Enharmonic Notes 101: The Easy Method to Understanding
What are enharmonic notes? They are two notes that SOUND the same but are written differently. This seems odd and totally unnecessary but in order to understand, let’s compare words in the English language to notes in the musical language.
For example, the words two, too, and to, all SOUND the same but are written different. You spell them according to how you use them. I have “two” cats. I went “to” the store. There are “too” many flies in the house! In the English language, you’d never say “I have ‘to’ cats.” It’s the wrong version of the word. However, all three versions of “to” SOUND the same. You only know the difference when put into context. Think of other words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Other examples include: their or there, son or sun, week or weak, break or brake, him or hymn, etc.
In music, notes that sound the same can also have two names, just like words. The reason for this is that note patterns are important to help read scales and musical patterns, just like word patterns help in reading sentences better.
Go online and find a picture of a piano keyboard that shows note names for both black and white keys. Type in “piano key images” into the search box and you’ll find several to choose from. You should notice that all black keys have TWO note names.
The normal black key notes:
- C-sharp = D-flat
- D-sharp = E-flat
- F-sharp = G-flat
- G-sharp = A-flat
- A-sharp = B-flat
The odd ducks (white keys with two note names):
- E-sharp = F
- F-flat = E
- B-sharp = C
- C-flat = B
WHAT!? Why is it that white keys can have enharmonic names, too? As a reminder (or in case you didn’t know), a sharp raises a note by one piano key (a half-step) and a flat lowers a note by one piano key (also a half-step). For example, look at an “E” (to the right of the group of two black keys). In order to go up a half-step (sharp the note), you must go to the next KEY. That key is called “F.” So, “E-sharp” is the same note as “F.” To do the reverse and flat “F,” go down ONE piano key. This means that “F-flat” is the same as “E.”
The same is true for “B” and “C” because there’s no black key between those notes. “E” to “F” and “B” to “C” are considered natural half-steps because they are lacking a black key between them.
Remember earlier when I said that it’s important to spell correctly in music like it is with words? In music, we learn to recognize everything based on patterns. Scales are patterns of notes that fit within different key signatures (a lesson for another day). When reading music, a performer learns to recognize the appropriate scale based on the notes in the musical passage. After awhile, a performer no longer has to look at every note because he/she begins to recognize the musical patterns within the music. To “spell” a scale correctly, it’s important to use the correct version of the note. For example, an “F-sharp” and “G-flat” major scale are exactly the same scale. To the listener, they both sound the same. These scales are “enharmonic” with one another.
Why do you need to learn enharmonics? When reading a piece of music, it’s much easier to know what note to play if you can remember that when you see “A-sharp” in one measure and then see it again as “B-flat” in the next measure (always this way in chromatic scales), they are the same fingering on your instrument.
Ways to practice learning enharmonics:
- Make flash cards of individual note names on the front. (E-flat, D-sharp, F-sharp, G-flat, etc). Each note gets its own card. Write the fingering or enharmonic note name on the back. Go through the flashcards daily and put the notes you don’t get right away back in the pile. Go through the flashcards until you can remember all of them quickly. Repeat until all enharmonics are solidly cemented in the brain.
- Practice filling in blank piano keyboards as a timed test. See how quickly you can label all of the notes.
- Practice chromatic scales (going both up and down) on your instrument. Notes are sharped on the way up and flatted on the way down. Read music while practicing this scale.
- Practice “F-Sharp” and “D-flat” Major scales. First, write out the note names only for each scale. Then, look at them on the staff.
As with all things in life, if you want to get better, practice. But, good practice will take patience and perseverance. There is no easy button for learning music.