• Seventh Day Of Christmas: Seven Letter Names

    in Piano,Theory

    letter names

    There are twelve pitch classes in music.

    These twelve notes (pitch classes) can be placed inside an octave.

    These twelve pitch classes can be categorized into seven natural pitch classes:

    …and five accidental pitch classes.

    Our focus in today’s lesson will be on the natural pitch classes. Natural pitch classes (seven of them) can be represented using alphabets, numbers, and sound syllables. In the use of alphabets, seven letters are used:

    A B C D E F and G

    In the use of numbers, roman numerals are used:

    I ii iii IV V vi and vii (however, feel free to represent it as 1 2 3 4 5 6 and 7).

    …while the use of sound syllables features:

    do re mi fa sol la and ti

    …to represent notes.

    In each system of representation (whether alphabet, number, or sound syllable), there are seven characters each. However, in today’s post we’ll be emphasizing letter names. At the end of this post, you’ll appreciate the value of these “seven” letter names when it comes to scale formation and musical spelling.

    Scale Formation

    Scales can be classified according to the number of notes it possesses (aka – “note aggregate”).

    Note aggregate refers to the number of scale tones within an octave. In traditional music practice (classical music), there are usually seven scale tones per octave. Scales that have seven scale tones per octave are referred to as heptatonic scales (hepta means seven, tonic means tones).

    Using an ancient system, modes can be created from any natural note to its octave. Let’s say, from E to E.

    The mode above starts on E and ends on E.

    However, I also want to point out that this mode contains all letter names (A, B, C, D, E, F and G). The alphabets are merely rearranged from E to E. Rearranging these notes starting from other alphabets will give us other modes:

    Ionian mode:

    Dorian mode:

    Phrygian mode:

    Lydian mode:

    Myxolydian mode:

    Aeolian mode:

    Locrian mode:

    Merely rearranging seven letter names in an alphabetical sequence has shown us the secret behind the ancient scale system known as modes.

    In the formation of major and minor scales, the process is similar. The only difference is the use of key (signature).

    Key signature refers to the number of sharps and flat in a key that distinguishes it from other keys.

    For example, in the major scale of F:

    …there’s a B note on the fourth degree. This key signature (of one flat on B) is peculiar to F because there’s no other key in music that has one flat (B).

    So, if we go back to our scale formation process, the scale of F (similar to modes) will require an arrangement of seven letter names from F to F.

    After this arrangement, the key signature (one flat) can now be added to distinguish it from modal scales (what we learned above, which has no sharps or flats).

    If we apply the same principle, we can determine the major scale of other keys:

    Seven Letter Names

    Key Signature


    F G A B C D E F

    Flat on B

    F G A B♭ C D E F

    C D E F G A B C

    No Sharps/Flats

    C D E F G A B C

    G A B C D E F G

    Sharp on F

    G A B C D E F G

    D E F G A B C D

    Sharps on F and C

    D E F G A B C D

    A B C D E F G A

    Sharps on F, C and G

    A B C D E F G A

    E F G A B C D E

    Sharps on F, C, G and D

    E F G A B C D E

    B C D E F G A B

    Sharps on F, C, G, D and A

    B C D E F G A B

    That’s 58% of all major scales using seven letter names and knowledge of key signature.


    In the same way words can be spelled, scales, intervals, chords and chord progressions can be spelled using letter names.

    And just like multiple words can sound the same but be spelled differently, the same is true with scales, chords, and chord progressions.

    The C major scale has C, D, E, F, G, A and B as its scale tones. For the most part, it is spelled as:

    What do you think of these spellings?

    Even though the scales won’t sound any different from the regular C major scale, spelled as:

    …spelling in such manners can make music learning and playing move from being difficult to flat out confusing.

    So many musicians will condemn those difficult and confusing spellings. However, if you take them to unfamiliar keys, you’ll see them mix things up.

    Quiz Time!

    What’s wrong with this scale?

    At the end of this post, you’ll be able to right the wrong – I guarantee you that.

    Spelling Guidelines

    There are proper guidelines to use when spelling scales and these seven notes function as a sort of spell checker to make sure that you don’t spell wrongly.

    For every given major and minor scale, make sure all seven names are contained in alphabetic sequence.

    This means that an A note (whether A♯, A♭, A♭♭, and A♯♯) must be followed by a B note (whether B♯, B♭, B♭♭, and B♯♯). For example, it’s wrong to spell the first two notes of the major scale of A♯ as A♯-C:

    Even though these two notes will sound like the first and second scale tones of the A♯ major scale, if we run a spell check:

    Considering that in alphabetic sequence, after A (whether A♯, A♭, A♭♭, and A♯♯) comes B (whether B♯, B♭, B♭♭, and B♯♯), it is against traditional spelling guideline (and unacceptable) for us to have a C note after an A# note (because that will lead to the omission of the B letter name).

    To fix this error will require the description of C using a B letter name. Out of all possible B letter names, only one of them (B♯) is an enharmonic equivalent of (or makes the same sound as) C.

    If we replace C with B♯, we’ll have A♯-B♯:

    …as the first two scale tones of the A♯ major scale.

    Two common errors in spelling you must watch out for are omission and repetition. Let’s round up by covering them.


    When one or more notes are missing in an alphabetic sequence, then there’s something wrong with the spelling because it contradicts the traditional practice of the representation of seven letter names in a scale. Usually the repetition of one letter name results in the omission (leaving out) of another. For example:

    The scale spelled above is the E major scale. If we consider the letter names in alphabetic sequence, there’s an omission of the “F” letter name. The repetition of the G letter name led to the omission of the F letter name.

    To fix this error, all you need to do is:

    1. Highlight the repetition: G♭ and G♯
    1. The lower note (in pitch) should be renamed to tally with the omitted letter name.

    Between these two notes, G♭ is the lower note. The F letter name that is G♭’s enharmonic equivalent is F♯.


    The reason why we are renaming the lower note is because F comes before G in alphabetic sequence.

    Replacing G♭ with F♯ will produce:

    This is the correct spelling of the E major scale.


    The occurrence of a letter name twice in a scale is a clear pointer to an error in spelling. Usually, the repetition of one letter name leads to the omission of another letter. For example:

    The scale spelled above is the A♭ major scale. If we consider the letter names in alphabetic sequence, there’s a repetition of the “C” letter name:

    …and this has led to the omission of the “D” letter name.

    To fix this error, all what you need to do is to:

    1. Highlight the repetition: C and C♯
    1. The higher note (in pitch) should be renamed to tally with the omitted letter name.

    Between these two notes, C♯ is the higher note. The D letter name that is C♯’s enharmonic equivalent is D♭.


    The reason why we are renaming the higher note is because D should come after C.

    Replacing C♯ with D♭ will produce:

    This is the correct spelling of the A♭ major scale.

    Final words

    The knowledge of seven letter names is of the greatest possible importance in music.

    This is one of the strengths of classically-trained people that ear musicians are still finding challenging. I used to be that pianist of yesteryear who spelled incorrectly.

    Indeed, mixing sharps and flats and spelling with omissions and repetitions may not affect the quality of music you play, but you undoubtedly need to spell properly so that you don’t end up calling the third tone of the A major scale “D♭” etc. Lol!

    If you’re determined to spell properly today, if you are determined never to mix things up again, then you’ll have to opt into our mailing list. We are offering a comprehensive course on scales that focuses on this area and a lot of other serious areas in scale studies like classification, modes, fingering, etc.

    “Yes! I’m interested in mastering scales. Add me to that list!”

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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