Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why do they write E sharps and C flats?

Learn why E sharp and C flat are needed in music

In this video, Robert answers a user question which will enlighten you about the so-called "enharmonic" scales and keys.

Released on December 16, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hey, welcome to virtualsheetmusic.com and livingpianos.com. I'm Robert Estrin with a viewer question. Why do they write E sharps and C flats? These are white keys after all. Why wouldn't they just write B or F if they're going to have those notes? This is an excellent question and there's tremendous ramifications for the whole structure of western music that's implied by this question. So western music, the music we're all familiar with, whether it's symphonies or a pop song, it's all based upon scales. What are scales? Scales are a series of whole steps and half steps that have all the notes, all the letter names in order. So, for example, a C major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Very easy to recognize when you see a string of notes together. And it's diatonic, that is all built in the interval of a second. One letter to the next letter. Very simple.

Well, here is where I'm going to be able to impart to you exactly why it would make more sense in a certain context to have a E sharp or a B sharp instead of the key F which is the same as an E sharp or a C which is the same as a B sharp. Why would they write it? Well, let's say you had a piece that was in a C sharp major. Well, you start with C sharp. The second note of the scale is D sharp, the third note of the scale is, yes, E sharp. Then you go to F sharp, G sharp, A sharp, B sharp, C sharp. Notice, it has all the same letters as the C major scale except each one is a sharp. So if you were going C, D, E and you were in C sharp major and had C sharp, D sharp, F! That would be rather shocking because from D to an F doesn't look right on the page, because it is not step-wise. So it actually would be easier to decipher the notes by having it spelled diatonically, that is step-wise with all the letters in order.

Likewise, chords are built on the interval of a third. Thirds are simply two letters apart like C, skip the D, go to E, skip the F, go to G. C, E, G, a C major chord. Well if you had a C major sharp chord, indeed it would be much easier to see it as a major chord C sharp, E sharp, G sharp. Instead of C sharp, F, G sharp, which doesn't make much sense as a chord because chords are always all the lines or all the spaces.

So you can instantly identify something as a chord, simply by how it looks on the page. I hope this makes sense to you and next time you have an E sharp or a C flat, you don't curse it and you realize yes, it's logical and you understand that it can actually be easier to read by having these nomenclatures. Thanks so much for the great questions. Again, Robert Estrin at livingpianos.com and virtualsheetmusic.com.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Meera Thadani on July 14, 2021 @5:43 pm PST
Finally! an explanation that makes perfect sense. Thank you so much.
William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on July 14, 2021 @8:27 am PST
Thanks! First time I ever seen or read any information on this. When I seen music with B#, it is usually connected with C#. Every time I seen this in violin, it makes the fingering much smoother and faster as I use my B finger to play B# then my C finger is available for C# without having to shift my finger to play two C's in a row (natural and sharp). I have come to think it was written this way to help with fingering on a string instrument. Now you mention it also makes more sense musically to translate that to what the ear will hear musically, ignoring the mechanics of the instrument. Thank you for that thought and next time I see it, I will think of the composer's musical feelings rather than my mechanical motions.
reply
Robert - host, on July 15, 2021 @6:11 am PST
That's interesting how diatonic spelling of notes helps negotiate good fingering on the violin! There is a logic to notation when executed correctly.
Friday Sikazwe on July 2, 2018 @8:39 am PST
Please help me I want to become a saxophone player,saxophone specialist, now I want to know the fingering.
reply
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on July 2, 2018 @9:13 am PST
Hello Friday and thank you for your inquiry.

I doubt Robert can help you with that, I am very sorry, but I can suggest you the following resources about saxophone fingering:

https://tamingthesaxophone.com/fingering-chart

https://www.musikalessons.com/blog/2017/02/saxophone-fingering-chart/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUz_iuCSZRg


I hope that helps!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 17, 2015 @9:57 pm PST
Liked very much your video as to why a piano is never in tune, etc., but is perfectly out of tune with tempered pitch...and your explanation as to how the tempered pitch is achieved by the piano tuner. However, I think it would also help a lot to actually let us "hear" comparisons of passages and or scales played with tempered pitch (using a piano) to the same passages or scales played with true pitch (using a violin). To paraphrase another idiom: "hearing is believing". This is a fascinating and important subject, which the great cellist Pablo Casals once discussed at some length. However, it's not something most music teachers talk about with their pupils. And it's hard to grasp without "hearing" what this is all about.
reply
Robert - host, on December 18, 2015 @12:11 pm PST
With digital technology it is possible to recreate different tunings. At some point I may be able to make a video comparing tunings.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 16, 2015 @3:40 pm PST
There's a caveat concerning the assumption that E sharp and F are basically the same pitch, for ease of reading music etc., in that not all instruments use "tempered tuning" like the piano, which is really a compromise concerning the different scales. I heard a musicologist demonstrate the difference between tempered tuning and what he called true pitch (where the E sharp and F, and the B sharp and C, are actually a little bit different from each other, though they are of necessity the same on a piano). After that demo, for a long time after, I had a hard time listening to recordings of piano music, because the piano always sounded out of tune. The human voice and stringed instruments can achieve true pitch, instead of the tempered pitch that the piano is limited to. Perhaps in a future commentary, you or some other expert could demonstrate the difference between true pitch and tempered pitch, and also comment on how, for example, a violinist and a pianist should achieve a harmonious blended pitch...for example, should the violinist play with tempered pitch when being accompanied by the pianist?
reply
Robert - host, on December 16, 2015 @4:42 pm PST
You bring up some excellent points. I have put some video subjects on the list based upon your questions and observations. Here is an article and video that touches on the subject for you:

http://livingpianos.com/piano-tuning/why-a-piano-is-never-in-tune/
Leo Sarrazin on December 16, 2015 @8:48 am PST
Always enjoy your comments.
What about a C sharp vs D flat scale.What are the implications?

Thank you Leo Sarrazin
reply
Robert - host, on December 16, 2015 @4:44 pm PST
This is a good subject for a video that I will cover in the future for you!
Cathy Warmack * VSM MEMBER * on December 16, 2015 @6:28 am PST
I'm glad somebody asked this question because I have played many pieces with enharmonics and wondered why they were written that way. I am going to print this and add it to my music information that I have collected over the years.

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