Confused about the natural symbol (♮) and the omnipresence of the C major scale in music theory

Something is confusing me in our use of accidentals in modern music theory, and more particularly about the use of the natural symbol ♮. It is not always easy to formulate accurately a mess of questions you have in mind, so I will do my best to be as clear as possible.

The role of the natural symbol ♮ is to "bring back the corresponding note to its natural value". If I'm reading a staff in C major, the presence of this symbol indicates without ambiguity that the corresponding note is to play to its original value (e.g. a B note preceded with ♮ is to be played natural. i.e. on a piano, the corresponding white key).

However, if I'm now reading a staff in F major. The staff will have a key signature with one B flat, indicating that all the B notes with no accidentals on the staff are to be played flat (i.e. a black key on a piano). If suddenly a B note with a natural symbol appears on the staff, I will have to play it "natural" (on a piano, the corresponding white key), which means the corresponding note in the C major scale. But what is natural here? Given the fact that we are in F major, from my point of view the "natural" B here is the B from the F major scale, which is B flat! That sounds natural!

So my statements/questions are :

• The natural symbol (♮) is an undercover agent sent by the C major scale. In other words, the natural symbol (♮) is totally linked to the C major scale. Is this statement correct?
• The use of natural symbols in modern music theory is not relative to the current key signature, but always absolute as it always refer to the C major scale. Is this statement a rewording of my previous one?
• What we call "natural" in music theory is actually an alias for C major. Is this statement correct?
• In my example of the F major staff, why isn't it more logical to write the "natural" (white) B note as a B sharp, to show that it is outside the F major scale? In other words, have a notation that is relative to the current key signature.

• I think you’re making it way too complicated. When you see a natural sign in front of a note, you play the note natural. On a piano, that means you play the white key that has that note name. That is 100% of all you need to know about natural signs. The key signature does not matter at all in terms of playing a note with a natural sign. The C major scale also has nothing to do with it. Just play the key. No need to think about anything else besides what note to play. May 28, 2023 at 13:25
• "bring back the corresponding note to its natural value" – where does this quote come from? May 28, 2023 at 16:08
• You are confusing the general meaning of the word 'natural' with its different musical meaning. May 28, 2023 at 16:21
• I would really like a more relative notation, the naturals always confuse me because they force me to mentally transpose into c major/a minor/some mode of your choice to know which one I should use. I would like for a notation where key signatures are just relative to the scale you want, so all naturals in the key signature just mean "reference tonic major". Perhaps a little squiggle somewhere saying what major scale the all naturals are in. But I suppose musicians who have gotten used to how it is wouldn't enjoy that...
– Emil
May 28, 2023 at 17:13
• You could even imagine the lines and spaces be from strange scales like 12-tone chromatic scale or blues scale or whatever...
– Emil
May 28, 2023 at 17:23

"The use of natural symbols in modern music theory is not relative to the current key signature, but always absolute as it always refer to the C major scale. Is this statement a rewording of my previous one?"

It always refers to the "natural" version of the note, which also happens to be the version that shows up in C major. Each natural note shows up in many keys though, so saying "C Natural" is linked to C major is like saying it's linked to F major, or Bb major, or G major, etc...

We could do the same with flats or sharps, too. "F sharp" is linked to G major, or perhaps D major, etc...

The practical use for this information is that when you see a natural that is outside the key signature, it is likely functioning as a borrowed chord from some key that has that natural note.

Also, I should probably mention that in some tuning systems, the "C Natural" in G major is a different pitch than the "C Natural" in Bb Major, or C Major, or other keys, so thinking of all naturals as being "the version from C major" isn't necessarily accurate either.

"In my example of the F major staff, why isn't it more logical to write the "natural" (white) B note as a B sharp, to show that it is outside the F major scale? In other words, have a notation that is relative to the current key signature."

You could have a notation that is relative to the current key signature- such notations exist (e.g. Nashville number chord charts, or moveable-do solfege). They have the advantage of more clearly representing what the music sounds like, but the disadvantage that they don't tell you in absolute terms what note needs to be played. The fact that an accidental sign showed up at all is your indication that the note is outside the scale.

There clearly is some link between the natural sign and C major, since C major is (one of) the scale(s) that uses all naturals, but when reading music, think of the literal meaning of the term "natural". It's not sharped or flatted. If we want our written music system to work like it does (representing "all" 7 note diatonic scales with exactly 1 pitch per line or space), then we'd have to jump through hoops to NOT have a key that has no sharps or flats. I don't know the historical reason why that key ended up being C major. Maybe that question exists on this site already, or if not, you could ask it.

