• Twelfth Day Of Christmas: Twelve Pitch Classes

    in Theory

    pitch classes

    In music, these seven alphabets are used to name notes:

    A B C D E F G

    These seven alphabets form what is called the letter system.

    A collection of pitches can vary from a scale:

    …to an interval:

    …to a chord:

    …to a chord progression.


    There are certain junctures in music where spelling is necessary.

    Spelling in music has to do with the process of naming the letters of a collection of pitches.

    Spelling can be confusing to the beginner because there are many ways to spell the same note.

    For example, the D major scale:

    …can be spelled as

    Spelling #1 – D, E, G♭, G, A, B, C♯, D

    Spelling #2 – D, E, F♯, G, A, B, D♭, D

    Spelling #3 – D, E, G♭, G, A, B, D♭, D

    I can even come up with some awkward spellings such as:

    Spelling #4 – D, F♭, G♭, G, A, B, D♭, D

    Spelling #5 – D, E, G♭, G, A, C♭, D♭, D

    Spelling #6 – D, F♭, G♭, G, A, C♭, D♭, D

    And this is because there are notes that sound alike but are spelled different. Just think of words like “there,” “their,” and “they’re” in the English language. They sound the same but have entirely different meanings and usage.

    In this post, you’ll see all the possible letter name spellings in music and also understand how to fit them into twelve pitch classes.

    Pitch Modifiers

    Pitch modifiers alter the pitch level of notes either by raising or lowering them.

    There are five pitch modifiers used in modern music:

    • Sharp (♯)
    • Flat (♭)
    • Natural (♮)
    • Double sharp (♯♯) or (𝄪)
    • Double flat (♭♭)

    (There are other ones that have grown obsolete with time.)

    Sharp: Raises the pitch level of a note by a half step.

    This pitch modifier raises the pitch level of a note by a half step. It is symbolized as ♯.

    Below is a C note:

    …however, adding this modifier to C will yield C♯:

    …another type of C note with a pitch level that is a half step higher than the natural C.

    Flat: Lowers the pitch level of a note by a half step.

    This pitch modifier lowers the pitch level of a note by a half step. It is symbolized as ♭.

    The note below is a C note:

    …however, adding this modifier to C will yield C♭:

    …this is clearly another type of C note with a pitch level that is a half step lower than the natural C.

    Natural: Restores the pitch level of a note if it is modified by other pitch modifiers.

    White notes on the piano have this modifier by default. It is symbolized as ♮. The following notes are naturals by default:

    A♮ B♮ C♮ D♮ E♮ F♮ G♮

    If a note has been previously modified by the sharp or flat (or even a double sharp or double flat), the natural sign restores it back to its default natural position.

    For example, adding a natural to C♯ (a variant of C, that is a semitone higher than C):
    …will bring it back to the natural C note:

    Double sharp: Raises the pitch level of a note by a whole step.

    This pitch modifier raises the pitch level of a note by a whole step. It is symbolized as ♯♯ or 𝄪.

    Below is a C note:

    …however, adding the double sharp to C will yield C♯♯ or C𝄪:

    …another type of C note with a pitch level that is a whole step higher than the natural C.
    (Permit me to use D to replace C♯♯ as my graphics tool does not yet render double sharps. D and C𝄪 are enharmonic.)

    Double Flat: Lowers the pitch level of a note by a whole step.

    This pitch modifier lowers the pitch level of a note by a whole step. It is symbolized as ♭♭.

    The note below is a C note:

    …however, adding this modifier to C will yield C♭♭:

    …this is clearly another type of C note with a pitch level that is a whole step lower than the natural C.

    (Like above, I am not able to place Cbb on the piano graphic, so I’ve used Bb instead. They make the same sound but are clearly spelled differently).

    35 Letter Names

    In the last segment of this post, we covered five pitch modifiers.

    Five modifiers will produce 5 notes with the same letter names but at different pitch levels.

    What does C♯, C♭, C♮, C𝄪, and C♭♭ have in common?

    If your answer is C, then you’re right!

    These are all C notes at different pitch levels.

    Owing to the limitations of our old chordshare tool, I may not be able to share double sharps and flats. However, these are the five possible letter names related to C:

    C♯

    C♭

    C♮

    C♯♯

    C♭♭

    *I’m representing C♯♯ as D because that is another possible letter name that sounds like C♯♯.

