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I have been practicing this piece (The Stars and Stripes Forever) for a while. On the first note of the second measure of the second line, there is a natural sign. I have always understood accidentals not to affect notes outside of the current measure. If so, why is there a natural sign on the C while the key is F Major? Is this a mistake, or an obsolete practice (this is from 1897)? If the natural sign were not there, would the C be played as a C#?

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The natural sign next to the C is a "courtesy accidental". It is there only to make it absolutely clear to the player that the C is not to be sharp.

It is correct that an accidental only carries through the bar, and thus that the one here is not necessary. But were it not there, though the note would be a C-natural, it would be easy upon sight-reading to play a C-sharp instead.

The practice of courtesy accidentals is still very common. A composer will include accidentals such as these to clear any confusion that may arise, and in so doing aid the performer's reading.

EDIT: The one exception is when a note with an accidental is tied (with a slur) over to the next bar. In this case, the note will keep the accidental.

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    I often see them notated in parentheses, which is a big help. – Monica Cellio Jan 13 '12 at 15:30
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    You should indicate, though, that accidentals will get carried over into the following bar if they're part of a tied note, since the entire value is considered to be a "single" note, even if it's split across multiple bars. – aeismail Jan 14 '12 at 20:05
  • @aeismail: A tied note doesn't cause the accidental to be carried over so much as it merely indicates the duration of the note rather than the pitch. If a tied note is followed by another note on the same staff position the accidental will not carry into that note (although a courtesy accidental would often be helpful to expressly indicate that). – supercat Nov 28 '16 at 3:12
  • While ties and phrasing slurs do look very similar, they are not the same thing at all. – Elements in Space Jan 18 at 15:16
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As above, it seems to be a courtesy thing, also found in ABRSM grade pieces, particularly lower ones. To me it just adds too much information - surely we KNOW the barline cancels accidentals, so shouldn't need reminding.There's enough info on a page of dots already.....

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    Well, sometimes it helps to be extra sure there's no typo. – American Luke Feb 29 '12 at 16:20
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    @AmericanLuke: That can be especially important in cases where a composer might have two instruments play an altered note, and then have one instrument leave to to the unaltered note while another replays the altered one. Such intention would be rare, but if the "courtesy accidental" were omitted, performers might change the unaltered note to match the altered one in the belief that the lack of an accidental was a mistake. – supercat Aug 16 '15 at 22:16
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The best and most common practice is to place the courtesy accidental in parenthesis. This helps keep things clear. The arranger of the piece in the original post failed to do this.

  • As a matter of fact, using parentheses is more suited to cautionary accidentals (think about notes notated one octave apart but with different accidentals, in the same measure). Using courtesy accidentals (which are more like "reminders") is perfectly fine without parentheses. – SeuMenezes Jan 16 '18 at 2:09

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