ever wrote “they’re,” “there,” or “their” on paper, you’d have NO IDEA which spelling they’re thinking in their head when they speak it.


    When a master musician – regardless of whether “they’re” thinking C# or Db – plays a tune that gives you goosebumps, the end result speaks for itself.

    Just as much as I hate to hear a note named incorrectly, I equally hate some anonymous “internet” music theorist who probably can’t play a lick (based on their youtube upload count of “ZERO”), correcting a professional musician who could likely play circles around them. [Rant done].

    So with both perspectives covered, let me give you a few rules to ensure you’re naming notes correctly.

    Naming Notes Correctly: Major Scales

    Rule #1 – When it comes to major scales, every alphabet letter of the musical language MUST be used.

    That means there must be an A in the scale (any kind of “A.”). At this point, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an A natural, A#, or Ab… as long as an “A” is used.

    There must be some type of B.

    There must be some type of C.



    And G.


    So when people use “F” instead of E# in the key of F#, here’s how this incorrect spelling is breaking rule #1.

    naming notes correctly - F sharp major scale

    This scale was going smooth until we got to “F.”

    Noticed what we skipped?

    Alphabet letter F. Check.
    Alphabet letter G. Check.
    Alphabet letter A. Check.
    Alphabet letter B. Check.
    Alphabet letter C. Check.
    Alphabet letter D. Check.

    Alphabet letter E.

    “Umm, alphabet letter E… can you hear me?”

    [Clears throat].

    “Alphabet letter E… going once, going twice…”

    By using F, we skipped E.

    And that’s a big “no-no.”

    naming notes correctly - F sharp major scale

    There you are, “E.”

    …Which leads me to Rule #2

    Rule #2 – When it comes to major scales, never use the same alphabet letter twice.

    This is pretty much the same thing as rule #1 but I just thought I’d emphasize it again here.

    When you skip an alphabet letter, you’re always using another letter twice.

    Because if music has 7 alphabet letters and major scales have 7 unique notes, to skip a letter means you’re using 6 letters to make up 7 notes. One of those letters must be used twice. And that’s wrong.

    In our example, since we’re already in the key of F#, we’ve already used the alphabet letter “F.” To use it again on the 7th degree breaks the rules and makes us skip the alphabet letter “E.”

    Naming Notes Correctly: Altered Chords & Sharping/Flatting Notes

    Rule #3 – Sharp ALWAYS means to raise. Flat ALWAYS means to lower.

    To raise a degree of the scale is to raise THAT alphabet letter, not magically replace it with another letter of your choice.

    It’s like changing the word “fly” to “fli” just because you feel like it. (I don’t know, maybe you never liked “y” as vowel!)

    For example, consider this C7 (#9#5) chord.

    naming notes correctly - C7 #9#5

    Some musicians don’t understand why I mixed sharps and flats.

    Somewhere in their musical journey, they learned that either chords are sharp-based or flat-based (similar to how major keys either have all sharps or all flats). But this is wrong when it comes to sharping and flatting degrees.

    Just remember:

    Rule #4 – Sharping or flatting a note will NEVER give you a different alphabet letter.

    That means, you can’t sharp a “G” and get “Ab.”

    Sharping a “G” gives you “G#.” ALWAYS.

    You can’t flat an “Ab” and get “G” either.

    Sure, “G” is easier to say but you can’t flat an “Ab” (which uses the alphabet letter “A”) and get another alphabet letter.

    Flatting an “Ab” gives you “Abb” (“A double flat”).

    As painful as it is to say “A double flat,” I’m sorry but that would be the correct and only correct way to say it.

    (That’s, however, when my slang usually comes in. I’d just rather say G and teach G to a beginner than have to open up this can of worms. Feel me?)

    I once heard a great musician say:

    “Learn the rules. Then forget the rules.”

    Can’t agree more.

    But back to why I mixed sharps and flats in this chord:

    naming notes correctly - C7 #9#5

    Here’s the wrong way to think about this C7 (#9#5):

    naming notes correctly - C7 #9#5

    Sure, you kept everything in “flats.”

    But if this chord has a “5” that is supposed to be sharped, where is it?

    Let’s look a the number system for C.

    C is 1.
    D is 2.
    E is 3.
    F is 4
    G is 5.
    A is 6
    B is 7.
    C is 8.
    D is 9.

    *Extended to next octave, thus the “8” and “9”

    To have a “5” in this chord, we must use the alphabet letter G.

    Where is G in this incorrectly spelled chord?

    naming notes correctly - C7 #9#5

    “Caller are you there?”

    It’s been incorrectly replaced.

    This chord also calls for a 9th that is sharped.

    When it comes to moving beyond the first octave and counting the next octave as 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, we learn that the 2nd tone of the scale played higher is known as the 9th.

    That’s D.

    Where is D in this incorrectly named chord?

    naming notes correctly - C7 #9#5

    It’s not there.

    That’s why we must use G# to reference the #5 and D# to reference the #9.

    You are literally taking whatever the 5 is and raising it. Likewise for the 9.

    What you aren’t doing is taking the 5 and replacing it with the 6. Or taking the 9 and replacing it with the 10.

    Sharping and flatting doesn’t always mean adding a # or b to an alphabet letter either.

    This same 7 (#9#5) played on Db simply takes flatted notes (“Ab” and “Eb”) and raises them to their natural notes, “A” and “E” respectively:

    naming notes correctly - Db #9#5

    (Don’t be scared of the “Cb” either. It’s gotta be there unless you want to talk in slang).

    So there you have it…

    Remember these 4 rules, learn to apply them in real situations, and you’ll likely never spell a chord wrong again… unless you want to! :-)

    Until next time.

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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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