The original notation, from IMSLP

(Score taken from Tchaikovsky Symphony No.1, Op13, Bassoon part. PDF file from IMSLP.)

I'm referring to the second line, starting from the mf. The melody goes on temporarily on another key but the composer didn't explicitly make a key change. So we have a lot of accidentals here.

My question is, since we also have far simpler ways of adding accidentals to represent the same tune (as shown below), why did the composer still write in a complicated way? And given the reason, is this way of notation optional or a common practice?

A simpler notation

  • 3
    Interesting. Most parts, like the bassoon, are written in B major, but the oboe is in C-flat, and the horns are in both, more or less. Full score is here: second movement.
    – Aaron
    Oct 26, 2020 at 6:07
  • Welcome to Music.SE, and terrific question! I wonder if there's an explanation from the standpoint of Russian music theory? (This is, unfortunately, not my wheelhouse...)
    – Richard
    Oct 26, 2020 at 12:25
  • In general, a key signature change won't be done unless it helps all instruments in the score, not just one. There's also the usual stuff about enharmonics vs. "allowable" harmony/theory progressions. Oct 26, 2020 at 15:43

3 Answers 3


Notating this in a flat minor requires fewer accidentals, but those that it requires are more obscure. A player might well prefer well-known notes to less well-known notes. Remember that woodwind instruments have to know the exact fingering for every tone they play. An f flat is much rarer and more annoying to read than a plain e, while the g sharp, f sharp etc. occur much more often.

If you wanted to improve this score, a much better way would be to simply switch the staff accidentals to B major for that passage.

  • 3
    I like your reasoning and the simplicity of the answer (especially in comparison to my tortured and over-thought one), but I recommend a correction: the passage is in B major, not Ab/G# minor.
    – Aaron
    Oct 26, 2020 at 7:28
  • 5
    I really don't think any professional musician would have trouble reading it in Cb. Oct 26, 2020 at 10:45
  • 3
    @OldBrixtonian - maybe not, but there are plenty of amateur orchestras that have members who would have trouble. The objective of writing music out is to make it as simple as possible to play, surely?
    – Tim
    Oct 26, 2020 at 11:13
  • Am I the only one who has too much trouble with leading sharp/flat indicators? It's called octave, but a leading indicator also affects a note seven steps away. Why why why?
    – Joshua
    Oct 26, 2020 at 16:45
  • 3
    @Joshua Because of gestalt perception. We don't read key signatures by mentally extending each sign's scope horizontally. Instead we recognize the shape of B Major and know that the F has to be an F#. Oct 26, 2020 at 17:08

The simple answer

By convention, one writes in B major rather than Cb major. The exception being when Cb major better expresses key-relationships.

But some parts are in sharps at the same time others are in flats. Why?

An answer that begs the question

The bassoon is notated in B major, because it is playing with the strings, which are notated in B major. The real question is, "why are the strings notated in B major?"

Unfortunately, in the absence of an explanation by Tchaikovsky or his copyist, one can only speculate. Thus...

Rank speculation

Possible reasons

There are generally two reasons why a passage is notated enharmonically. Either

  1. It better expresses the key relationships; or
  2. It's easier to read.

The case against "key relationships"

In this case, notating in Cb major would better express the relationships: the passage is sandwiched between two Ab major sections. Modulation by minor third would generally make more sense than modulation by augmented second. There's a possibility Tchaikovsky was considering this passage in terms of C minor, B being the key of the leading tone, but this seems unlikely since the C minor passages are relatively distant.

The case for "ease of reading"

I think it's more likely Tchaikovsky felt it would be easier to read. For one thing, up to this point, the score has been notated primarily in flats. Tchaikovsky may have felt it would make the modulation easier to see/understand if he switched to sharps. The preceding passages were in C minor, where no additional flats were needed, and Ab major, which required only the addition of Db. That pitch, Db/C# does not occur in the Cb/B major passage. Tchaikovsky may have considered its presence in the preceding Ab major section and then absence in the Cb/B major section could lead to confusion. In other words, writing in Cb major would involve acts both of inclusion (Cb, Fb, Gb) and exclusion (Db); whereas, writing in B major involved only inclusion (B-natural, D#, E-natural, F#, G#, A#).

Why not notate the other winds in B major?

Here I'd go with ease of reading. Since the winds are playing accompaniment chords and relatively few different pitches within each part, easier to just keep them in flats.

So why are the horns notated in both sharps and flats?

Best guess...because they're the vertical mid-point in the score. So Horn 2, vertically nearer the strings in the score, is notated in sharps, while Horn 1, vertically nearer the winds, is notated in flats: a visual aid to the conductor.

  • 2
    I've seen contemporary choral music use Cb as a key more often than B, but another consideration which would be applicable to some instruments (not sure it applies in this case) is that there may be different fingering conventions for sharp and flat notes for purposes of facilitating performance of common sequences. I know nothing about woodwind fingerings, but on some instruments, by my vague understanding, G and A (e.g.) would use adjacent fingers, but G#/Ab could use either. Someone starting an ascending run on G# would use a different finger from someone starting on Ab, which may make...
    – supercat
    Oct 26, 2020 at 15:20
  • ...the third note of the run more convenient, especially if the instrument has only one fingering for B natural. Approaching to that note from the A# fingering might be more convenient than approaching from the Bb fingering.
    – supercat
    Oct 26, 2020 at 15:21

This might be becouse it was written with strings in mind. Remember: even though F# and Gb are enharmonically equal, they are not absolutely equal. There is a slight difference between the two, is only in the way it is approached by winds and strings.

Most of the time, you won't notice this difference, but it is there

  • 3
    No, twice. Both strings and winds can bend notes sufficiently to go to True Temperament if necessary, and neither will do so while playing in a symphony orchestra. Oct 26, 2020 at 15:45
  • 1
    Well, they will bend the notes to something (and especially for the winds it is often good to try making it something just/meantone-ish), but this is pretty orthogonal to whether or not F♯ and G♭ are the same. They may indeed not be equal, but two F♯ appearing in different contexts may also not be equal. Oct 26, 2020 at 15:51
  • This section in B/Cb major comes between sections in Ab major, with conventional modulations using the shared notes of those keys. So if players are any making a distinction here, then the one they should be playing it as is Cb major, not B major. (But also, as @CarlWitthoft says, I don’t think they would be making a difference. Players often make slight adjustments from equal temperament, but these are typically relative to the current harmonic context, as @ leftaroundabout says, rather than absolute, at least for music of Tchaikovsky’s period.)
    – PLL
    Oct 27, 2020 at 8:54
  • 3
    This answer does not make sense. Since this passage is notated for some instruments in B major and others in Cb major, it's obvious that Tchaikowsky considered the two keys identical- or did he want the oboe to play out of tune with the bassoon? Oct 27, 2020 at 12:41

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