# Why have sharps and flats instead of twelve notes with distinct names? [duplicate]

I'm new to piano, and I'm new to music. 12 notes, 7 letters, and I'm mad at teacher. I tried looking up why there are only 7 letters for 12 notes, and I'm not satisfied.

Why do we have sharps and flats when we could have indicated these notes with different letters? So obviously, we've developed theory and notation around this and it seems to work quite well, but why couldnt we developed a system for twelve letter notes ... A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L? Is music theory easier/more practical under 7 letter notes as opposed to 12 or something? Does it have a practical usage with scales, or 3rds and 5ths or whatever? I dont like this C- sharp/flat nonsense.

• I don't know if this question is exactly a duplicate, but the answer I wanted to write is almost exactly the same as this answer from another m.se question. Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:03
• Oddly enough, the Germans actually label one note with the letter H. We English-speakers call that note B. The Germans call our B flat "B". Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:12
• It's worth a lesson to sit down with your teacher and try to come up with an alternative idea - if your teacher is that sort of person. At the end, you may well understand why we have what we have, and it could be food for thought for teacher as well...
– Tim
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 18:25
• music.stackexchange.com/questions/25274/… may also be of interest. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 22:04

A lot of my students pose similar questions. Sometimes my answer is to set the challenge of coming up with a different, better, more optimal system, if only for the note names. No-one's managed yet...They all say along the lines of - well, it ain't perfect, but it's better than anything I've come up with.

One stumbling block is that with so many different names - e.g. 12, they'd each need a place on some sort of map - the one we call a stave at the moment. Now, notes can share places, but how's that going to work in another system, where by definition each has its own separate name, thus place, I guess?

A rather similar question was posed here recently, and I urge the OP to have a look at its answers.

• "how's that going to work in another system" - as you say, wouldn't it be straightforward for each note of the 12 would just to have its own position, as in the chromatic staff? Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:36
• Good point about stave notation; also, I can't help but think that it would be harder to think about common chords without flats and sharps. Maybe we would get used to it....
– user39614
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:38
• @DavidBowling it's so much easier (for me) to think about chords without flats and sharps - each chord is just a pattern of intervals of a certain size, and that's all there is to it. Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:41
• @topomorto -- I'm thinking, for example of chords with alterations. It seems to me more useful to think of a C7(♯5♯9) instead of a C(5, 9, 11, 16), and easier to think about chord function and quality. But maybe there is a better 12-tone notation for describing traditional harmony.
– user39614
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:55
• @topomorto - the C7 thing just happens to be a misnomer. Cmaj7 makes sense, as does Cm7, but we could call C7 'Cdom7', but since it's the most prevalent, shorthand says 'C7'. Cm6 is the other odd one...
– Tim
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 17:29

It is a long and complicated story. The main reason is that there was never a committee that debated and designed the theory of music and ensured that it was simple and logical. Instead, it has gradually evolved over a very long period. There are some aspects that could be improved and simplified but the inertia of the current system is too great. Look outside music: it would clearly be beneficial if the same units of measurement were used in all countries rather than feet, miles, pints, etc in some countries and metres, kilometres, litres, etc in others.

On the note names, a large part of the answer is that a very large proportion of music (in all genres) is wholly or mostly restricted to one 7 note key at one time. Think of the song Doe A Deer which uses just 7 notes. When you are restricted to one key, 7 notes is enough. If we switched to your 12 letter system, you would need to learn odd gaps in the scales. The current C major scale would become ACEFHJLA (I am guessing that you would also like to start the simplest all white notes scale on A rather than C). Some music, 12 tone music, would get simpler but most would get more complex.

• Check out 'Doe a Deer' again. I counted ten notes!!
– Tim
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:22
• @Tim, you mean that it goes beyond one octave or it has chromatic notes? I don't think that even the OP proposes giving each piano key its own letter. I think that he is still intending to repeat at each octave. If he did then he would need to find a larger alphabet. Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:26
• I thought, in key C, there's F#, G# and Bb. And it only goes from C-C.
– Tim
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:27
• @tim I guess that there are many versions. In this one, I see more than one octave but no accidentals. musescore.com/user/7774806/scores/3521956 Now I find this which does have F#, G#, and Bb. musescore.com/user/2810131/scores/1286471 Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 16:52
• The first one there is pretty amateur, and doesn't go with the original harmonies. The second is more accurate. Try with the chords, and the first does not sound good !
– Tim
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 17:25

To see HOW it works, look at a picture of a piano keyboard.

WHY is harder. And it's going to be hard to explain to a musical newbie in any useful way. Yes, it's to do with scales and keys. And about being able to stretch an octave with one hand on a keyboard. And yes, it could have gone in another direction all those years ago.

But we're stuck with the system. And we're wasting time that would be more usefully spent helping you PLAY music.

• ok, this was all very helpful, ty Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 21:31

Why do we have sharps and flats when we could have indicated these notes with different letters? So obviously, we've developed theory and notation around this and it seems to work quite well, but why couldnt we developed a system for twelve letter notes ... A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L?

It's basically just the way it happened historically - we came up with the idea of a 7-note scale being something that sounded good before we came up with the idea of all possible 7-note scales living within a 12-note 'super-scale'.

Is music theory easier/more practical under 7 letter notes as opposed to 12 or something? Does it have a practical usage with scales, or 3rds and 5ths or whatever?

It can make things easier when you're dealing with pieces of music that actually stick rigidly to the 7-note scale. But once you move away from that 7-note scale in your composition, of course the presumption of a 7-note scale just makes things more awkward.

I dont like this C- sharp/flat nonsense.

Neither do I, and when I make or play music, I don't think about note names or sharps and flats at all - I don't find it useful. The only time I use those terms is when I'm talking to someone else about music because, for historical reasons, it has become 'the common language' of music. In this sense, it's a bit like a natural language (like English) - it isn't necessarily the only logical way to express ideas - it's just one way to express ideas that has evolved through various accidents of history.

You could try the fully 12-note world, and see if you like it: get hold of an isomorphic keyboard*, such as this one...

and try playing some music notated on a chromatic staff.

*though actually, this keyboard is still coloured according to the C major scale.

• While I think that you downplay the utility of the system that we have a little bit, this answer does mention its usefulness for communication in the current environment, and suggests exploration of alternatives. I don't understand the DV at all; this is a useful answer. +1
– user39614
Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 19:36
• @DavidBowling I probably sound a bit flip 'dismissing' the standard form of musical notation that most know and love. I imagine I'm a bit like the OP in that I also tend to want to understand things from first principles - sometimes questions like the OP's aren't so warmly-received here, so I was just trying to give reassurance that the question is sensible! Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 21:10

(Western) music is based on a 7-note scale.

Mary Had a Little Lamb goes:

3 2 1 2 | 3 3 3--- | 2 2 2--- | 3 5 5--- |

Not:

5 3 1 3 | 5 5 5--- | 3 3 3--- | 5 8 8--- |

We then fill in the gaps evenly so that the system is fully symmetric, and that leads to 12 tones. But each key is a subset of 7 of them (primarily).

• "We then fill in the gaps evenly so that the system is fully symmetric" - I don't know what any of that means! How are the "gaps" filled in? What do you mean by "evenly" and "fully symmetric"? Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 19:25