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Accidental – A symbol that impacts a note to modify the resulting pitch.

Accidentals that can be used to modify pitch include:

  • Flat
  • Sharp
  • Natural
  • Double Flat
  • Double Sharp

We will start by discussing the flat, natural and sharp.

Natural is the regular state of a note, so when we say that a note is an “E”, we actually mean that it is “E natural.” A flat alters the note by making it lower; a sharp alters the note by making it higher.

Flat, Natural and Sharp Symbols

An accidental appears before the note on the staff that it alters; when we write the letter name using words, the accidental goes after the letter. Here are some examples:

The following note is written or spoken as B flat; notice that the flat symbol appears before the note on the staff even though we say the word flat after the note name when we write or talk about it.

Likewise, a sharp appears before the note on the staff, but after the note letter name when we write or talk about it. The note below is F sharp.

A natural is used to remove the impact of an accidental on a note. It also appears before the note on the staff, but we say and write it after the letter name.

Rules for Accidentals

The following rules apply to accidentals (which keep them from turning into accidents!)

Accidentals Only Apply to the Same Octave

An accidental only applies to the octave where it is written. Think of the accidental as “touching” (or impacting) the exact line or space on the staff where it is written, but it does not “touch” (or impact) the same letter name an octave lower or higher. A new accidental is used to cover additional octaves of the same letter name.

In the example below, there is a G# accidental on the 2nd line; the G above the staff is not impacted, so it is G natural.

Sharp Only Applies to Lower Octave

If the sharp should apply to the upper octave as well, it is written in the upper octave as in the example below.

Both octaves are sharp

Though this is the rule, I find that music editors often break this rule, so sometimes you need to apply good musical judgement to determine to correct way to play.

Accidentals Apply for the Entire Measure

When an accidental appears, it remains valid for the rest of the measure. The bar line “erases” that accidental and returns the note to its regular default pitch.

In the example below, we start on a G natural, then have a G# accidental. The G at the end of the measure is also a G# because that accidental lasts for the rest of the measure (until a bar line is crossed).

When we cross the bar line, then the sharp is no longer valid, which makes the whole note below a G natural.

If the last note should be a G natural, then a natural accidental is placed in front of it to “erase” or cancel the previous sharp accidental prior to crossing the bar line.

Notice in the example above that the first note is G natural. An accidental only impacts from where it is written and to the right in the measure – any notes prior to the accidental in a measure are not impacted by the accidental.

Next we will look at each accidental in detail – flat, natural and sharp.

<< Accidentals Overview | Flat >>

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