I just started reading a piano book (Pinao Lessons by Mantius Cazaubon). In chapter 1 explaining about keys and notes in the sections of The Black Keys and The White Keys. It is very clear from first two sections that white keys have one name and black keys have two names viz., Sharp and Flat.

Now immediately followed after above sections there is Enharmonic Equivalents which is written as follows.

"When one key has more than two note names, the notes are enharmonic equivalents of each other. C sharp and D flat are enharmonic equivalents. D sharp and E flat are enharmonic equivalents. F sharp and G flat are enharmonic equivalents. and so on."

I am thinking this is useful information explaining about the technical names and terminologies but my question is why author did not simply stating that "all black keys are enharmonic equivalents"? Have I missed anything?

  • 2
    Not quite a duplicate, but see also: Why are notes named the way they are? And also: If between E and F is a halftone, why can F not be an E# Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 13:35
  • 1
    BTW, white keys in an enharmonic role are not something exotic that only happens in ridiculous key signatures. For instance, in something as simple as A major, the dominant to the relative minor (C♯→f♯m) contains an e♯. This lies on the same piano key as f, but it's not an f. Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:13
  • 2
    To be clear, it's not the piano keys that are enharmonic equivalents, it's the notes (or note names). The notes D♯ and E♭ are enharmonic equivalents of each other (meaning, roughly, that they sound the same); that's what allows one physical key on the keyboard to be used for both.
    – psmears
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:44

5 Answers 5


The author is simplifying the actual situation when he only describes the black keys as enharmonic equivalents. Another name for C (a white key) is B#, and another name for D is Ebb. So every key, not just the black one, can be called by multiple note names.

But when you are just learning what flats and sharps are, and how they relate, it's simpler to just describe the black keys as flats and sharps, and the white keys as naturals. And for practical purposes at a beginning and intermediate level, it's also true.

But since both the white and black keys have enharmonic equivalents, the author didn't want to specify that it was only black keys that have them, even though that's all he's talking about now.

A point about terminology: It isn't the piano keys which are enharmonic equivalents, it is the notes. The key plays a note, so when you name the keys, you are naming it by the note it plays. Thus you can say the keys have enharmonic equivalents, but the physical key is not an enharmonic equivalent.

  • To further complicate things, the key between C and D on a piano is actually not quite either C# or Db (which are in fact two slightly different notes), but a compromise value between them so that all of the notes are equidistant from each other. Singers, violinists, and other musicians who are able to play between the notes can achieve a truer harmony than is physically possible on a piano. Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 18:39
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    Yes, but if you are just starting out, that's something that should absolutely be ignored, especially for a piano player who will never play those notes differently. I didn't even want to mention it. For one thing, if you haven't got a really good ear for pitch, you'll struggle to tell the difference even if you hear them one after the other (says the violinist).
    – Karen
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 19:15

It's not just black keys that have enharmonic equivalents. Even if you stay properly inside of "minimal" key signatures without double accidentals and less than 7 accidentals, then the whole key signature of F♯ major (six sharps) is enharmonically equivalent to its cousin of G♭ major (six flats) and in particular the note E♯ in F♯ major is the same as (the only unflattened note) F in G♭ major (or C major), and C♭ in G♭ major is the same as (the only unsharped note) H in F♯ major.

And once you use double accidentals (which are needed when modulating from keys with less accidentals), you get even more enharmonic equivalents.

  • Db and C# Major being the other one.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 16:32

I am thinking this is useful information explaining about the technical names and terminologies but my question is why author did not simply stating that "all black keys are enharmonic equivalents"? Have I missed anything?

Simply put black keys have nothing in particular to do with enharmonic equivalents. Enharmonic equivalent is just when two notes with different names represent the same pitch.

C## and D, Ebb and D and E and Fb are all enharmonic equivalents of each other and have very little to do with the black keys on the piano.

You can think of it like this. A person may have more than one name. A first name, a nick name maybe even a pseudonym but there is still only one physical person represented by all those names.

In music notation we want to be able to raise and lower notes. This has the effect that certain notes that are raised and some that are lowered and even some that are just natural have the different names but represent the same pitch or note.

This is what we call enharmonic equivalents.


'When one key has more than two names' might have been better phrased as 'more than one name'. That aside, there are occasions when white keys need to be called # or b. Another name for C, at these times, could be B#.B is known as Cb. F could be E#, and E is known as Fb. However, as you state, the black keys are generally called # and b, and it depends on which key a piece is in, or what note has been changed by a semitone to get that # or b. It can get quite technical. Also there are double # (x) and double b (bb) to further befuddle us! So, actually, 'more than two names' is correct, but at a beginner level, unnecessary. A C note for instance, depending on situation, could be written as a C, B#, or Dbb, but would, on most instruments, play and sound the same. And this is as simple as I can make it!

So, yes, you can say what's in your header, but it's not even half of the story!


As a beginner learning piano from books, you will find that it is convenient to think of the black keys as being "the sharps and flats" and that each black piano key has two different names.

As you move on farther and deeper into your studies, you'll quickly abandon this notion as being far too simplistic.

At this early stage in your studies, don't focus on the word "enharmonic." The book you're following is just assuming you might become confused that the key between C and D is sometimes called C# and sometimes called Db, and it wants to "head that off at the pass."

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