• Regarding the historical reason for C major. Music notation was designed for keyboards. Originally, keys only played one scale. (Imagine a piano with only white keys) Eventually, having an instrument which only played one key got annoying. (That used to be the norm. Even flutes and stringed instruments were designed to play in one key only, until the invention of Equal Temperment). Once we figured out how to use all 12 notes on one instrument, keyboards added black keys so as to use the new notes without changing existing finger patterns. C was chosen as the "natural" key for consistency. Oct 25, 2023 at 6:36

The natural symbol (♮) is an undercover agent sent by the C major scale. In other words, the natural symbol (♮) is totally linked to the C major scale. Is this statement correct?

No, it has nothing to do with any scale.

The use of natural symbols in modern music theory is not relative to the current key signature, but always absolute as it always refer to the C major scale. Is this statement a rewording of my previous one?

Uhh, yeah it’s similar to your previous statement, I guess. It’s just as misguided. Accidentals are used in key signatures but accidentals outside of key signatures are always absolute and are not related to any key. Note that a natural sign is an accidental.

What we call "natural" in music theory is actually an alias for C major. Is this statement correct?

Not even a little bit, no. Accidentals are all absolute, they are not based on keys.

In my example of the F major staff, why isn't it more logical to write the "natural" (white) B note as a B sharp, to show that it is outside the F major scale? In other words, have a notation that is relative to the current key signature.

Ummm. It might be more logical from some point of view but most musicians just want to be told what notes to play without having to do any calculations about it. If B# sometimes means C and sometimes means B then that’s super confusing and slow for reading. No thank you. Currently, B# always means C and B♮ always means B and that’s a good and logical system.

• May 28, 2023 at 17:30
• "Accidentals are used in key signatures" - I think strictly speaking the word "accidental" generally refers to note that deviate from what the key signature would normally suggest? May 28, 2023 at 21:37
• @Dexter “I want to understand what is below that. Why this system is built like that nowadays.” It makes sense and it’s easy to read. It’s easy because each letter and accidental pair always refers to the same pitch. You never have to remember which key you are playing in and you don’t have to think differently when you’re not playing in a key or when you’re modulating. You don’t even have to know what a key is at all. You don’t have to know any theory and you can still learn to sight read at tempo. May 29, 2023 at 0:50
• Accidentals aren't used in key signatures! Those aren't accidentals - they're the sharps/flats that determine the actual key! Accidentals are the extra #, b, nats that need to be used on the occasions when particular notes are non-diatonic. Thus 'accidental' - the word itself somewhat of a misnomer! So, in a way, they are based on keys - they're the notes not normally found in the prevalent key.
– Tim
May 29, 2023 at 6:45

There are several good explanations of the background already in other answers. Let me add in a few details.

To begin with, the system proposed in the question exists in several forms already. It is used in the movable Do solfege system, where the "natural" scale is the major scale. Accidentals (sharps and flats outside the major scale) are indicated with modifications to the syllables (such as turning Fa into Fi for a sharp-4 scale degree). It is used in the Nashville number system, where sharps and flats must be used in front of numbers 1 to 7 to indicate deviation from the major scale. There are other similar systems in use: the standard Roman numeral system for chord symbols also tends to assume that the scale degrees of the major or minor scale are the "natural" pitches, and modifications must be indicated with a flat or sharp. In all of these systems, a B♮ in the key of F major would be indicated by some variant of ♯4 or ♯IV, indicating that the fourth note of the scale is raised.

The figured bass system also uses a similar convention, where historically the numbers indicating intervals above the bass note just assumed whatever pitches were local to the key signature, and flats and sharps (not generally naturals) were added as needed to those numbers to indicate raising or lowering a note from its pitch within the local scale.

All of these systems have their utility. But there are several problems with these systems, the first of which is that music notation historically evolved before tonality existed. That is to say that our music notation system was formulated long before "C major" existed and even before the idea of a "major scale." It thus evolved in ways to deal with the musical complexities of the time. Sharps and flats were initially introduced to deal with situations where music deviated from the "natural" scale, which had nothing to do with "C major" but instead just evolved to have half-steps and whole-steps in certain patterns that resemble the white keys on the modern piano. (B♭, ironically, given the example in the question, was the one accidental present in these early systems, which was inherited from the Greek scale system. We'll come back to that.)

