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Für Elise intro starts with E D♯ E D♯, Wikipedia says the key is Am.

What scale does it fit? Is it like a blues scale where D♯ is a flat 5?

Why D♯ is used in the sheet music? Is it easier to read compared to E E♭ E E♭ or is there a certain naming convention?

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D♯ is not a flat 5 in A minor. It is a sharp 4. –  11684 Jul 3 at 16:11
Yes, it's in A minor. Just check the beginning and the end of the piece. It's very obvious that it's in A minor. The fact that there are other notes does not change the key. It's not even a tonal excursion, let alone modulation. (In fact, it's very common to use the sharp fourth in minor keys. It's a good tool to make certain parts sound more "exciting", so to say.) –  H2CO3 Jul 4 at 9:35
Probably because it modulates to e minor which seems to be the dominant. –  Neil Meyer Jul 7 at 17:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

It is common to use notes that are not in the scale to add color. It's called chromaticism, from the ancient Greek word for color.

Think how composers use a G# instead of a G in A minor, for example as a part of an E chord. A semitone creates more tension and the tendency of G# to resolve to (go to) A is more powerful. This is called a chromatic approach note. But since this particular usage is very common, we usually label it the "harmonic minor scale".

Similarly, using an F# to avoid the melodically awkward (to western classical ears) augmented second between F and G# is also quite common. Then we label it as the "melodic minor" scale.

These two so-called alterations are very common to warrant a new name. But there are many other possibilities.

The D# here is a quite common example. It's a chromatic approach note to E. A few notes later Beethoven uses a D natural, notice how that strong tendency of resolving to E is now mostly gone.

The reason it's labeled D#, instead of Eb is this. It's not a flattened fifth, it's a sharpened fourth. The fifth (E) is still there, this one is a degree lower, so it's a (sharpened) fourth. A flattened fifth (Eb) would replace the E and would tend to resolve to D, because just like the sharpened notes tend to resolve upwards, flattened notes tend to resolve downwards.

Granted, it mostly concerns classical music. Blues is a different beast. The flattened fifth and sharpened fourth can be used interchangeably. The convention is still to notate them with a sharp for upward moving lines and with a flat for downward moving lines but it's not used consistently.

That blue note, after all, does not even exist on a piano when properly played or sung. It's generally flatter than D#/Eb when sung or played on a fretless instrument or on an instrument that can do bends. It's an alien coming from a different musical culture, a square peg that we try to squeeze in to the round hole we have: The so-called equal temperament.

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Thanks everyone, some good info, I've learnt quite a bit. I didn't even realise that the blue note wasn't necessarily a semitone flat. Music is complicated, a weird mix of science and magic. –  creator Jul 4 at 9:58

Yes, Ludwig started the Blues. Only kidding, but that note may be considered as part of a secondary dominant. The dominant of A minor is E, maj. or min. The dominant of that is B, with a D#. That's one way to look at it. Another is to say one is not just restricted to writing the notes that are only found in the original key. That's actually quite restrictive.

As Lee states, writing out, having to naturalise every other E is a pain - reading it worse, so D# wins.

I wonder if anyone else out there considers the first 8 notes to be a long anacrusis? The tune proper starting on the A ?

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+1. And also, I agree with the anacrusis analysis. If it was a rock song, I would start drumming by counting the A note as "one". –  cyco130 Jul 3 at 11:44
I agree about the anacrusis, but it's way over-complicated to call this a secondary dominant. It's a simple chromatic neighbor. –  Pat Muchmore Jul 3 at 12:29
True, but if I'd said he put it in 'cos it sounded nice, no-one would take much notice.It was only a tune for a little kid, anyway. –  Tim Jul 3 at 14:19
It's bringing a bazooka to a knife fight. It's a non-chord tone that happens on the weak part of an offbeat, and this analysis ignores the clear melodic prolongation via neighbor note. By this logic ANY chromatic note could be said to be a secondary dominant—all sharps could be the third of some SD, and all flats could be the seventh. But we don't need that much theoretical apparatus to describe the note's function. We can explain the use of D# vs. Eb entirely in terms of legibility and melodic function (half-step neighbor tones are supposed to be written as diatonic half-steps already). –  Pat Muchmore Jul 3 at 17:37
What Pat is saying is that Tim's answer is way, way overcomplicated. Even if it is theoretically completely correct, the explanation is irrelevant because that's not the reason why this note is used in this particular context. I wasn't going to join in on this discussion because that would make me seem like I want my own answer to win out, but luckily cyco130 came up with a very complete, correct and relevant answer. –  Lee White Jul 4 at 11:09

The D# could have been a D as well, but a half-step difference creates stronger tension, which is exactly what the composer was (presumably) going for. The same thing often appears in chord schemes, as explained in Tim's answer to a question that I asked a while ago.

As to your second question: indeed, E and D# are easier to tell apart (and easier to note down) than E and Eb. Imagine what that measure would look like with all those repeated accidentals.

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When someone uses one note from another scale for a small part of a song, that's called an accidental. D# in the key of A minor indicates a few other scales (Hungarian minor, Ukrainian Dorian, etc.) but he probably only cared about the effect of the D#, since it leads very nicely to the E. The most common scale with a D# or # fourth is Lydian, but that's major. You can also call it chromaticism, because you could say that it's a #4 from the chromatic scale, but I wouldn't really think of that as chromaticism because usually when someone does that they would write Eb and then E natural and they'd have a few consecutive chromatic notes, like D, Eb, and then E natural in the A minor blues scale. That being said, you could call it chromaticism if you think he borrowed from the chromatic scale, but either way it adds a tension with a quick resolution.

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I don't know about other music systems, but in Western Common Practice theory you aren't using most of these terms correctly. "Accidental" is just a collective term for sharps, flats, naturals etc. "Chromatic" doesn't mean borrowing from the chromatic scale, in fact the scale gets its name from chromaticism not the other way around. A chromatic note is just a non-diatonic note, and D# would actually be the far more common choice in A minor. Definitely not at all more common to include multiple consecutive chromatic notes, they are just as common if not more common by themselves. –  Pat Muchmore Jul 3 at 17:52
princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/… "An accidental is a note whose pitch (or pitch class) is not a member of a scale or mode indicated by the most recently applied key signature." The naturals, sharps, and flats are just the symbols used to represent them. I'm saying that you could call it either, but you could say that he's borrowing from a list of diatonic scales. And I don't think it's relevant which came first. I'm saying if it's just one note that's probably from another diatonic scale, it's more common to call it an accidental. –  Nick of Music Jul 3 at 18:16
Just because a note is from outside of a key, does not make it from another scale. –  Dom Jul 3 at 21:00
@Dom /Nick - it's got to be from another scale - where else? Every note in Western tuning is from the chromatic scale ! –  Tim Jul 4 at 9:41
@Tim but just because the note is in another scale does not mean it is being used in the piece. That is a big difference. Any non harmonic tone can be from outside the key/scale and as long as it resolves right it doesn't really matter what the function could be especially when the harmony does not reflect the use of the scale. –  Dom Jul 4 at 13:09

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