# Why practice enharmonic equivalent keys as separate keys

In this video Victor Wooten explains that there are 30 keys that people need to practice in as opposed to 24. I found out that the 6 extra keys are actually redundant in the sense that each one of them has a key in the shorter 24-key list that sounds exactly the same, i.e. has the same notes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_signature#Scales_with_sharp_key_signatures

And the difference lies in notation. For instance F# and Gb, or B and Cb.

But Victor Wooten knows his stuff, so I know he is right, but why is he right??

• Ok, I'll ask it (or maybe should start a new question): why seven? Carl Flesch's violin scale book provides F# and Gb (six #/b) and calls it a day. C# has 7 sharps, but Db has five flats. Why would anyone use a 7-symbol key when there's a 5 one? (My guess: because theory rules. Like, maybe you're writing a sonata-allegro form in F# (WHY) so you have to go to the dominant for the second theme, so you have to call it C# rather than Db. All still seems pretty stubborn to me.) And, for the purposes of my curiosity, "because temperament" doesn't count, or else there should be 48. Aug 29, 2021 at 13:24
• @AndyBonner most composers apply such rules taking enharmonic equivalence into account. For example, Beethoven used D♭ as the parallel major of C♯ minor. Secondary themes aren't typically written using a distinct key signature, but nonetheless the use of secondary dominants creates a preference for G♭ over F♯. It doesn't matter on paper whether V/V is written using a C♮ accidental or a B♯ accidental, but C♮ is probably less confusing. A stronger reason for preferring G♭ is the relative minor, in which the raised 6th and 7th degrees of E♭ minor are C♮ and D♮ instead of B♯ and C𝄪 in D♯ minor. Aug 29, 2021 at 14:33
• @AndyBonner - C# major is just common enough in keyboard sheet music that you should know how to read music in it (e.g. The Well-Tempered Klavier, near the end of Debussy's Toccata in his Pour le piano set - note that the Toccata starts in C# minor). It's often more convenient to use the 7-accidental key signature when it's for the tonic major/minor of an earlier key. In addition, Ab minor has more convenient secondary dominants than G# minor despite its 7-flat key signature (think Bb major chords vs. A# major chords). Aug 29, 2021 at 19:06
• It's a little bit of a trick question in the wording to get a discussion started. He asked about "practice." If he had asked how many "key signatures" right at the beginning, it would get your thinking differently, and you might have realized the number sooner. Aug 31, 2021 at 17:11

The music-reading aspect of this is well covered. So, another perspective...

Consider that Victor Wooten is best known an improvising musician. Moreover, he's a bass player, where understanding harmonic relationships is essential. I think it's no accident that in this video he never mentions music-reading, or even playing music at all (aside from scale practice). He's focused on keeping track of these things in memory.

He's saying that one must be equally proficient thinking in Db major as in C# major. That way, whether reading notes, chord changes, or playing by ear, one can maintain an awareness of the shifting relationships between harmonies.

Wooten's approach can be practiced independent of — and away from — any instrument. One could practice my naming a B major scale ascending and descending, then naming a Cb major scale ascending and descending. These could be combined, say, by naming a B major scale ascending and a Cb major scale descending. One could do a similar exercise switching between F# major and Gb major.

As as these keys/scales become better known, then a next step is to recognize how keys interact through dominant, subdominant, and other relationships. "I'm playing in E major, but the next chord is Ab7. Oh, I see, that's just the mediant key, but since Db is coming up next, it's nice to think of its dominant rather than E's mediant." The better one knows all "30" scales, the more intuitive this process becomes. And it holds regardless how the music is encountered: sheet music, chord charts, listening.

