Early music students are often confused with where to place accidentals:

  1. When we speak, we say the note name first and then the accidental: C sharp.
  2. When we're writing away from the staff, we do the same: C♯.
  3. But when we notate in the staff, we suddenly change the ordering: the ♯ comes before the C notehead.

Is there a historical (or even etymological) reason for this? I'd love to point to some specific reasoning instead of just telling my students "this is just how we do it."

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    Is this true in all languages, or just in English? I would not at all be surprised to find it varies with the defined sentence structure rules for each language. Mar 9 at 15:51
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    @CarlWitthoft I considered this very issue with languages where the modifier comes after the noun. But my reasoning always seems to fall short of an explanation. I also wondered if this confusion was limited to students whose native languages are written right to left, but that's not at all the case.
    – Richard
    Mar 9 at 15:53
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    @Tim Does it intuitively make sense, or does it only make sense because that's what we're used to? It seems to me we could easily learn to read accidentals after a note, just as we've learned to read dots that appear after a note.
    – Richard
    Mar 9 at 17:08
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    It's just a language convention. Like how we say "fifty dollars" but write "$50". Mar 9 at 23:58
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    @curiousdannii That's a great example of a similar scenario that I hadn't thought of. If you have any more insight to add on that front, I'd love to see it as an answer!
    – Richard
    Mar 10 at 0:29

I don't know about a historic source, but a few thoughts:

The reason to put the accidental before the note does make sense from a reading standpoint. Get the "warning" of the accidental first, then the note. Although it really wouldn't be too hard to read it with the accidental after, surely it's "read" as one visual "chunk."

There is non-notated usage "flat five", "lowered seventh", etc that prefixes the accidental.

The rest is just the craziness of the English language.

Sharp and flat are adjectives in basic usage, but they can also be adverbs, nouns, and verbs where to position before/after changes.

  • ...start at 7:30 sharp..., ...turn down flat...
  • the musical symbols, a sharp, a flat
  • ...sharp the C..., ...flat the C...

The last example, the verbs, it strange. Normally you would use sharpen or flatten, but definitions for music usage give plain sharp and flat as verbs.

That is further complicated when using a past tense verb as an adjective:

  • ...the sharped C..., ...the flatted B...

Sometime English places adjective after nouns, postposition, like in attorney general, private first class, eggs benedict, Generation X, etc. etc. There aren't clear rules for when the adjective comes before or after the noun. But, in regard to historic use, it's interesting that Wikipedia explains that the postposition is often an archaic usage.

The musical usage C sharp or B flat seems to me the postposition form, putting the adjective after the noun.

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    I've never accepted 'sharp the C', or 'the C is sharped'. To me it's just bad English. But just as daft - 'the pencil was sharpened', as opposed to 'the C was sharpened'. Englsih might be a bastardised language, but I think I have a better word...
    – Tim
    Mar 9 at 17:20
  • That usage is strange to my ears too, but I do see it from time to time. Personally, I say "raise" or "lower" for the verb. Mar 9 at 17:25
  • I was doing some research, but I've not found reliable sources so far about possible historic reasons. I agree with the reading standpoint, also conceptually: alterations are normally at the beginning of the piece, as some adjustments may be necessary to the instrument (like with timpani) or even choosing another one (consider trumpets), and since alterations can be persistent (at least for the current bar) it wouldn't very coherent to put individual accidentals after the note. Also "be aware, you're going to play an altered note" is better than "hey, the previous note had to be altered" ;-) Mar 9 at 17:47

In German c sharp becomes cis (as opposed to c) and in a single word this sequence reversal is much less visible, but yes, is trails the note name.

I observe, however, that this is a standard way for word formation, so strong becomes strongly as an adverb, stronger as comparative, and a weakened blue becomes bluish. So I assume that it is more brain-compatible to start with the fixed concept and add modifiers later.

Concerning notation the other sequence has its advantages: if you already played a c it is too late to start modifying. (This is also shared by notation like computer keyboard CTRL+C). In computer science there is a special term for this, when applied to variable length encodings (see Wikipedia):

A prefix code is a code with the "prefix property": there is no valid code word in the system that is a prefix (start) of any other valid code word in the set

So with the note head as easily recognizable end the prefix property is kept. (Explanation, why this is desired: It has the advantage, that when sequentially decoding the notation, you recognize, when all information for a note is available without need to look ahead).

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    I disagree with your theory about word formation - it's not like word prefixes are unheard of (there are four in this sentence alone, and none are particularly brain-incompatible). It's also the case that in English, adjectives almost always come before the word they modify, and only rarely after. Mar 9 at 17:16

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