    *I’m representing C♭♭ as B♭ because that is another possible letter name that sounds like C♭♭.

    Before the end of this post, we’ll talk about notes that have the same pitch but differ in letter name.

    With our knowledge of the five modifiers and seven letter names, we have a total of 35 letter names.

    This is because each of the seven letters used in music will have five variants:

    Letter Name Sharp variant Flat variant Natural variant Double sharp variant Double flat variant
    A A♯ A♭ A♮ A♯♯ or 𝄪 A♭♭
    B B♯ B♭ B♮ B♯♯ or 𝄪 B♭♭
    C C♯ C♭ C♮ C♯♯ or 𝄪 C♭♭
    D D♯ D♭ D♮ D♯♯ or 𝄪 D♭♭
    E E♯ E♭ E♮ E♯♯ or 𝄪 E♭♭
    F F♯ F♭ F♮ F♯♯ or 𝄪 F♭♭
    G G♯ G♭ G♮ G♯♯ or 𝄪 G♭♭

    …these variants are obviously derived from five pitch modifiers.

    7 sharps
    A♯, B♯, C♯, D♯, E♯, F♯, and G♯

    7 flats
    A♭, B♭, C♭, D♭, E♭, F♭, and G♭

    7 naturals
    A♮, B♮, C♮, D♮, E♮, F♮, and G♮

    7 double sharps
    A♯♯, B♯♯, C♯♯, D♯♯, E♯♯, F♯♯, and G♯♯

    7 double flats
    A♭♭, B♭♭, C♭♭, D♭♭, E♭♭, F♭♭, and G♭♭

    Put together, 7 (letter names) multiplied by 5 (pitch modifiers) will produce 35 letter names.

    If all the A’s were one A,

    If all the B’s were one B,

    If all the C’s were one C,

    If all the D’s were one D,

    If all the E’s were one E,

    If all the F’s were one F,

    If all the G’s were one G,

    Then there would only be seven notes in music.

    However, there are twelve notes (aka – “pitch classes”) in music.

    Let’s see how we can reconcile these twelve pitch classes with the thirty five letter names we’ve derived from the various pitch modifiers.

    TONAL COUNTERPARTS

    Don’t be fooled by the thirty five letter names.

    Out of these 35 letter names, most sound alike (even though they are spelled differently).

    Even though C♯:

    …and D♭:

    …are two different letter names, in practical terms, they sound alike.

    Also, it is important to note that they are on the same finger key on the piano.

    (Same black note, same pitch, but different spelling)

    In the same vein, C:

    …and B♯:

    …also have different letter names, but sound alike.

    (Same white note, same pitch, but different spelling.)

    Letter names that show this musical trait of belonging to the same finger key and sounding alike are known as tonal counterparts.

    To know the tonal counterparts of a given note:

    If it’s a natural note, you must determine the sharp, flat, double sharp, and double flat notes that can possibly be on that note. For example,

    B♯ and D♭♭ are the possible tonal counterparts of C. There are no flat and double sharp letter names that are tonal counterparts with C.

    If it’s a sharp note, you must determine the flat, natural, double sharp, and double flat notes that can possibly be on that note. For example,

    E♭ and F♭♭ are the possible tonal counterparts of D♯. There are no natural, double sharp, and double flat letter names that are tonal counterparts with D♯.

    If it’s a flat note, you must determine the sharp, natural, double sharp, and double flat notes that can possibly be on that note. For example,

    F♯ and E♯♯ are the possible tonal counterparts of G♭. There are no flat, natural, and double flat letter names that are tonal counterparts with G♭.

    The same thing is applicable to double sharp and double flat notes.

    With the exception of A♭ / G♯, there are three tonal counterparts for every other finger key on the piano.

    Letter Name Tonal Counterparts
    C B♯ and D♭♭
    C♯ D♭ and B♯♯
    D C♯♯ and E♭♭
    D♯ E♭ and F♭♭
    E D♯♯ and F♭
    F E♯ and G♭♭
    F♯ G♭ and E♯♯
    G F♯♯ and A♭♭
    G♯ A♭
    A G♯♯ and B♭♭
    A♯ B♭ and C♭♭
    B A♯♯, and C♭

    Final Words

    Don’t be blinded by the number of letter names.

    If only you can master the table of tonal counterparts, you’ll be on your way to overcoming spellings of scales, intervals and chords by reconciling 35 letter names to 12 pitch classes.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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