• This is the answer I personally was hoping to see. I always have had a bit of trouble with thinking in Gb, since F# is so engrained in my mind. Aug 29, 2021 at 22:05
• @user45266 - I'm not at all sure that improvising players need to be thinking in F# and Gb. (And be capable of thinking in either). I believe one would suffice - unless one is improvising from a chart - ah, dots again - not what this answer is considering. Except perhaps in the last para. Personally, once I'm locked into a key - any key - and call it whatever - it's the relationship between harmonies that drives the playing, not what each chord is called, and I imagine Victor would be doing similar.I wonder, therefore, whether that interview was more of an academic than practical exercise.
– Tim
Aug 30, 2021 at 7:24
• @Tim "improvising players [don't] need to be thinking in F# and Gb": neither to readers — the focus of your own answer. I've known plenty of outstanding sight readers who are simply reading the notes without an awareness of key, let alone key relationships. For some, key awareness facilitates reading; just as for some, key awareness facilitates improvisation. Aug 30, 2021 at 7:33
• I'm inclined to think that it's entirely possible to play and make music without knowing letter names or any of that verbally explicated theory. Notes can be thought of as locations on a keyboard or fretboard, relative to a tonal center position or to absolute positions, chords can be thought of as visual shapes and who knows what else. A naming system with twelve distinct names and no sharps or flats might serve some styles of music better. Aug 30, 2021 at 8:04
• @Tim Not an opposing view; rather, an inclusive view. Aug 30, 2021 at 9:03

He's right with 30. That's two with no sharps/flats (Cmaj/Am), and given that the highest number of sharps/flats in a key signature can be seven, each, that's 28, including majors and relative minors. There's nothing in that which includes harmonic or melodic miniors - they're not keys - they're scales.

So, let's take C♯ as one example (or C♯/A♯m as two!). And equivalent/s D♭ and B♭m. Yes, they are, particularly in 12tet, using exactly the same notes. This is where the rub comes. Playing by ear in either key, there's no difference. But what about reading in each key? That's the difference.

I guess Victor includes reading in his practice, which quite a few guitarists/bassists don't - for many good reasons - and that's where the enharmonic keys come into their own.

And, a thought: were the enharmonic keys, thus their component notes, played on fretless bass, would those notes be exactly the same, or would there be slight variances..?

• "particularly in 12-tet": in any 12-tone fixed temperament, they're the same notes. I commented on the question that Beethoven used D♭ as the parallel major of C♯ minor. The piece I had in mind was the "Moonlight" sonata, which was written before pianos were probably tuned truly equally, and surely Beethoven didn't expect a different tuning for the middle movement. (And if we're not talking about keyboards but about instruments that can tune individual notes, then even the same pitch in the same movement might be tuned differently in different contexts despite being spelled the same). Aug 29, 2021 at 15:55
• Of course, in some 12-tone temperaments, the tuning of a certain note might make it very unsuitable for one enharmonic spelling in order to make it more useful for the other enharmonic spelling. You could then reasonably say, for example, that the temperament tunes the note as C♯ rather than D♭, but even in that case you would still play the same note if a piece called for D♭; it would just sound bad because you had chosen a poor temperament for the piece. Or, in the Baroque, a composer using that temperament just wouldn't write a chord including a D♭ except as a special effect. Aug 29, 2021 at 16:05
• All 12 notes in an octave have a minor and a major key built and then you have three semitone which have a second pair of enharmonic keys. Those places bein CB / B, F# / Gb and C# and Db, which indeed gives 30. Aug 30, 2021 at 20:12
• Why stop at 7 sharps? Why not continue on to 6 sharps and a double-sharp, etc.? Aug 31, 2021 at 1:16
• @DanielWagner: There’s no canonical theoretical place to draw the line — this is inevitably a somewhat pragmatic choice. These 30 keys make a good place to draw the line, because it’s clear to describe and remember, and covers virtually everything occurring in practice. “There are exactly 30 keys you must to practice, never more, never less” would certainly be a silly stance; but “These 30 keys make a good comprehensive practice régime” is sensible, and expecting a perfect theoretical justification is missing the point.
– PLL
Aug 31, 2021 at 11:43

While a piece may not be in an "extreme" key, it's easy to find sections (maybe a few measures long) in almost any such key. Composers are fond of using parallel minors and majors of a given key. So we can start off with a simple B minor piece (2 sharps); then a section in B major (5 sharps) and a cycle of fifths in said B major. If the harmonic rhythm is slow one may see (sometimes extended) sections accompanied by E major chords, A# diminished (or minor or major), D#, G#, C#, (minor, major, seventh), perhaps an Augmented Sixth on G, F# (major or seventh) then back to B major (or minor). This type of procedure leads to short (or long) sections that are "locally" in an "extreme" key.

