Sign up ×
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:… –  Ulf Åkerstedt Apr 1 '13 at 8:31
Possible duplicate of Is 'dur' another way of saying flat (b)? –  Neil Meyer yesterday

4 Answers 4

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

According to Arnold Schoenberg in his Theory of Harmony, it is a holdover from the uncertainty of whether the seventh note of a given scale should be a full tone below the octave in accordance with the root's own overtones, or whether the seventh should be a half step below the octave as the root's seventh appears in the overtones of the related notes a fourth above and a fifth below, both of who's overtones contribute to the overall sound.

So taking C major as the starting point, b [bb] and h [b] appear in the German tone alphabet as way of differentiating between the overtone of the first octave and the next.

To show it in his chart:

Fundamental. Overtones

  • F. f...c..f.a.c.(eb)fgabc etc
  • C. c...g..c.e. g.(bb)c
  • G. g...d. g.b. d
share|improve this answer

It's not just Germany and Scandinavia. I'm from Croatia and we say H not B as well.

[just to mention, the countries with the German system also refer to B flat as just B... we also don't say Minor and Major scales, instead we say Mol and Dur scales, middle C is called C1 instead of C4 (it's the same note on the piano, it's just that we don't use The American Scientific Pitch Notation system)...]

It's because with the note H/Ti/Si referred to as B, composers can't use the "BACH motif".

share|improve this answer
There is a lot of unnecessary shouting in this post. Can I ask you to tone down the aggression? –  Neil Meyer Sep 27 at 11:33

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.