What are sharps and flats?
In a previous post, I spoke a little about how to play sharps (♯) and flats (♭) on the first few frets of the E string. I didn’t actually talk about what they are though. This is a little confusing to me still, but lets take a shot at it:
What are sharps and flats?
Sharps and flats belong to a group of notes in music called accidentals. They’re most easily visible on instruments like piano and keyboard as the black keys. In contrast, each of the natural notes (A – G) is played on a white key on the piano. The accidental notes occur between the naturals.
On bass, the pattern is the same, but it’s represented a little differently. Most of the natural notes on bass are 2 frets apart. The in-between frets are where the accidentals reside. For example, on the E string, the first fret is F. The 3rd fret is G. That fret between them is an accidental.
Look at the keyboard image above. You can see F on a white key, followed by a black key, and then G. Now, look at the image below. You can see F is the first fret of the E string, followed by an F# and then G is the third fret (the first dotted fret on the bass).
The name of that note (the 2nd fret) varies depending on if you’re going up or down the neck. If you’re moving from the 1st fret to the 2nd, you’re going up from F to F#. If you’re moving down the neck, from the 3rd to the 2nd, you’re moving from G to Gb – even though it’s still the 2nd fret you’re landing on. Yeah, when the musical alphabet was being written, they were hitting the holy water kind of hard.
I get where but what are sharps and flats?
Ok. You got me. We know that sharps and flats are the notes that fall between natural notes. We know that they’re black keys on a piano or frets between natural notes on the neck of the bass. To find them more explicitly on the bass, you need to know the major scale and what key (root note) your scale begins with. We’ll deal with that later though.
A sharp is a note that occurs when you add a semitone (1/2 step) to a natural note. That’s what it is. It’s a natural note + a semitone. It’s played one fret higher on the neck than the natural note that the sharp is named after. So, if F is the first fret on the E string, then F# is the 2nd. It’s the first fret + a semitone (a 1/2 step, or one fret).
A flat is the opposite, mathematically. It occurs when you subtract a semitone from a natural note. So, it’s a natural note – a semitone and is played one fret lower on the neck than the natural note it’s named after. If G is on the 3rd fret of the E string, then Gb is on the 2nd (3rd fret – 1 fret = 2nd fret).
- F (1st fret) + 1 semitone (1/2 step or 1 fret) = F#, or 2nd fret
- G (3rd fret) – 1 semitone (1/2 step or 1 fret) = Gb, or 2nd fret
See how that 2nd fret has 2 names (F#/Gb) depending on where we came from? So did the person who invented the musical alphabet. He had no problem with it, for some reason. He even gave it a name: the enharmonic equivalent.
So, just to beat a dead horse and make sure we ride off with an understanding: a sharp or flat is the note that is created when adding or subtracting a 1/2 step (1 fret) to a natural note.
But what about…
Now, get this: there are 2 pairs of natural notes that don’t follow this rule. There’s no space between them. Who are these deviants? They’re B-C and E-F. They’re pairs of natural notes but they’re each a half-step apart, not a whole-step like all of the others. Why is this? I really don’t know, but I’ll write about it on this blog when I do find out.
What does this mean for their sharps and flats? Well, it means this: B# = C and Cb = B. Yep. The same with the other pair: E# = F and Fb = E. Why is this? It’s because, even though they’re natural notes, they’re a semitone (half-step) apart. I’m from NY people… I’m trying really hard not to make a hick joke here. 😉
Why do we use these silly things?
Its because of music theory, I think. The notes in a scale need to conform to the scale’s pattern. Remember that major scale pattern? Whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half? Some of those wholes and halves land on black keys, or in between natural notes, if you start on any note other than C.
There’s some kind of law that says when you play a scale, you can’t repeat note letters. So, you can’t have 2 A’s or 2 D’s or any other letter in the scale. Its like Fight Club. Yes, you can still use these notes when playing, they’re just not part of the scale. I’ll write more on this later too, when I have a better understanding of it. I can’t remember where I read that scale rule of no repeats…
Here are some links with more information on accidentals: