I'm having trouble writing music containing accidentals.

If the diatonic scale contains 7 related notes, what purpose do accidentals serve? If the accidental notes are not related to the overall scale, how can they ever sound good?

Very often when I use an accidental in composing, even if it's part of a chord, it sounds "wrong" to me. How do I know when to use them, and how do I use them correctly?

  • 1
    Do you mean you're trying to write music and attempting to put accidentals into that music (as accidentals) or you actually need the notes which will be written as accidentals?
    – Tim
    Jun 30, 2013 at 20:27
  • What about a scale makes you think that the notes inside it clash with the notes outside it? Wouldn't that make it impossible to have a scale that shares notes from any 2 other scales?
    – user28
    Jul 1, 2013 at 5:47

7 Answers 7



I believe your confusion stems from a a misconception about tonality in composition. Although a piece of music may be in a certain key, the tonal center may shift several times within the context of that key signature. Take, for example, this quickly composed snippet of simple music in C Major (no sharps, no flats):

Song Snippet

Even though the song is in the key of C, the accidental is needed in the 3rd measure because the supporting harmony is in the key of G minor. The chord after the D minor chord may very well go back into C Major, and the melody may call for a B natural at that point. This is an example of using an accidental to fit within the context of the supporting harmony.

By contrast, accidentals can be effective for introducing "outside" structures to existing harmonies. Take this snippet for example:

Another simple snippet

In this one, the key signature is still C Major. The harmony is just playing consecutive open fifths (without a 3rd) to create a pedal-pointing effect. The melody takes advantage of the ambiguous nature of the harmony by throwing in a host of accidentals not found in the C Major Scale. This is an example of using accidentals to impose new tonality onto existing harmonies.

There are many other instances where accidentals may be used. A few examples are to purposefully introduce dissonance to the piece, adding upper structures/extensions to a chord (such as a minor 9th, sharp 11, or flat 13) to thicken the harmony, or to imply an entirely different harmony within a certain key (playing an F# Major triad above a C Major triad, for example.) I hope this helps a bit.


Knowing when to use an accidental is a difficult question to answer, and the best I can say is Whenever you like. Whatever your musical ear tells you is acceptable for the purpose is what is allowed.

Let's assume that you want the music to sound interesting without being dissonant. in that case there are a few uses that I can think of off the top of my head*(bear in mind these are guidelines)*

As a grace note before your main note/chord Certain notes of the diatonic scale are more like colourings than main notes. For example in a minor scale the 6th can either be a minor 6th(natural minor scale/Aolean) or a major 6th(as in the dorian mode) and both have their place.

As a passing tone between 2 chords if you treat chords as their individual notes you'll notice certain relationships between the notes. Let's take a simple I - V CMaj - CEG GMaj - GBD The distance between C in CMaj and D in GMaj is one tone, or 2 semitones, so it's completely faesable to use the note in the middle as a passing tone. instead of CMaj-GMaj try Cmaj C# GMaj

As part of a deliberate Dissonance you can substitute certain chords in a scale with other chords involving non diatonic notes. The example I'm thinking of is using a diminished chord instead of a straight dominant chord on the 5th, If you want to explore substitutions further might I suggest Ted Greene's Chord Chemistry

As part of a key change Let's say you want to move from C major to G major, as you may know C major uses no sharps/flats and G major uses one sharp (F#). Usually at some point before the actual new key you need to introduce that F# so that the shift doesn't sound forced or out of place

As part of a non-diatonic scale eg chromatic scale, Whole tone, dininished scale, Hybrid Scales, Neapolitan scale, the original modes

To avoid dissonance on voice leading The wording of this one might be off, but when you're sticking to one key with no accidentals you can still have dissonant intervals happening, in C if you have chords a 5th apart you get 6 perfect intervals - CG DA EB FC GD AE and then you have BF which is a diminished 5th. if it so happens that your chord contains B and F you will have a dissonance which can be removed if you sharpen or flatten either of the 2 notes. If you decide to Flatten B or Sharpen F, you have yourself an accidental(or if you want to be techie then it's a transient modulation of a 4th or 5th)

Misc In a harmonic minor scale, the 7th degree is sharpened(so that it has a leading note) In a melodic minor scale, the 6th and 7th degrees are sharpened The blues scale uses a diminished 5th

A heavy answer to a heavy question


It sounds like you are attempting to compose tonal music. Tonal music can modulate from one key to another without needing to change the key signature. In addition, tonal works in minor keys will nearly always use an accidental to raise the seventh scale degree, almost every time it appears (as well as the sixth scale degree in an ascending scalar passage).

Further, there are certain chords that can be "borrowed" from one key and placed in another. Secondary dominants are a simple example: you can precede a chord with the dominant in that chord's key. More extensive mode mixture is also possible.

To give you more information, I would need more specifics regarding what you are trying to do.

  • I'm mostly trying to use them to add some color and variation to the melody / counterpoint. It sometimes works, and usually doesn't (because I have no idea what I'm doing).
    – Dan
    Jun 30, 2013 at 22:43
  • @Dan That helps a little, though actually "melody" and "counterpoint" are likely to have different issues in this case. More specific questions might include, "How can I use chromatics to embellish a melody?" or "How can I use chromatic embellishments in my counterpoint?" The second question would require answering the first, if you don't know its answer. In fact, I think they are two different questions...
    – Andrew
    Jun 30, 2013 at 22:52
  • 1
    @Dan - I agree with Andrew here. I think you're really leaning more towards asking how functional harmony works. If that is the case, it may be more helpful to point you towards a text rather than summarize the giant swath of information known as functional harmonic theory. Jul 1, 2013 at 1:19
  • @jjmusicnotes Doesn't functional harmony only cover the diatonic scale though?
    – Dan
    Jul 1, 2013 at 12:59
  • 2
    @Dan - Absolutely not - functional harmony covers approximately a year and half of collegiate music theory classes. Jul 1, 2013 at 16:18

The first piece of advice I'd give you for composing tonal music is to think in keys rather than scales. Being a guitarist, I've seen a lot of people get caught up in trying to think only in scales and what sounds "correct", and this generally doesn't make for convincing musical work. Try to approach your composition by thinking of the bigger picture: your key, specific harmonic areas you want to explore, and of course your melody. I think you'll find the feeling quite a bit less constraining.

Accidentals could serve any number of purposes. When you say they're "not related to the overall scale", this goes back to what I described above. Accidentals are just as acceptable as diatonic notes in whatever key you're working in, they're simply notes that don't naturally occur in said key. That's all you really have to consider -- accidentals aren't wrong, just different. You'd probably see them most often as chromatic motion in a melody (for example, a melody in C major that goes from F to G may use an F# along the way) or being employed as part of a secondary dominant chord. That being said, you can use them however you see fit, and a lot of this is going to come down to experience listening to accidentals in music. Find some scores of works you like, sit down and listen to them and figure out why the composer used a particular accidental and try to work some of these musical devices into your own compositions.

It's nigh impossible to say why your accidentals in chords sound "wrong" without an audio file or a score, since obviously "right" and "wrong" are subjective here. Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean exactly?

  • Listen to accidentals ? How is anyone, especially the O.P. going to know when he's just heard an accidental ?
    – Tim
    Jul 3, 2013 at 16:06
  • "Find some scores of works you like, sit down and listen to them and figure out why the composer used a particular accidental..." Based on his original question, he can identify which notes are and are not in the key. If he's got the score in front of him, he'll have no problem identifying which notes are accidentals. Jul 3, 2013 at 17:29
  • Yes, looking as well is good. However, a score is not easy for a learner to follow, and often an accidental will not sound out of place, so I don't think this will be of much help. A simple single line melody with a simple accompaniment is far more help than a complete score, with loads of other stuff going on underneath. Differing keys for the transposing instruments will muddy the already unclear waters : if modulation occurs, one instrument may need an accidental, whereas another may not. Confusing ?
    – Tim
    Jul 4, 2013 at 7:26

Lots of good posts here. I am a relative beginner as well, so corrections or clarifications of this post are welcome. Here is what I have learned that may be helpful to you:

  1. Music theory is not the instructions to writing music. It is a codification of how music is written, so we have terms to refer to specific notes, and to the relationships of the various tones when used in specific ways. But theory doesn't direct how your music should sound, or how to write it "correctly".

