On a mailing list I'm subscribed to, someone recently asked what the collective name was in English for the sharps and flats you find in the key signature. Apparently, the closest translation from several languages (German, Dutch, Russian) is "signs".

My first thought was "accidentals", but this doesn't match the more 'musical' definition of an accidental as a "note whose pitch has been altered from that given by the current key signature" (or something pretty close to that).

Any thoughts?

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    The black notes. – user7290 Oct 16 '13 at 16:56
  • why isn't "key signature" the term you're looking for. – Dave Nov 10 '13 at 20:57
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    @user7290 That doesn't hold up in pieces in, for example, C sharp major, which has a B sharp and an E sharp. Neither of those is a black key, yet there is a corresponding sharp at the start of the line. Also, this is a very piano-centred term. For instrumentalists who don't play the piano, harpsichord, organ or similar keyboard instruments, this is a useless naming convention. – 11684 Jul 19 '15 at 23:58
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    @user7290, I see white notes (such as E#) in key signatures, too. – Dekkadeci Sep 15 '17 at 13:36

An accidental is not the note as you describe it. That word does refer to the sign itself, not the note. The question remains whether it is correct to use it in the context of a key signature as well.

Personally, I don't have any problem with the phrase "accidentals in the key signature," but would typically just say "sharps or flats," since you're never going to see double sharps or double flats in a key signature, at least not in traditional music, and naturals will only be used as a courtesy or to "reset" to C major.

Did you research if the German, Dutch, or Russian sources have a different word for "accidental"?

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    Thanks for your answer. Yes --- sorry, I wasn't clear in my question: at least according to wikipedia, 'accidental' refers to the note, but can also refer to the sign. As you say, I doubt any confusion would arise by talking about the "accidentals" in the key signature --- I was wondering whether there was a technical term applicable only to that case. – duncanm Jan 16 '12 at 20:28
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    "Naturals will only be used (...) to "reset" to C major." This is only partially true. Modulating to any key which has fewer [insert sought term here in plural] requires naturals at the key. – 11684 Jul 20 '15 at 0:00
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    @11684 It's ultimately up to the editor's style decision, though. I hear you, but "requires" isn't accurate since no one interpreting a score is going to treat a new key signature as anything other than superseding the old one. – NReilingh Jul 20 '15 at 0:05
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    Ah, the musician's worst enemy: the editor. Good point. Indeed, only C Major requires it, because otherwise you wouldn't see the key change. Thank you. – 11684 Jul 20 '15 at 0:08
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    I often feel that a term for this is missing in English. I like this proposal to introduce the word "incidentals" as a term for sharps/flats in the key signature. – awe Apr 6 '16 at 10:08

I think the first definition of accidental I found on Google is correct:

A sign indicating a momentary departure from the key signature by raising or lowering a note.

Hence the sharp and flat symbols in the key signature are not accidentals.

I don't believe there is a single, commonly understood, word which means "sharps and flats". Look, for example, at the Wikipedia entry for "Key signature", which would surely use the word if it existed.

  • Hi Slim --- thanks for your response. That was my interpretation too (though I've seen definitions that state that both the signs and the notes can be called accidentals, and in fact, stating that the primary definition refers to the notes themselves, not the signs... but that's splitting some very fine hairs!). Cheers, Duncan – duncanm Jan 18 '12 at 16:26

I think at least from a music theory standpoint the sharps and flats IN a key signature ARE the key signature and are referred to as such. For example, there is no key signature with just a C#. There is, however a key signature with an F# and a C# and it is know as the key of D major/B minor. There is no other key signature with two different sharps. For that reason I think the two sharps themselves become a symbol for the key of D major/ B minor and are not just viewed as an F# and C# (though they are in the key signature itself). Besides that, there is a fixed placement of sharps and flats for every clef and the pattern for each is the same and very recognizable.

Kind of like an 'F' itself is on long vertical line and two short horizontal lines in a certain pattern. We don't really see the lines, just the F itself even though it is made up of all those lines.

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    Point of order: The expressed view, "For example, there is no key signature with just a C#." only holds for the scales used in the modes, i.e., Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Other music cultures, e.g., Klezmer, has both sharps and flats in the key signature. There might be a music culture that uses just the C# without the F# with which we are so familiar. – user18945 Feb 17 '15 at 1:40

I agree with Slim. It's quite clear that the English Language translation of accidental implies that it is not on purpose. Therefore it's adaptation for referring to music notation is quite logically used to define an aberration or deviation from what is prescribed in the key signature.

To call the sharp symbols or flat symbols in the key signature itself "accidentals" seems very counterintuitive and the usage thereof in that context likely evolved from the simple fact that when we see a sharp or flat or natural sign on a music staff other than in the key signature - those symbols are commonly referred to as "accidentals". That does not mean that when the same type symbol occurs in a key signature - that it should also be called an accidental.

The word accidental technically refers to the fact that the note pitch deviates from the key signature - not they symbol itself. So technically, the symbol is either a "sharp symbol", a "flat symbol" or a "natural symbol" not an "accidental". The accidental is the occurrence of a note value that is not consistent with what is indicated in the key signature - not the symbol itself that is used to indicate the deviation from the key signature.

But it's easier to say "accidental" to refer to the symbol that is used to notate an accidental - rather than say sharp symbol, flat symbol or natural symbol.

So a more appropriate English word to define the sharps and flats in the key signature that are not accidental but on purpose - should we desire a single word (like accidental) - might be "incidental". The sharps/flats in the key signature are incidental to the key - not accidental.

Google list the following as synonyms for the word "incidental"

synonyms: connected with, related to, associated with, accompanying, attending, attendant on, concomitant to/with "the risks incidental to the job"

If a set of sharps is incidental to a key that means they are connected to the key or accompanying the key or concomitant to the key. None of the other words with similar meanings sounds as appropriate to use in contrast to "accidental" as "incidental".

So without further adieu - why don't we (the collective group of musicians from around the world who are members of Music Stack Exchange) just all agree to call the collection of sharp symbols or flat symbols in the key signature "incidentals"!


Some writers, e.g. the User Manual for Finale, are perfectly happy talking about "key signature accidentals."


The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory offers beyond the already mentioned "accidentals" ("accidental notes" would help to exclude the mere accidental signs) also "chromatic notes".


I think it's a chromatic sign. An accidental is a chromatic sign. Sharps, flats, and naturals are chromatic signs.


Individually they're sharps and flats. Collectively they're 'the key signature'.


I would call them pitch signs or key signs.

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