So, initially sharps and flats were kind of used (up through the 16th century and into the 17th century) just to indicate deviation from the "natural" scale.

However, around this time, the problem of transposition arose. In purely vocal music (a cappella), pitch was more arbitrary and someone could just hum a particular note, and everyone could just agree that frequency was "A" for the duration of a song. Our modern music notation was originally designed for that situation in sacred choral music.

But instrumentalists found the system more cumbersome when they had to transpose. An instrumentalist doesn't care as much about where the note is relative to a scale or key, but rather which button to depress on an instrument or what fingering to use. Many instruments actually developed their own music notation systems early on, known as tablature (guitar tablature is one of the few still common today), which were meant to show performers where to place their fingers rather than to emphasize some abstract "note name" like "A".

The desire to reconcile these conflicting standards of vocal notation (resembling modern music notation) and instrumental tablature led to a compromise -- the emergence of fixed pitch in vocal notation. The note "A" can no longer wander around willy-nilly: it needs to be in a place so that the organist and the trombonist and the violinist etc. can reliably use a particular fingering to produce it. Same thing with a note like F♯. Calling something "natural" or "flat" depending on the local scale/key (like "F major") would require an extra degree of analytical capabilities for the instrumentalist, who just wants to know "Where do I put my fingers?"

Yes, the system is inefficient. F♯ and G♭ are often assumed to have the same fingering for most instrumentalists, and this was inherited from extensions of the old vocal-music system and the meaning of raising and lowering pitches in that old notation. But the formulation of the 24-key major/minor system in the 1700s followed trends that were just trying to bring some order to these concepts of transposition (which required different instruments to be playing in different "keys"), the old idea of scales and "naturals," along with the emergence of new concepts like "major keys" and "minor keys," including C major.

As a final note, I mentioned the coincidence in the question that B♭ and B♮ were in the early scale system derived from the Greeks. In fact, the natural sign (♮) and the sharp sign (♯) are literally both derived from the same symbol, that is, so-called "hard b" or "square b", which looks like a lowercase b, but with a square instead of a circle (the unicode symbol is 𝇒 if it displays for you). "Square b" is what we now think of as B♮. Up through the 1600s and even into the early 1700s, the symbols for sharp and natural are often still similar or identical in music notation.

Anyhow, the natural sign evolved by simply extending down one side of that square on the right-bottom. The sharp sign extended a few more lines to create something resembling #, but they both come from the same idea: the raising of the so-called "soft b," i.e., B♭, which was indicated historically with the circular normal lowercase b. (Obviously that's where the "flat sign" comes from.)

So, the question is actually very on-point with the historical development: the sharp and natural both represented similar concepts and were literally based on the exact same symbol originally. The idea of "natural" actually comes from the Latin naturalis, which was originally musically used to refer to the so-called naturalis hexachord, i.e., the notes C-D-E-F-G-A. Those six notes didn't encounter the complexity of having to differentiate between "soft B" and "hard B," so those notes were just "natural."

That's ultimately what led to the historical identification of a concept of "natural," which was eventually systematized with the key/scale concepts and transposing system described above. "Sharps" then separated conceptually from "naturals," and the two symbols -- as well as their underlying logic -- eventually diverged.

It's coincidental that this all eventually lined up with "C major." (Or perhaps not quite so coincidental -- if you want to know the whole story of C major and why it's the central scale, see my answer here.) The underlying assumption in the question is that it presumes a major scale is somehow "natural," when that's not actually where the concept comes from. While there have been many post hoc attempts to back-derive the major scale from acoustical first principles since the 1700s, it's just one particular scale system that developed and became emphasized for specific reasons in European culture of the 1500s-1700s.

(Note to those readers who may strongly believe in the "naturalness" of the major scale: I don't mean to offend anyone's sensibilities here. However, the features that tend to be emphasized in attempted acoustic derivations mostly have to do with development of pervasive vertical harmony, an element that is was not present historically for millennia in European music to any great degree and is not present in many non-Western musical systems to the degree it is used in modern European-derived musical systems. Without the constraints imposed by certain priorities in vertical harmonies, a lot more diversity is possible in scalar systems and has actually occurred in world musical traditions.)

...But what is natural here?

First, do not read too much into the meaning of "natural" in some sense like "not bizzare", or that a pitch that is not natural (using a sharp or flat) is somehow "unnatural!"

Historically this all stems from the gamut of pitch letters ABCDEFG. A long time ago, the Dark Ages/Medieval period, musicians used only those letters and there was not yet any symbols for sharps or flats. The flat symbol was introduced first, then the sharp and natural. "Natural" is only a reference to that original gamut of letters ABCDEFG.

