What are the rules for annotating accidentals in atonal scores, especially in 12-tone row compositions? For instance, if you use F sharp once, should that note always be scored as F sharp and never as G flat? Should the rule "sharps up, flats down" be followed, and if so, strictly or loosely? Are there any other rules?


3 Answers 3


You would typically stick to all sharps or all flats to keep the rows identifiable in your composition. Whatever your prime tone row is, those 12 notes should be in every row with the same spelling.

The 12 tone rows when being created are just enumerated notes so the typical ideas of like "sharps up, flats down" don't mean much. The focus is much more on the transformations like inversions, retrograde, retrograde-inversions.

  • 1
    This seems to make sense-- using a mixture of spellings depending on "context" would imply a relationship between a tone and the preceding one that wouldn't be expected in serial compositions.
    – Theodore
    Dec 28, 2022 at 20:39
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    Sticking to all sharps or all flats in your matrix makes some sense, though this certainly isn't a requirement. But on the score, this would lead to heartache and woe. You should be focusing on making the score maximally readable for the performer, not easily analyzable for the theorist. That means avoiding spellings that create augmented or diminished intervals whenever possible.
    – ibonyun
    Dec 28, 2022 at 23:40
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    @ibonyun is spot on. Once the row goes through transformations, it's much easier to read when adhering to principles outlines in When to use flat or sharp in atonal music / accidentals rules for atonality?. Even the prime row itself may benefit from including both sharps and flats. For example, the segment [2 6 5 1] may well be easier to read as [D F# F Db] than [D F# F C#].
    – Aaron
    Dec 29, 2022 at 3:29

It's not even necessary for the same note to have the same note in a tonal piece! It will depend on what function that note is playing. A quick example - G♯ as part of an E chord leading to Am will have to have the same sounding note written as A♭ when, in the same piece, it's part of an Fm chord.

From a reader's point of view, it does make sense to keep to sharps or flats, but that's not always technically possible - guitarists may argue that one! But, writing the dots for others necessitates making what's written as easy to read, if occasionally technically incorrect, to win.


Atonal music can be very hard to read. It makes sense to make it easier for the musicians and change notes enharmonically to produce something that looks more like tonal music. There is no need to be dogmatic about about always spelling a particular note the same way. The rule "sharps up, flats down" can be very useful.

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