In music, you’ve probably heard of accidentals but might not know exactly what is an accidental in music theory? They’re related to scales and key signatures, and specifically how we write music down on paper.
The word accidental comes from the Latin word meaning “chance,” which hints at how it got its name. But in music, you can also call them variations. In this article, Fidlar deep dive into what accidentals in music mean as well as how to use it in music.
Scales and Key Signature
We say that a piece of music that primarily uses notes from a particular scale is called “in the key” of that scale. If we have a melody that has the notes G-A-B-C-D-E-F#, we will be in the key G Major, as this melody only uses notes from the G major scale.
A note that requires an accidental throughout a piece of work should be written in a key signature, rather than each time it is used note occurs .
A key signature is used in most music. It tells us what notes will be played flat (♭), sharp (#), or naturally (♮) throughout the piece.
What Is an Accidental in Music?
Music accidentals are a sign that a pitch has been modified. Music accidentals can alter a pitch to make it sharper, flatter, or return it to its original state. The sharp (#), the flat (♭), or the natural (♮) is the most common accidentals in music.
These accidentals can raise or lower the pitch by a half-step. This makes the pitch higher or lower than before the accidental. The accidental can be used to raise or lower a pitch in a measure. However, the accidental will not affect the pitch during the measure.
An accident cannot be canceled in the same measure if another accident occurs, usually the natural sign. Accidents can also include black piano keys.
How common accidents work
A sharp accidental
A sharp accidental (#) raises the pitch of a note by a half-step. A sharp accidental note will sound one semitone more than the same note that is not sharp sign. A sharp accidental would make a C# on the piano. Instead of playing the C note, you would instead play the note half-step higher than C. This is the black key to the right of the C on modern pianos.
Flat accidental (♭) reduces the pitch of a note by a half-step. A flat accidental pitch will make a note sound one semitone lower than a note without it. A B notated with the flat would be B. You will play the note lower than B if you see a notehead with a B and a flat beside it. This would result in B, which is the black key immediately left of B.
Natural accidental (♮) can raise or lower a note’s pitch. It cancels any previous accidentals and returns them to their original pitch. The natural sign will cancel any pitch alteration within a measure. Maybe there is a measure that has a C# at the beginning of the measure.
A measure with a C# on the first beat will not include a C#. The C will still be a C# unless another C is added to the measure. The natural sign is also used to indicate that specific notes have recurring accidentals. The F Major case will mean that the B will always play as B. If a Bis is introduced in the music, it restores the B to its original state of B.
Accidentals using tied notes
This rule can be broken only if the note is tied above the bar line. In that case, the notes will be played together as one. If the notes are tied, the accidental will be kept for that note only, and the next note is played in the normal key signature unless the accidental occurs again. Take this example:
The F♮ is are tied above the bar line in this example. This means that the F on beat one of the second bar is also an F. The F on the second beat is, however, not tied and is now an F♯.
The B♭ in is also held during the second measure. When the B is again played (in the third), it will be back as a B♮.
It’s still a convention to mark these notes accidentally to inform the musician that they return to the key signature.
These accidentals are also possible in music notation. These accidentals are rarer than regular accidentals. They raise or lower a note by two semitones.
There are no double accidentals. However, there are double sharp (♯♯, more commonly referred to as ‘x’) and double flat (♭♭).
Here’s an example of both
The D has a double-sharp raises accidental right next to it, raising its semitones by two semitones. The G has a dual flat accidental, which lowers it by two semitones.
Double accidentals are very rare because a D that two semitones have raised sounds identical to (in other terms, it is the same as) an A, which is found in the key signature, C Major.
The G is no different. A G that is lowered by two semitones is precisely the same as an F♮. It would be more logical to write the notes in both cases as an E♮ or F♮
Double accidentals would only be seen in keys with many double flat or double sharp. Keys like C♯ or F♯ for sharps, or D♭ or G♭ for flats.
How to Use Accidentals
Here’s an example of accidentals in a melody.
The key signature indicates that we are in G Major. This means that all notes in the key are natural notes except the F. You must play an F# every time you see a note on either the F line or the space.
The ♭ and ♮ signs are in the second bar. These are the accidentals in the melody. They alter the notes that you would typically play in this key sign from Band F# to Band F, respectively.
Two rules govern accidentals. They affect not only the accidental note but also other notes.
The first rule states that the accidental must be applied first to the following note (see Bin 1, the second bar), and then it must be applied to each repetition of that note throughout the bar.
This rule means that the second B in the bar is also a “B.” It’s unnecessary to add another Bb in bar 2 because it could make the music look too crowded and difficult to read.
The accidental does not usually apply to a note if repeated in an octave greater or lesser (within the same bars), although some claim otherwise.
It is common to mark any accidental note with another accidental. If the accidental continues, you can also use flat notes or sharp signs or a natural signs to indicate it does not apply.
Here is an example: A bar where the B begins as a B due to the key signature and then changes to a B with the first accidental.
We can also play the B next to it as a Bwe symbol if we want. The following B, however, is back to B because it has a natural, accidental symbol next to it.
The second rule is that an accidental does not carry over to the next bar.
In this example, the F and B in the second bar represent a B, and an F. These accidentals disappear once we cross the line to the third bar. The notes then return to their regular key signature.
This means that the third bar has the F# as F# and the B as B♮.
It’s common to remind musicians to return to the key signature by adding an accidental to match it. In this case, we would add a B♭and an F♮. Music without Key Signatures.
Jazz, for example, may have pieces of music that don’t adhere to a specific key signature. Instead of telling musicians how to play a piece in a particular key, they have to play it note by note without any specific key.
These pieces have a lot of sharp and flat notes. These passages are not necessarily within the bounds of a set signature, but it is easier to see the entire piece as something without a set key.
Courtesy accidents are accidentals that aren’t strictly necessary but are written to clarify pitch and avoid misunderstandings. Courtesy accidentals can be written in normal accidentals or enclosed by brackets.
In two cases, courtesy accidentals can be used:
- If a note contains an accidental, it will be repeated as follows: The courtesy accidental indicates that the accidental is not applicable in the following bar.
- Tie extends an accidental to another bar, where it is repeated. The courtesy accidental indicates that the accidental is not applicable after the tie.
The example below shows that the natural note doesn’t apply to the next bar. In the second example, the first courtesy accidental (♯ ) indicates that the natural does apply, and the other courtesy accidental (♮ ) signifies the flat doesn’t apply after the end of the tie.
Once you better understand accidentals in music, you can analyze different music pieces and try to identify notes played out of key. It shouldn’t take long to identify accidentals in music. All you need is a simple way to look for flats, sharps, and natural signs.