To respond you bullet list of questions about the natural sign and C major the answer is an emphatic "no" to all the questions. Natural signs are not referring to C major, they refer to the gamut of pitch letters.

...Given the fact that we are in F major, from my point of view the "natural" B here is the B from the F major scale, which is B flat! That sounds natural!

I think the word you are looking for is diatonic. For this discussion diatonic simply means the tones of the key signature.

In the key of F major the diatonic B is B♭. Playing that B♭ sounds "right", it sounds "natural" in the sense of it is correctly diatonic. But that description is using the general meaning of "natural" rather than the specific music theory meaning of the word.

In my example of the F major staff, why isn't it more logical to write the "natural" (white) B note as a B sharp, to show that it is outside the F major scale? In other words, have a notation that is relative to the current key signature.

This question is confusing. I assume that you're just getting started with learning key signatures, and things can seem pretty arbitrary in the beginning. A common reaction seems to be a desire to reinvent notation. But, suffice to say, after you learn to read key signatures and accidentals, a B♮ in a key signature of one flat will definitely be understood as outside of the key signature.

Part of the issue is confusing the concrete sharp/flat/natural signs with the relative pitch changes they effect. Your example of B♮ in F major in relative terms is a B raised a half step from the key signature. There is no specific sign for that. You need to read it in relative terms depending on context. If you had a note with a double flat 𝄫, it would be raised a half step with a single flat . A flat is raised by a natural , a natural is raised by a sharp . I think part of the confusion in your question is thinking that means "in the key" in all cases. It doesn't work that way.

Notice earlier I said "outside of the key signature" and not "outside of F major." Stop thinking of these things as relating to specific keys but rather related to the key signature. They are not the same thing. A key signature of one flat could also be used for C mixolydian. The use of B♮ in that context would still work exactly the same way: the natural sign just sets the B to the plain B of the gamut. It's just telling you: not B sharp, not B flat, but B natural.

I don't know if this will help you, but one way to think of key signatures and accidentals is a transposition of the diatonic gamut.

So, you know that the gamut arranged as CDEFGABC is all natural pitches and gives us a major scale. For the moment try to gloss over the fact that the particular scale is C major. In fact, to make the point more emphatically, realize that gamut of all natural letters could be either C major CDEFGABC, or D dorian DEFGABCD, etc.

Whichever tonality you work with the key signature can be thought of not as a collection of accidentals, but that the sharps/flats of the key signature indicate a transposition of some tonality using the gamut of plain (natural) letters. For example, a key signature of one flat indicates transpose the gamut down one perfect fifth, and so C major becomes F major, or D dorian becomes G dorian.

The point here is subtle. The B♭ in the key signature is not an accidental. It is a diatonic tone in F major, G dorian, etc. The B♭ is not "unnatural." What really happened, when viewed as a transposition, is the tonic of C dropped to F, the gamut letter which is a fourth above transposed from F to B, but in the case that we are transposing a major scale, that fourth above the tonic must be a perfect fourth, C up to F is a perfect fourth, but F up to B is not, it is an augmented fourth. We need that B a half step lower at B♭. We could make similar points about the transposed intervals in D dorian, etc. but we can skip over those details.

So, the key signature puts the flat sign on the B, and that provides the specific spelling of B♭, but it also works like a sign of transposition. There is no accidental involved. The B♭ is diatonic, it is not, so to speak, "unnatural." There is no specific key/mode indicated. It's only a key signature. It's just the gamut of letters transposed down one perfect fifth.

We can also think of accidentals in terms of transposition. In the major/minor system of keys, for most of the typical harmony found in common practice era music, accidentals (whether sharps, flats, or naturals) tend to happen on specific scale degrees and for specific functions:

• raising the fourth scale degree a half step to transform the subdominant degree to a leading tone to the fifth scale degree, to tonicize the dominant
• lowering the leading tone a half step to transform the leading tone to the subdominant degree of the subdominant key, to tonicize the subdominant
• to modally "color" the major mediant or submediant scale degrees to their lower minor mode form, probably most commonly on the tonic chord and next perhaps the subdominant chord, to use modal mixture

Technically modal mixture is not a transposition, but it seems worth adding to the list. I'm using the terms transpose/tonicize/key change synonymously.

