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I'm always having the same problem over and over. I can't remember which keys have flats and which have sharps. How to remember all this? Is it really necessary to distinguish them straightforward?

I mean if we have key signature F then we get F,G,A,A# (or Bb),C,D,E, Right?

I'm always having trouble understanding flats and playing scales and chords with flats whereas sharps are easier. You don't have to count the note and then step back half a tone.

Then again if we are playing in Fmaj, is it the chord A# major in it or Bb major?

  • Hint: Bb has... flats! F# has... sharps! Also - "F" is not a key signature. It's a pitch or maybe a key. The key of F has a key signature of one b on the note B : We need Bb to build a major scale on the pitch F. – Stinkfoot Dec 23 '17 at 13:43
  • @Stinkfoot What about minor and major white key signatures? C minor or E major for instance? – SovereignSun Dec 23 '17 at 13:47
  • There is no such thing as a minor or major key signature. The key signature for C minor is the same as the key signature for Eb Major - three flats. The notes/chords themselves tell you what key you are in - for example, if you see the chord progression Cm7/Fm6/Gm7b9 - a I-IV-V minor blues you know you are in Cm. Etc. No such thing as a "white key signature" either - a key signature is just group of sharps or flats (or sometimes both, depending on the composer...) at the left side of the staff that is a shorthand so the composer doesn't have to put a sharp of flat in front of each note. – Stinkfoot Dec 23 '17 at 14:13
  • @Stinkfoot You seem not to get me right. Look whenever I play in C minor with friends I name the chord G# major and not Ab major and this seems to be wrong but this way it us simple to understand. Is this correct if we assume there is no G# in C minor key? – SovereignSun Dec 23 '17 at 14:18
  • I'm always having trouble playing flats whereas sharps are easier : You should practice scales starting from the flat side of circle of 5ths (in that case, some call it the circle of 4ths) - C->F->Bb... that will make you more comfortable with the movement of flats across different keys. Jazz is almost always in flat keys because of the horns used to play it. Jazz teachers and books tell you to practice from the flat side. – Stinkfoot Dec 23 '17 at 16:12
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I'm always having the same problem over and over. I can't remember which keys have flats and which have sharps. How to remember all this? Is it really necessary to distinguish them straightforward?

I mean if we have key signature F then we get F,G,A,A#,C,D,E whereas if we have Ab we get Ab,Bb,C,Db,EB,F,Gb. Right?

Much confusion here - Let's try and take it from the top:


Before anything else, this must be said:

Learn the Circle of 5ths, understand how it works and commit it to memory: It is the most important tool we have for understanding keys, scales and chords. ( Here is a nice little publication to help you: The Chord Wheel: The Ultimate Tool for All Musicians - Circle of 5ths ) enter image description hereCircle of 5ths


Here are a few simple, general rules to follow. Hopefully, they will alleviate your doubts about when to use a sharp and when to use a flat. They work for all the keys/key signatures in the traditional Circle of 5ths, which comprise all 7 modes of the Major scale. (There are other keys and scales that don't follow these rules, but that's for "Level 2". @BadJohn alluded to some of this in his answer.)


So:

  • Every scale we will discuss - all derived from the Circle of 5ths, and representing all the modes of the major scale - all of them must be spelled using 7 distinct note names: A-B-C-D-E-F-G. There must be no duplicate letter names. A scale in this context means a graduated, orderly series of those 7 distinct notes in succession, starting from any given point in the series.

  • A Flat key - Eb for example, contains only naturals or flats - it does not contain any sharps.

  • A Sharp key - F# for example, contains only naturals or sharps - it does not contain any flats.

So, neither sharp keys nor flat keys require any work at all: No duplicate notes (letters), and it's always either naturals and sharps, or naturals and flats - never sharps and flats together.


  • For a "Natural" Major key - for example, E Major or F Major - use the scale algorithm and spell out the scale, using one letter only for each scale degree. In the same manner as above, you will invariably end up with either all sharps or all flats.

Examples:

  • E Major: Applying the algorithm for the major scale building on the root E and using only one letter for each scale degree, we get the following:

    E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E : No flats - E major will contain only sharps - 4 of them.

  • F Major: Applying the algorithm for the major scale building on the
    root F and using only one letter for each scale degree, we get the following: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F: No sharps - F major will contain only flats - 1 of them.

To correctly visualize and grasp this in an organized and coherent way - as opposed to just a jumble of random rules and numbers - you must learn to understand and use the Circle of 5ths! It is as important as a for loop in C++ - fundamental: You cannot work without it.


