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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, 2013 at 16:56
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    why isn't "key signature" the term you're looking for.
    – Dave
    Nov 10, 2013 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, 2015 at 23:58
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    @user7290, I see white notes (such as E#) in key signatures, too.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 15, 2017 at 13:36

12 Answers 12

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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, 2012 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, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2016 at 10:08
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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.

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  • 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, 2012 at 16:26
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According to "A Pronouncing Pocket-Manual of Musical Terms" by Dr Th Baker, published 1905 by G Schirmer, the sharps and flats in the key signature are called "Essentials". See page 56.

Essentials definition from Baker manual

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  • That's a really good term - I think that's what I'll use from now on! Not sure what the etiquette is on changing an accepted answer, but I'd probably go with this now! :-D
    – duncanm
    Apr 4, 2022 at 10:39
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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, 2015 at 1:40
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Individually they're sharps and flats. Collectively they're 'the key signature'.

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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"!

EDIT (05/12/2020: Laurence makes a good point. The word incidental (while less inaccurate the commonly used "accidental") belies the fact that the collection of symbols is fundamental to the key itself. But still - what to call the symbols. I've got a better idea. Let's call them "symbols"!

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  • Because they aren't incidental. They're fundamental.
    – Laurence
    Apr 1, 2020 at 11:18
  • @LaurencePayne That is a true statement. But it would seem odd to call the symbols that comprise the key signature "fundamentals". But "incidentals" is not much better than the commonly used "accidentals". Maybe "symbols" is the correct word. Hmmm May 12, 2020 at 19:32
  • @LaurencePayne Interesting. I edited my answer based on your comment that I agreed with and someone immediately downvoted. I guess they liked incidental better than my new suggestion of what to call the thingys in the key signature which are as you say, fundamental to the key. May 12, 2020 at 21:27
  • People sometimes vote for incomprehensible reasons round here!
    – Laurence
    May 12, 2020 at 22:45
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Some writers, e.g. the User Manual for Finale, are perfectly happy talking about "key signature accidentals."

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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".

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  • Accidentals are sharps, flats and naturals that AREN'T in the key signature!
    – Laurence
    May 12, 2020 at 22:46
  • It was a very language-dependent question! "someone recently asked what the collective name was in English"
    – Laurence
    May 13, 2020 at 20:28
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It's common in the European music theory to refer to chromatic signs in the key signature simply as key signature signs. The chromatic signs that are not in the key signature are accidentals OR signs of alteration.

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Regarding the question posed, "What is the collective name in English for the sharps and flats you find in the key signature", the answer is "Accidentals", despite comments to the contrary, which I think stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what an accidental sign means.

An accidental sign does not, as has been mooted by others, mean a note different from those given in the key signature. Rather they mean a note different from one of the notes in the C major/A minor scale, so any sharps or flats in a key signature tell you what notes to play in that key signature that are different to the notes in the C Major/A minor scale/key signature.

Let me explain.

One of the first things you are told in music theory about our standard 12 note western music system is that it is all based on the C Major scale.

A key that's not C is indicated by showing where the notes differ from the C major scale in the key signature. Let's say we are in G Major. G Major has 1 sharp indicated in the key signature. The sharps and flats in the key signature are basically saying, "every time you see this natural note written in the score, play the sharp or flat note as indicated in the key signature instead".

The key signature is therefore just a system of not having to write the accidental note in the score every time it appears in the music. Put another way, if you didn't put the sharp in the key signature, and left it empty, you could simply write each F# explicitly. The key signature would look like C Major but would sound like G Major, (assuming you wrote the music using the Major harmony of G Major).

Indeed, the fact that every key signature can indicate one of two keys, the Major version and its relative minor, demonstrates that all the key signature is doing is telling us which natural notes from the C Major, (or A minor), scale to sharpen of flatten when we see them written in the score.

Look at it this way: Your conductor gives you a piece of music. It has no sharps or flats in the key signature, or in the score, but the conductor says, "Play this, but every time you see an F, play the sharp accidental of F, F#."

If there's another sharp written in the score, say D#, that is indeed a sharp outside the G Major key, but it's not actually telling you to play the sharp note because it's outside the G major scale, but because it's the sharp note above D natural in the C Major scale.

Hence a sharp or flat in the music always indicates a variation in the notes from the C Major/A minor scale, whether it's in the key signature or in the score, and they are all therefore collectively called accidentals.

One last point, you don't talk about a natural sign in a score as being an accidental outside of the home key signature, because it's saying, "ignore the instruction in the key signature to play the indicated note as an accidental, but play the natural note this time, (for just this pitch and this bar...).

This all flows logically from that fundamental concept, that everything in the western system of music is based off the C Major/A minor scale.

And yes, accidentals is a pretty poor label for what it's supposed to mean, and it might have been less confusing if we called them 'intermediate' notes, as they are always half-way between two natural notes, but it is what it is, and we are stuck with it.

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    My apologies. I thought that was apparent from my explanation, but for clarity I will add my answer to the question at the beginning of my explanation of the logic behind it.
    – Chris H
    Aug 5, 2023 at 1:23
  • Cheers. My first post, so thanks for the helpful critique.
    – Chris H
    Aug 5, 2023 at 1:39
  • Welcome to the site. There's lots of cool stuff here; hope you enjoy it.
    – Aaron
    Aug 5, 2023 at 1:44
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I think it's a chromatic sign. An accidental is a chromatic sign. Sharps, flats, and naturals are chromatic signs.

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I would call them pitch signs or key signs.

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