The important point here is to not think of sharps/flats specifically, but instead to understand that the common accidental use is to raise or lower certain scale degrees in conventional ways. Really, it is another way that staff notation signals a transposition. If, for example, you are in F major, and you see an accidental on B, on the fourth scale degree, the subdominant, the most likely thing is to raise it. In F major the accidental to do that job will be a natural, but in another key, like D major, a sharp will get the job done. Notice that the accidental differs, but the the scale degree and raising are the same. I don't mean to suggest you can totally disregard reading the accidental. But it is a sort of "cheat" for reading accidentals. In solfege terms the three common things are FA transforms up to TI, TI transforms down to FA, and major MI transforms down to minor ME (or MA).

I worry this second part of my answer may just add to your confusion. But for me personally, it was a breakthrough moment when I understood these ideas. It helped me understand key signatures better, helped me with correct chord and enharmonic "spelling", and help with reading scores.

There's no short answer to this interesting question.

Going back a long, long time, music was not written down, so no staves were needed, but when came the time that it was necessitated, a certain Guido d-Arezzo took it upon himself to make up the minor scale, split into two tetrachords. For example, AGFE/DCBA. These then needed representation on a stave, so each line/space had one letter designated to it.

These were regarded as the 'natural' notes. Long after, they morphed into the major scale we now know as C major. Still with one letter name per line/space. It didn't need to actually be A minor, hence 'movable do' came about, but A minor was the one used for writing.

When other notes (the five found on black keys) were needed to be written, there had to be a simple unequivocal way to do that: sharps and flats where appropriate. Obviously all this is reflected in pianos, but consider most other instruments, there's little or no sign that a particular note, and where it's played, shows whether it's natural, sharp or flat.

Your last question isn't ringing true. As to keep the TTSTTTS spacing for a major set of notes, the B note would inevitably need writing as B♭.

• Guido's system comprised overlapping hexachords (presented in ascending order), not tetrachords. Music was written down long before that, but pitch notation was inexact. Guido's main purpose was to eliminate ambiguity about the location of the semitones. By Guido's day, in fact, D was the more common tonal center than A. In addition to inventing staff notation, Guido invented B flat, so the Guidonian gamut comprises eight pitch classes, not seven, namely A, two different B's, and C through G. May 30, 2023 at 9:09
• @phoog - thanks for that. Would you please write a far more accurate answer, that should rise to the top.
– Tim
May 30, 2023 at 10:17

The natural symbol (♮) is an undercover agent sent by the C major scale. In other words, the natural symbol (♮) is totally linked to the C major scale. Is this statement correct?

No. A natural note just means you play the note, unaltered by whatever came before it or whatever is in the key signature.

The use of natural symbols in modern music theory is not relative to the current key signature, but always absolute as it always refer to the C major scale. Is this statement a rewording of my previous one?

That's still not quite right. The use of all accidentals is relative to the note name itself. If you see a G♮, you just play G, regardless of any G♯ or G♭ that might have come before

What we call "natural" in music theory is actually an alias for C major. Is this statement correct?

It's the other way around. C major happens to be one of the scales that uses all the natural notes. There are six others that also use those notes, the most common other than C major being A minor. (Major wasn't always the most common mode, as others have already noted.) You're confusing yourself by thinking of C major as some kind of "default". The notes aren't called natural because they're in C major. The notes come first. Notes don't come from scales. Notes are the building blocks of scales.

In my example of the F major staff, why isn't it more logical to write the "natural" (white) B note as a B sharp, to show that it is outside the F major scale?

Because that's what the key signature is for. The B in the scale of F major is already altered by the key signature. If you want something different, just write the note you want. B♯ is always B♯. You'll almost never want B♯ if you're in the key of F major. It's enharmonic to C♮, which is already in the key.

An important point to remember is accidentals only last until the end of the bar. At the start of the next bar, the key signature applies again. If you're in F major and you use, a B♮ accidental, B will become B♭ again automatically in the next bar. Natural isn't the "default". The current key signature is. If you use B♮, and you need to cancel it by using B♭ within the same bar, there's a pretty good chance you messed up, and the B♮ should've been C♭.

• "Major wasn't always the most common mode, as others have already noted": in fact, major and minor didn't even exist in the modal system until several centuries after the notes were given their letter names. "The notes aren't called natural because they're in C major. The notes come first. Notes don't come from scales. Notes are the building blocks of scales": this is really the heart of the matter. We have had this diatonic scale for millennia, and over the centuries we have settled on C major as the default (will it last?). Thanks for posting this, and welcome. Oct 23, 2023 at 7:23