For minor scales, I believe the rule is the same, but you can also just use the key signature of the relative major and apply the rule for major.

Every minor scale and its relative major scale have the same key signature - they are comprised of the same notes, just starting at a different point. Every (natural) minor scale starts on the note which is the M6th of its relative major and has the same key signature as that major scale. That is why they are "relatives" - same notes/key signature - they are only called major or minor because of the relative starting point with respect to the 7 notes - A-B-C-D-E-F-G - you use to build the scale. Changing the starting point changes the structure and sonority of that sequence of notes, making them either major or minor.

Example:

  • C Minor: C is the M6th of what major scale? Eb Major. Here is the Eb Major scale, following the above stated rule for building major scales: Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb - the M6th is C, followed by the M7th, D and the octave, Eb.

Now: Eb, is clearly a flat key, and when you build a major scale with Eb as the root, all of its notes are either flat or natural, as explained - in this case 3 flats: Eb,Ab and Bb. That is also your key signature for C Minor, the relative minor to Eb Major - 3 Flats - NO SHARPS. The notes for C Minor are the same as the note for Eb Major, just arranged to start from C instead of Eb - but all the flats are on the same notes - and ONLY FLATS - no Sharps. C Minor: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C - same notes, same 3 flats Eb,Ab, Bb. NO SHARPS.

  • The same applies when you start at any of the 7 notes in a scale - the same notes take on a new structure with a new sonority because of the new and unique sequence. (When you start the same scale on different degrees from your acknowledged root - the Major Scale, or any other scale for that matter - those different sequences are called the modes of a scale.)

CONCLUSION:

How to remember all this?

Learn your scale algorithms - commit them to memory, and study the Circle of 5ths, the Rosetta Stone of music theory. Play through all the keys, following the Circle of 5ths, and take note of the logical, gradual progression of sharps and flats it teaches you - from 0 sharps - C Major - to 6 sharps, and then from 6 flats back to 0 flats - again at C Major after completing the full circle.

When going through the Circle, switch directions from time to time - say 3 times from the sharp side - clockwise - and then 3 times from the flat side - counterclockwise. That will help you to grasp the gradations from sharps to flats, and vice-versa. Note that when you start from the flat side you move in 4th's - so some call it the Circle of 4ths - but when you start from the sharp side, you move in 5th's. (That alone should give you something to think about...)

If you practice and work at it every day without fail for half an hour, it should not take long to master the basics - a couple of months at most.


The Secret:

It is not a lot to remember if you abide by the Circle. You only have 12 keys - take away C major, which has no sharps or flats, and you've got only 11 - 5 on the sharp side and 5 on the flat side, plus 1 - Gb/F# - which can go either way: An inconvenient 6 flats or an inconvenient 6 sharps. The rest are awkward enharmonic equivalents, such as the D# or Fb, which you'll rarely encounter and should not use, unless you have some compelling reason to do so. (Prove it by looking at the key signatures in a few fake books.)

The Circle follows a very logical pattern through the chromatic scale:

From the sharp side you move up a P5th as you go - each time adding one sharp, which will be the Major 7th of the new key. You retain the previous sharps, drop them down proportionately, making the new one the Major 7th of the new key. This continues until you hit F# - 6 sharps (a Tritone from C, the starting point) , at which point we move to the flat side, which is more intuitive and convenient at that point, as explained above.

From the flat side you move up a P4th as you go - each time adding one flat, which will be the P4th of the new key. You retain the previous flats, drop them down proportionately, and making the new one the P4th of the new key. This continues until you hit Gb (the enharmonic equivalent of F#) - 6 flats and a Tritone from C, the starting point - at which point we move to the sharp side, which is more intuitive and convenient at that point, as explained above.

Turns out, we have a circle divided into 12 parts, just like hours of a clock: Midnight is C;

Move through clockwise, adding one sharp for each hour until you get to 6 AM: F#/Gb - 6 hours/6 chromatic notes/one tritone from C/midnight. Move through counter-clockwise, adding one flat for each hour until you get to 6 AM: Gb/F# - 6 hours/6 chromatic notes/one tritone from C/midnight.

The same applies if you move all the way through from the flat or sharp side, except that when going from the sharp side, once you get past F#, instead of adding a sharp, you removed a flat - and vice versa.

Once you understand the rules for spelling scales and the Circle of 5ths, you really don't have to memorize anything except a few scale algorithms - everything else falls into place logically just by following movement of sharps and flats through the Circle - no need to memorize.

Is it really necessary to distinguish them straightforward?

