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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?

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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
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It was invented by Bach so he could spell his name on the keys! –  luser droog Mar 30 '13 at 6:55
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Also in Poland. –  Jack L. Mar 31 '13 at 13:53
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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.

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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.

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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
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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

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