I'm making a lead sheet of the song "One" by Esperanza Spalding.

I chose the key of Bb because the song feels the most "at home" when the progression lands there at the guitar solo after the 3rd chorus. You could alternatively say it's in Db, which is the first chord of the verse each time. I'd like to hear which one people think it is.

Whichever you choose, the problem of Cb arises (chord bII in Bb or bVII in Db) during the guitar solo. I imagine players would rather just see "B" on the lead sheet, but I'll be expanding this lead sheet to a full arrangement afterwards, and I don't want to deal with the resulting accidentals when I'm writing the full charts.

So it occurred to me that I could just rewrite the whole thing in A#(or C#). But three double-sharps doesn't sound fun.

I don't think writing "Cb" on a lead sheet (especially this one) is so terrible but I'd like to hear what other people think before I commit to it.

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    If anything - and I mean anything, Gm sounds like a place it goes to more naturally. – Tim Mar 15 at 16:22
  • Without playing along to the track, it's not easy to pinpoint a key, as to me, it modulates a lot. In fact, I'd be writing it out note by note, and seeing where it went later in the process - bit like movie music. – Tim Mar 15 at 16:50

Well, if the key is Bb major, then Cb should be bII in that key, pretty much no matter what its purpose is. Unless there's some modulation or weird temporary tonicization going on, Cb is correct - there should be only one "B" note in a key, and Bb already fills that spot. Some guitar players may gripe about it, but it's better form to write it correctly as Cb. If the key were E major, you'd obviously write it as F, not E#, so here in Bb, write it as Cb.

Of course, nothing's stopping you from leaving some editorial note that Cb = B somewhere obvious in the lead sheet. If you do that, you can likely preempt any whining!

No matter which option you pick, Cb or B, you're going to get some dissatisfied customers. I personally would choose to write correctly and give beginners the chance to grow their theory knowledge rather than make things more obvious but annoy the more advanced musicians, but you might have reason to decide one way or another depending on specific circumstances.

Also, I would strongly advise against a rewrite in A# for the same reasons you identified yourself. A# major is a nasty key (with 10 sharps in it); don't use that unless you have to.

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    My answer is assuming the key of Bb, because regardless of whether OP is truly correct about the key of the song, it's still a good question as to which enharmonic spelling one would use in the key of Bb. – user45266 Mar 15 at 16:53
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    After reading Aaron's answer, I'm thinking Db is the more correct choice of key. The B/Cb problem remains the same regardless. I'm starting to think "Cb = B" might be a somewhat elegant solution, at the risk of pissing off some players who think they're above being told same... (not that I care) – yerman Mar 15 at 16:58

The whole song is very chromatic but to me the vocal sections are in three separate keys, the opening verse is Bb (for a few seconds at least), the choruses are in G and the refrains are in Db. The term “refrain” is somewhat antiquated but I use it to distinguish these sections from the opening verse. The guitar solo harmony is based on the verse, starting in Bb but really all over the map.

There are a few approaches you can take, one is to insert key changes at the beginnings of all the sections. The other is to just go with an open key signature and use accidentals where necessary (pretty much everywhere). If you really want to use just one key go with Bb, it starts there and is a simple key to remember and play in (not that you’ll be there long!) I wouldn’t concern myself too much with writing Cb, skilled readers have no problem with it. Once you hit that Dbm7 (C#m7) in the 5th bar of the verse and guitar solo it really doesn’t have much to do with Bb anymore (2-5 to B, 2-5 to E then Em, etc.) so B would also be acceptable in my book. Definitely avoid extreme sharp keys for the whole song though (A#! and C# aren’t necessary in this case and you might get some dirty looks, lol). The whole song is SO chromatic that maybe the open key signature might be the way to go.

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    No key signature is indeed a common choice in realbooks. – user1079505 Mar 15 at 17:49
  • @user1079505 - checking through my real books - there's plenty of key sigs - except those in key C... – Tim Mar 17 at 9:44
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    @Tim it may depend on a realbook. Some examples I was able too google quickly: d29ci68ykuu27r.cloudfront.net/items/19424772/cover_images/… atuneadayblogdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/sweet1.jpg – user1079505 Mar 17 at 13:42
  • @Tim: Sure, most songs use key signatures, no-one’s disputing that. But for very chromatic songs like this one, it’s quite common to not use a key signature as well. (That said, I think this song could reasonably be written in Gm throughout.) – PLL Mar 17 at 17:49
  • @PLL - which was my thought, but no-one else seems to concur. – Tim Mar 17 at 18:17

The linked recording is in Db major. This is made clearest at the very final chord in which the bass plays Db and the voice lands on F.