Absolutely yes! Unless you use the correct musical vocabulary, you will not be well understood by other musicians when you speak or write about music, nor will you be able to notate music correctly. It's no different than if you used incorrect words to express yourself on any subject: If you don't have an adequate and correct vocabulary of words to use in writing and speaking, you will not be able to express yourself well and be understood in your reading and writing.

Unless you learn the correct vocabulary, your thinking about music will also be skewed - you will never grasp the fundamentals of our theoretical system of music unless you learn how name the notes, scales and chords correctly, and refer to them that way. Nothing will make sense otherwise - not in your mind, and not when you try to read or comprehend something about music from someone else.

Example: You read a discussion about Dominant 7th chords - say C7 in the key of F: C-E-G-Bb. The all important Dominant 7th is Bb - B being the 7th in scales and chords based whose root is C. How will you understand this discussion if you spell the chord C-E-G-A#? You have no Dominant 7th - only an augmented 6th. You'll either be completely confused, start messing around with counting steps and half steps, or transpose in your mind to Bb - which is how you should have spelled the chord in the first place...

Then again if we are playing in Fmaj, is it the chord A# major in it or Bb major?

Based on what we have explained, the answer is clear. The F major scale is spelled F->G-A-Bb-C-D-E->F , making A the M3rd in the key of F Major - and so the 4th must be B - in this case Bb, according to the major scale algorithm.


Note:

There were/are many musicians who play by ear with no formal knowledge of theory and terminology, including some very great ones. But don't let that fool you: They all had their private systems and vocabularies that were consistent and logical for themselves. However, when expressing their music to others, they either had to play it out, or resort to transcribers and arrangers, etc - people with formal training and knowledge - to promulgate their music. (Provided it was good enough for anyone else to be interested in it...)

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    Thanks, your answer is very helpful. I'm not all that bad at music theory since I've been using Guitar Pro for quite a long time and have been composing and I know the scales but never approached them from the point of view of notation. My problem was that I learned all the chords and just named them the way I initially learned them so the chord with notes A#,D,F was always a A# major to me, I never thought it would change its name. – SovereignSun Dec 25 '17 at 3:37
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    Now I get it that the same chord and the same notes change name depending on the key signature. Now even Cb and Fb make sense. As for the naming, you see many musicians in rock bands have no idea about those flats or sharps so basically they are having the same problem I do. That's why they too always name the chords with sharps only. So they have C, Cm, C#, C#m, D, Dm, D#, D#m, E, Em, F, FM, F#, F#m, G, Gm, G#, G#m, A, Am, A#, A#m, B, Bm. – SovereignSun Dec 25 '17 at 3:40
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    Cb and Fb make sense - Yes. Cb is the same pitch as B, Fb is the same pitch as E - but when you need to spell certain scales, you must use those names to spell the scale correctly. Ab Minor will be spelled Ab-Bb-Cb, not Ab-Bb-B . Those are called enharmonic equivalents : Same pitch, different name. The pitch is an absolute mathematical frequency, but our musical system does not reckon with that - we have rules about how to spell scales - so sometimes we use D#, for example-when spelling E major. But sometimes we need to use Eb-when spelling Bb Major - and so it goes. – Stinkfoot Dec 25 '17 at 4:55
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    Now the OP mentions use of guitar driven programs, it's good that he knows that several other guitar sites only use #. Not a b in site !! They're wrong - but because they post on websites, they would appear to gain credence. Wrong!! – Tim Dec 25 '17 at 9:56
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    Yes, when I'm out on bass, I try to gel with the drummer. At least they don't talk about what chords are called !! Joking apart, bass and drums should be one unit - providing the guitarist is playing the right chords. I've been in situations - open mic - where two guitarists are playing different chords, and it's hell trying to play a decent bass line under both. And I'm not talking about one playing Bb and the other A#.... but I digress. – Tim Dec 25 '17 at 13:11
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The key of F would usually have Bb rather than A#. For a simple scale (e.g. not chromatic), the rule is to use each letter once. Your F scale has two As and no B.

For certain unusual scales, e.g. G#, this rule will require double sharps or double flats.

Extra detail.

You appear to know the sequence of intervals (tones and semitones) for a major scale. Your problem is just how to name them. I expect that you know that there will be 7 notes before the root (original) note repeats. Here's the simple rule: use all of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G once.

Your version of the F scale breaks that rule by using A twice and never B. If you switch the A# to Bb then the rule is obeyed: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F.

Your Ab scales obeys the rule.

For an unusual example, try G#: G#, A#, B#, C# D# E# Fx, G#. So, we have used the unusual B# rather than C, E# rather than F, and the even more odd Fx (double sharp) rather than G.

This rule also works for minor scales but they have some other complications.