  2. Using accidentals in melody is a little different than using them in harmonies, such as the harmonizing notes in the chords you use. I am assuming you are asking about using them in your melodies. To get a better understanding of how they work, look at the sheet music from a few songs that you know the melody for. By looking at the key signature, you can tell what key they are written in, and everything outside that key will be marked as an accidental. By playing the melody, with the accidentals identified, you can easily start to understand how accidentals can work.

If you don't know enough music theory to read a signature key or to read notes, you probably should not be concerning yourself with theory, and focus on what sounds good to your ear.

Mostly, you have to develop your musical ear. Over time, you will begin to trust yourself on whether an accidental works, as well as a chord that includes accidentals. One you trust your ears, if it sounds good to you, it's good, and it doesn't matter whether you know the theory that explains why.


I can see how you might be confused by having a smattering of theoretical statements thrown at you. Let's think a little philosophically instead: Okay, you are composing a piece in any given key, the arrangement (whole and half steps) of which is always the same based on the tonic (first or home tone) of that scale. Think in analogies. You write a paragraph using simple sentences; it sounds fine, but can become boring if everything continues to be written on an elemental level. So you spice things up with the addition of adjectives, and perhaps a twist on word order here and there, etc.; i.e. you add a little complexity to increase interest. In music it's the same way. You can stick only to tones contained within the key in which you're writing or you can spice things up a little by adding accidentals (non-scale tones) here and there; think of them as the salt and pepper of your composition. You may want to go a little further and add some garlic or cinnamon, i.e. maybe a tritone once in a while or a passing chord completely divorced from the home key. Without the spice, what you write can be quite bland. Mix up the bland (sometimes wanted) with the spice (sometimes wanted/needed), and you have a piece with overall appeal, interest and beauty. Indeed, a world of music without accidentals would be like a robotic race all programmed with simple and same information, therefore all sounding/responding/reacting alike; how uninteresting/boring/unimaginative, etc. True, accidentals can transport you to other key centers, but within any given key they can be the spice that holds attention. So never think of them as wrong, but as components of interest. You would be hard pressed to find what are generally accepted as famous works of music without accidentals.

Think of what you write in terms of destination. You are writing in your chosen key; you introduce an accidental. If you stop where you are, the effect CAN seem wrong. So continue your journey and come back or resolve the tension by going to a melody/harmony within your key center; suddenly that "wrongness", in retrospect, is viewed as a point of beauty which was not wrong at all, but enhanced the flow of your composition and gave it depth. Sometimes you want depth to an extreme, sometimes not so much. Variety is the spice of life!


When I composed a song called "Rivals" I changed the key from B minor to C major (for about 8 measures) and then to D major without changing the key signature, which resulted in a lot of C and F naturals, but the only effect it had was it sounded brighter at each change.

If you want to see how accidentals can sound good the first thing coming to my mind is the ascending melodic minor scale ... it's basically a scale starting on the sixth note of the major scale and going up an octave, but sharpening the 2nd- and 3rd-to-last pitches (for example, A minor would be A, B, C, D, E, F♯, G♯, and A) I recall the Munsters theme uses this scale (and for that matter Uma Thurman) and I've heard the scale elsewhere as well. In fact, "Rivals" uses that pattern. I would guess a third of music in either a major key or minor key uses no accidentals whatsoever but that leaves 2/3 that do.

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