Similar things happen around Ab or Db with a shift to the parallel major of the relative minor or some sort of sequential chord section.

Another possibility is in accompanying a singer who partied the previous night. A piece in D may actually be played in either Db or C# (either can move quickly to an "extreme" section."

The point is that reading (as Tim suggested) a passage in an unusual key may happen even in pieces with "simple" key signatures. The harmonic implications are often shown in the notation (especially in keyboard or conductor's scores) while the (supposedly) easier to read alternatives may show up in parts. In sight-reading (or sight-transposing which is more common than one would like), knowing the actual harmonic structures make playing a bit easier; one knows where a piece is likely to go.

Well, if we take the major key sigs: There is C major without sharps and flats, then there are 7 major sigs from one sharp to seven sharps and finally 7 major sigs from 1 flat to seven flats. Total is 15. Similar there are 15 minor key sigs. So the total is 30.

That is what I have learned, so nothing new in that.

Since you can actually encounter all of them in sheet music you are better off knowing them all. As an example you need to be able to read a key sig with 6 sharps as well as a key sig with 6 flats even you can argue it is the same thing on a piano. If you can only read one of them you will be in trouble when you encounter sheet music with the other one.

On different instruments the notation can make a big difference. Like on a violin a B♭ is intonated in relation to A♮ like a leading note down to A; while the note A♯ will be intonated in relation to B♮ like a leading note up to B. The point is that A♯ and B♭ will be two different pitches, thus the notation makes a big difference. You won't always intonate like that, it depends on the context. It is called expressive intonation.

Other times you will play with just intonation, typically with double stops. If you play in an ensemble the intonation is related to the ensemble. If you play with a piano the unison sections will be intonated with equal temperament since you want the unison to actually be unison.

Anyway the notation can make a big difference on how you play.

Note that on a concert harp (pedal harp) it makes sense to have up to seven sharps or seven flats. The harp is tuned in C♭ major (each octave has 7 strings), then with the 7 pedals you can raise the strings a half step up to C major and another half step up to C♯ major. Thus when accidentals occur they can show on which string you are playing. You can play a B both with the B♭ string changed to B♮ with the pedal, or with the C♭ string in default position. The notation can show which string to use.

Thus it can make sense to notate a B major scale as a C♭ major scale; well, you can also, with the pedals, change all the strings into a B major scale and thereby use a B major motation. Note that a B and a C♭are two different strings, the B is the B♭ string raised a half step with the pedal while the C♭ is the C♭ string.

Anyway, I might have gotten carried away, my overall point is that it is a good idea to know all the key sigs from no signs up to either seven sharps or seven flats.

• The only sheet music I've read in A sharp minor is self-published music in Musescore's website. I've personally found that key to be an extraordinary pain to notate music in (secondary dominants looking like B sharp major chords much?). Aug 29, 2021 at 12:46
• @Dekkadeci personally I would definitely notate it in B♭ minor and not in A♯ minor. Aug 29, 2021 at 14:08

The keys are by no means redundant. Instruments wit nuts cannot really do keys with flats. It takes years of playing before a violinist meets F Major for the first time. On the other hand a instrument like a harp can only do keys with flats because your finger pluck towards you making it easier to think about going down than up. The musical notation system was not designed with any specific instruments in mind it had to be all things to all instruments

Keyboard instruments have all the keys open to them but there are many considerations in how keys are chosen. If you are playing with singers the specifics of the type of voice will determine key. Transposing instruments may also have plenty to say about what key the piano has to function in. If you want to tell the local opera diva that she has to change the key she sings in to appease the piano player then I'm certain her response is not going to be pleasant. The response would probably be summised by her telling you to take a long walk of a short pier

Lastly you should realise yes C# Major and Db Major have the same fingering on piano but there is a sizable paradigm shift in approach as you have to change your approach from seven sharps to five flats. Your headspace is just different even if your fingers go on the same place.

• Harps can certainly play both with flats and sharps, at least a concert harp. Aug 30, 2021 at 22:09
• I don't understand "instruments with nuts cannot really do keys with flats." I play the flat keys on guitar all the time, and probably more often than the sharp keys.
– user39614
Aug 30, 2021 at 22:59