It fails for chromatic scales (too many notes to use different letters for all) and the pentatonic or whole tone scales (too few notes).

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Saying pretty well what bad john says, in a slightly different way, hoping you understand better: Each and every one of the major keys with 7 notes needs one of each letter name for each of the notes involved.

Thus A B C D E F G is used once each. Obviously, some of those will have # or b attached and in extreme cases x or bb. In key C, they are, in order for the scale, C D E F G A B C. For your example, F G A Bb C D E F is better than using A and A#.

The main reason for all this is that when writing dots on the lines and spaces we call staves, in any given key, each note used diatonically will have its own line or space. Doing it your way would mean there's an A and an A# in the same place - and no note ever on the B place. Makes life tricky for reading (and writing) with naturals abounding for no good reason.

So, the main reason is as above. As far as just calling notes with the 'wrong' names is concerned, it doesn't make a lot of difference - I know - I play with a lot of guitarists!! However, once one is steeped in the 'proper' names, one expects certain things to be called properly, and I suppose we have our 'F' hat on, expecting to see Bb and not A#. That sort of phenomenon has tripped me up several times when I see something like an Abm chord in key E - instead of the 'proper' G#m.

As far as remembering which are which is concerned - basically commit them to memory. You did that with alphabets, and 6x5=30 has no logic except it is, but learning times tables meant you could give an immediate answer when you heard 6x5? I think that because you regard b and # as unnecessary burdens, and don't understand why they exist, there has been no burning desire to differentiate, but when you begin to understand the wherewithal, you'll appreciate that in key F, there's a Bb, not an A#, mainly because there's no B. it's been changed into Bb !!

Edit from comments for Tim to sort/edit:

@SovereignSun - one note by itself - Eb - is neither major nor minor. The 3rd degree of the C Minor scale is Eb. The note is Eb - period. Its interval from the root - C - is a m3rd, as opposed to E, found in the C major scale - its interval is a M3rd. There is no D# in C Minor or C Major: D is a 2nd counting from C. Both CM and Cm contain the interval of a Major 2nd - D. D# would be an augmented 2nd. Neither CM nor Cm contains an augmented 2nd.

@SovereignSun (cont) : A major scale is not comprised only of major intervals, nor is a minor scale comprised only of minor intervals. Major scales contain minor intervals: from a M3rd to a P4th is a minor 2nd; From m6 to m7 is a Major 2nd. A scale is called "Major" or "Minor" based on its overall structure/sonority (particularly its 3rds and 7ths), not because all its intervals are major or minor.

@SovereignSun - now let's take Bb major. Start on that note - and call it Bb not A# !! Next comes a C (ordinary, natural) then a D, then some sort of E. The one that sounds right - 'cos it is - will be Eb. Can't be D# in this situation, as you already played a D note. After that, it's plain sailing with natural notes till you need another B of sorts. Got to be Bb - you already used an A !! Each and every (major) key has its own # or b, and they do not get muddled. Learn each key sig., and you're nearly all there!

@SovereignSun - those black keys are both # and/or b at the same time, but they only, usually, get called one or the other in one key. If you played the violin, then you may find that, say, Bb and A# are indeed slightly different notes. But that can't happen on keyboard - it's a bit of a compromise. Check out equal temperament. Please!

@SovereignSun (cont) These things are really not very difficult - if you are a programmer, it is easier than most programming languages. But I strongly suggest you find a good book or a teacher so you can learn properly. People often show up on this site very confused because they have not taken a serious, organized approach to studying music and grab snippets from different not necessarily reliable websites. That is not how to do it. There are many books. I like "Music Theory for Dummies" - it follows the pattern of a college music curriculum and is well written and organized.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Dec 25 '17 at 13:37
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    @DrMayhem - that was a nice Christmas gift! Thanks. This was one of the hardest questions to get the OP to understand the answer for, so the more nuggets the better. I guess he's not the only one who should be asking this question!! By the way, please don't move this conversation into chat... – Tim Dec 25 '17 at 16:01
  • Tim, you have a great explanation. There's still one thing I can't understand, Why did music have to make it so difficult? Working with only sharps would make everything 50 times easier. – SovereignSun Dec 26 '17 at 9:00
  • So how would you propose writing out , say, key Eb, for example? It has Bb Eb and Ab. Using your concept, the notes from the Eb major scale will be D#, F, G, G#, A#, C and D. You'd have 2 notes on a D line/space, and 2 on a G line/space, and nothing on a B or E line/space. Messy to write, correcting # and naturals , at very least. – Tim Dec 26 '17 at 9:40

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