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From what I've learned so far about music, one thing that has always puzzled me has been the spelling of certain chords. For example, I'm pretty sure that the B major chord in:

  • The F major key would be spelled as B,
  • The Bb major key would be spelled as Cb,
  • The Eb major key would be spelled as B, and
  • The Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb major keys would be spelled as Cb.

Could someone please explain why that chord would be spelled differently in each of the different keys, knowing that none of the keys except Gb and Cb major have that note as a constituent pitch?

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    This appears to be inaccurate, unless it's being read wrongly. Please make the question clearer. – Tim Oct 27 '16 at 7:33
  • Like Pat Muchmore below, I'd think that you'd be borrowing from the tonic minor in Eb, so I'd spell that chord as Cb unless I needed easy readability above all else. – Dekkadeci Jul 23 '17 at 15:05
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You always name a chord based on the context it's being used in.

It's almost guaranteed that if the key you are using has B in it (e.g., E major, F♯ major, etc.) you'd use some type of B chord rather than C♭ and if the key you are using has a C♭ (e.g., G♭ major) you'd use some type of C♭ chord rather than B. However there are always exceptions especially when you start to go outside the key you are in.

In your first few examples neither B nor C♭ can be determined right away.You really have to be aware of the context to name the chord. For example in F you could honestly see either. If you had a progression I V ♭V7 IV in F you would write the chords F, C, C♭7, and B♭. If you had the progression I IV ♯IV7 V, you would have the progression F, B♭, B7, and C. While they are similar progressions the one that uses the C♭ is going down thus the scale degree is lowered for the naming and the one that uses B is going up the the scale degree is raised for the naming.

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The key of Gb major always has Cb, because there's a Bb in the scale too. Also, any piece that has both the B and D flatted in the key signature will usually use Cb instead of B natural as an accidental, because it usually makes for better flow.

For example, in the key of Ab (which flats B, E, A and D in the key signature), if you have a D, a C and a B, and you want all of them to be flatted, you only need to change the C to Cb. If you use B natural instead of Cb, you'll have to write D, B natural, and then you have to put another accidental to put the B back to Bb. It's clearer to have stepwise notes and as few accidentals as possible.

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You (apart from one misprint) have probably correctly described the most LIKELY spelling of a B/Cb chord in various keys. But, although it's safe to say that diatonic chords will always be spelt 'in the key' (In C major, a B# triad is vanishingly unlikely) we can't be quite so pedantic over chromatic chords. As so often, context is all.

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There are several ways to approach this question, and a lot of the answers are good. However, I want to approach from a more directly harmonic area. As in the other answers, this issue is a desire to show function as clearly as possible.

Let's work through the keys you mention backwards:

C♭ major is entirely diatonic to the keys of G♭ and C♭ Major. That means that all three notes belong to the key. C♭ would be a IV chord in the first and a I chord in the second. Calling it B major—with all three notes completely foreign to the key—would be highly unusual, and would not even be a standard chromatic chord let alone diatonic. As such, there would have to be a very good reason for it: almost certainly a modulation to a distant key.

The only other place that C♭ major would be a diatonic chord is as V in the exceedingly rare key of F♭. This key—which would have to have B♭♭ in the key signature—is virtually never used, composers are vastly more likely to notate in the key of E. C♭ major is very unlikely in the key of E since all three notes are chromatic and it wouldn't have a clear chromatic function. Instead, composers would use B, which is the normal and completely diatonic V chord.

There are three standard chromatic functions that involve major triads: Modal Mixture (borrowing from a parallel mode), Neapolitan Sixths (major triad built on the lowered second scale degree), and applied dominants (borrowed "V" chords that apply to diatonic harmonies other than I). Those are the functions that will help us make guesses about the most common enharmonic spellings in the other keys you mention.

In D♭ and A♭ major, the most likely function of a chromatic C♭/B major chord is modal mixture. I say this because neither note could be the root of a Neapolitan (that's always flat 2, which would be E♭♭ or B♭♭ respectively) or of a standard applied dominant (neither spelling is a fifth above a diatonic note in those keys). In A♭, the chord would be a fairly common modal mixture chord called ♭III (the III chord of the parallel minor) and in D♭ it would be ♭VII (a somewhat less common chord in classical music, but it does happen, often as V/♭III). Since these chords are borrowed from the parallel minor key, they will be spelled as C♭ not B.

That covers your last bullet point and why they'd all be C♭. By a similar reasoning, I would disagree with your third bullet point about E♭. The chord on C♭/B is most likely to function as the modal mixture chord ♭VI borrowed from e♭ minor and so would still be most commonly spelled as C♭.

I agree with your second bullet point, it would still be C♭ in the key of B♭. Here, it's most likely function is as the Neapolitan harmony, often symbolized ♭II. Since that harmony is a major triad built on lowered 2 (not raised 1) it is far more likely to be a C♭ chord.

Finally we get to your first bullet point. The C♭/B major chord is (in common-practice classical harmony) VERY uncommon in the key of F. As a major chord from the opposite pole of the circle of fifths (a tritone away), it would be a highly destabilizing force in that key. It isn't a borrowing from the parallel key, nor can it be the Neapolitan, which is G♭. However, it also would not be any normal kind of applied dominant since neither C♭ not B is V of a diatonic chord in F. The closest, I guess, would be V of some sort of altered VII, which would call for a spelling of B, but ultimately the choice of spelling would be highly context-dependent. It would probably be used to set up a distant modulation, or as a snaky voice-leading chord. Whatever spelling is easiest to read in context is probably the way to go.

So, in the end, for the keys you discuss, C♭ is the more likely spelling of all except the key of F. Of course, I'm talking about common-practice here. I don't know as much about jazz or rock spellings.

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