It's important to consider, however, that vocal arrangements are typically pitched for the vocalist. So, if the arrangement is for a particular singer, the best option would be to find out what key best fits that singer's range and transpose the piece to match, Cbs or no.

Alternatively, if the arrangement is intended for more general use, consider just writing it in C or D major and avoiding the issue altogether. Since it sounds like guitar players are of particular concern, they might appreciate playing in C or D, which tend to lie better on the instrument, than Db.

  • I should have persevered through to the end... although songs such as this could very well modulate through several keys on their way to that end. – Tim Mar 15 at 16:54
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    @Aaron I agree about the key, after listening to it the whole way through again. I guess it modulates to Bb for the solo. I appreciate the thinking behind transposing to C or D, but I want to stay in the original key if possible (if for no other reason than a challenge). I would like to hear your opinion on whether to use Cb or B, though. – yerman Mar 15 at 16:57
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    @yerman Cb for sure. – Aaron Mar 15 at 16:58
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    Yeah, in Db it should be Cb as well, because relative keys. – user45266 Mar 15 at 16:59
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    @yerman Context would be critical in that case; why is it that an Em/Fbm chord appears in this song? What's going on that can explain the strange chord? You may wish to ask a separate question with more details, but if you can find out what the Em/Fbm V-to-i chord sequence is doing there in the song, you will be well on your way to determining its proper spelling. – user45266 Mar 15 at 18:07

A more important factor, for me if I was orching this, is that the tessitura seems quite high. So it may cut down on the number of vocalists who would be happy in that written key. I'd consider dropping it a tone or so, thus leaving it in a 'more friendly' - for vox and readers - key.

That said, it doesn't answer the question - but provides some solution.

If a key has to contain such as C♭, or E♯, so be it. This sort of music isn't for beginners, or the faint-hearted, so anyone playing it will understand that certain keys have 'odd-named' notes, and will cope accordingly. Also bear in mind that if there are transposing instruments to be written for, their written keys may produce other, similar problems.

  • I don't see why I should have to avoid the original key, to be honest. If a vocalist needs it shifted, I can hit the big red transpose button (don't h8 me) and fix any problems that causes. But for chord symbols, I want to make them as easy to read as possible. – yerman Mar 15 at 16:44
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    I'm not saying you should - I'm saying what option I may give myself! But if one resorts to using a transpose button (I hate them, not you!), then writing in a more friendly-to-writer's key makes even more sense - to me. – Tim Mar 15 at 16:48
  • I think that point about transposition is secondary to the nature of the question. Not an invalid argument by any means, but the last paragraph is where the answer to the underlying question lies. – user45266 Mar 15 at 16:49
  • @user45266 - hence the middle para? Sometimes we don't see the wood for the trees. Just an option I threw out... – Tim Mar 15 at 16:52
  • Yeah, and I see why the middle line is there. Just pointing it out so people don't immediately jump on the "This should be a comment, not an answer" train. – user45266 Mar 15 at 16:54

Using alterations like Cb could be confusing for beginners or musicians used to simple harmonies.

Considering the artist and the fact that the song is far from being a "simple pop tune" with the usual 3/4 diatonic chords, I sincerely doubt that any musician interested in playing it would have any problem about that.


Music transcriptions intended for sight-reading should follow different conventions from those intended for analysis or as the basis for further transcriptions. A transcription intended to be sight-read should be marked in whatever way will maximize the likelihood of the performer playing the desired notes, without regard for whether the markings make "musical sense". Generally, markings that make musical sense will be more likely to yield a correct performance than those that don't, but given a choice between markings that would make sense if analyzed but are likely to be initially misunderstood, or markings that will be performed correctly but violate music theory conventions, the latter should often be preferred in editions intended to facilitate sight reading.


A ♭II chord is what it is. You write it with a C♭ (in this case), or you are going to confuse experienced musicians very badly.

I can process a C♭ chord in a B♭ key, because it fits the key. If you suddenly throw in a B chord, I'm going to be thinking "okay. . . we're modulating to-- F#? E, maybe?" And if you don't modulate, I throw the score in the garbage and walk away.

  • bII instead of bii I reckon. As in the comments above, I determined that B was more useful in this case than Cb since the following chord is Em (B is V of Em). – yerman Mar 15 at 23:28
  • Yes, you're right, bII is the chord you wanted, that's my mistake. If you are in fact modulating to Em, then use B, except for a special case if you've already gone through the same progression before without modulating, then sometimes when you change things up, you'll see both chords tied, so C♭M^BM, especially over a key signature change. That tells the player "Hey, this is the same thing you've already done. . . but this time we're modulating, so get ready for it." – Bennyboy1973 Mar 16 at 5:17

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