28

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?

  • 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
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    @NeilMeyer - 'dur' is NOT another way to say flat. It actually means major. – Tim Jul 24 '16 at 6:51
8

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.

23

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.

  • 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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    @MichaelScottCuthbert could you clarify yours "or it was the next letter of the alphabet"? I misread it as H is the next after A (in which language alphabet?) thanks! Aaaah, I think I got it: H is the next non-used letter in the "any" alphabet! B was already used, and so were CDEFG. – Ayrat Oct 22 '17 at 12:07
  • Yes, it's the next unused letter. – Michael Scott Cuthbert Oct 22 '17 at 15:34
2

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
0

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".

  • 1
    The same in Poland. – Bartosz Wójtowicz Aug 26 '16 at 11:18
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    This answer doesn’t make sense, because it’s clear that the choice of B versus H had to have preceded Bach, since he used it, too. – aeismail Mar 2 '18 at 22:45
  • One of my cousins live in Australia and she uses the German notation as well. – Maika_Sakuran0miya Mar 13 at 23:54

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