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I have been practicing this piece (The Stars and Stripes Forever) for a while. On the first note of the second measure of the second line, there is a natural sign. I have always understood accidentals not to affect notes outside of the current measure. If so, why is there a natural sign on the C while the key is F Major? Is this a mistake, or an obsolete practice (this is from 1897)? If the natural sign were not there, would the C be played as a C#?

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up vote 20 down vote accepted

The natural sign next to the C is a "courtesy accidental". It is there only to make it absolutely clear to the player that the C is not to be sharp.

It is correct that an accidental only carries through the bar, and thus that the one here is not necessary. But were it not there, though the note would be a C-natural, it would be easy upon sight-reading to play a C-sharp instead.

The practice of courtesy accidentals is still very common. A composer will include accidentals such as these to clear any confusion that may arise, and in so doing aid the performer's reading.

EDIT: The one exception is when a note with an accidental is tied (with a slur) over to the next bar. In this case, the note will keep the accidental.

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You speak the truth! But courtesy accidentals make my sight-reading worse on trombone. However, not on piano. So weird. – Josh Fields Jan 13 '12 at 4:17
@JoshFields, haha, yeah I totally understand! They always make me do a double take when I see them. – Reina Abolofia Jan 13 '12 at 5:28
I often see them notated in parentheses, which is a big help. – Monica Cellio Jan 13 '12 at 15:30
You should indicate, though, that accidentals will get carried over into the following bar if they're part of a tied note, since the entire value is considered to be a "single" note, even if it's split across multiple bars. – aeismail Jan 14 '12 at 20:05
Thanks @aeismail, I'll add that! Thanks for pointing it out! – Reina Abolofia Jan 15 '12 at 5:50

As above, it seems to be a courtesy thing, also found in ABRSM grade pieces, particularly lower ones. To me it just adds too much information - surely we KNOW the barline cancels accidentals, so shouldn't need reminding.There's enough info on a page of dots already.....

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Well, sometimes it helps to be extra sure there's no typo. – American Luke Feb 29 '12 at 16:20
@AmericanLuke: That can be especially important in cases where a composer might have two instruments play an altered note, and then have one instrument leave to to the unaltered note while another replays the altered one. Such intention would be rare, but if the "courtesy accidental" were omitted, performers might change the unaltered note to match the altered one in the belief that the lack of an accidental was a mistake. – supercat Aug 16 '15 at 22:16

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