Take the 2-minute tour ×
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

At least in Scandinavia and Germany two notes are marked differently than in most other countries:

  • B -> H
  • B♭ -> B

I have heard that this is due to mistake in interpreting messy sheet notes, as ♭ is close to b and ♯ resembles H. The story goes that a musical scholar thought that the note is H and when B was later encountered, it was deduced that it must be a special name for H flat as H was already established in its place. But this may be an urban (or actually historical) legend.

How did this difference come to be?

share|improve this question
I've seen the answer to this somewhere here at music.SE, but I can't find it now. Maybe it was in a series of comments. I'm pretty sure that the mistake-theory was supposedly wrong. –  Ulf Åkerstedt Mar 30 '13 at 0:11
It was invented by Bach so he could spell his name on the keys! –  luser droog Mar 30 '13 at 6:55
Also in Poland. –  Jack L. Mar 31 '13 at 13:53
Here it is: music.stackexchange.com/questions/6663/… –  Ulf Åkerstedt Apr 1 '13 at 8:31

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

According to the note "H" in German musical nomenclature

The German nomenclature merely sought to give each pitch-class that ocurred in the system a unique name. Later, when the letter b was employed to effect mutation into other, more distant tetrachords (or hexachords), the German nomenclature was never modified to accomodate it, and its use as a flat sign was simply extended to the other 6 letters while retaining the H/B distinction for what everyone else calls B/Bb.

share|improve this answer

In the late medieval system there were six normal notes, C D E F G A, and one note that had two forms, soft B (b) which was a semitone above A and hard B (♮) which was a whole tone above A. As written in the earliest sources, hard B looked a bit like an H with an added crossbar which may have been the reason for the change to H (or it was the next letter of the alphabet; both theories have manuscript support). Later, as RedGrittyBrick said, the soft b form was used to indicate any note which was a half-step above the note below it and hard b form for any note a whole step above the note below it (for instance F# would be written as F-natural, while an F-natural following F-sharp would be written as F-flat). The need for a third form, # (derived from the natural sign) only came later as notes could be seen as needing three different forms. Why hard B became the norm in some countries and soft B the norm in others is still an unexplained mystery, but might say something about how often B was performed flat or sharp in various countries.

share|improve this answer
Did you mean to wtite "the soft b form was used to indicate any note which was a half-step below..."? –  Ulf Åkerstedt Apr 3 '13 at 22:31
No. though I should've specified that by "previous note" I meant the note with a diatonic name below it. Soft-b (=flat) indicates a note a half-step above the note below it. So Fb was the same as F because they're both a half-step above E. –  Michael Scott Cuthbert Apr 4 '13 at 12:25

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.