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I'm seeing more and more music that contains conflicting or erroneous information - for example, C°7 written with an A, (not B♭♭), or E7♭5 with A♯ (not B♭).

Wondering if it's just ignorance, or whether writers try to come up with what they consider easier to read dots. It's in all sorts of publications, from printed sheet music (different publishers) to 'educational' books.

This may get thrown out as subjective, but there could be good reasons for it - maybe computer programs don't help? And the bottom line - does it really matter?

EDIT: yes, it has to be the publishers ultimately, but there's a distinct possibility that they merely print what they're given, therefore I can't hold them totally responsible. Not entirely convinced by the title edit.

  • Can you give some examples of where you are seeing this? Especially, the "conflicting" information. The to examples you listed contain enharmonic spellings, but I don't see any conflict. – Peter Jan 14 at 17:31
  • @Peter - Levine's Jazz theory book has quite a few. Some of the stuff I play in a couple of Big Bands is peppered with this sort of thing. – Tim Jan 14 at 17:56
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    Yeah, the Levine book is notorious for this, and it bothers me because it is meant to be an educational book. Jazz, generally speaking, is more free with enharmonic spellings than classical music, though. – Peter Jan 14 at 18:01
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    How do you know when you see the dots for C, Eb, and A that it's meant to be a C diminished chord? Are there chord names above it? It could be an A diminished chord spelled correctly. Of course you may have just been using that as an example, but I think my question still stands - perhaps what you think was intended by the notation isn't what was intended. Pivoting to assuming you're correct, I have noticed that notation software tends to force notes to the next letter instead of adding an accidental. If you want a double flat or a Cb, you have to go out of your way to do it manually. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 at 18:06
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    I have Levine's book, and generally I like it. Enharmonic spellings do annoy me but I am more used to seeing flagrant mistakes. I think this is not what you are referring to here. I once had a musical score that was two guitar parts fused, along with a key change. The two parts were not lined up (off by several measures) and one of the parts did not have the key changed. Needless to say that sounded like orchestrated Free form Acid Jazz until we fixed it. – ggcg Jan 14 at 18:22
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When I was taking harmony theory my teacher would take points off for using enharmonic notes in a chord definition. He'd say D# is the sharp ninth of C, not Eb. And he is (was) correct. There is good reason to follow the correct theoretical naming convention. I also find it easier to sight read when the notes are in the correct chord form.

I have noticed that several open source music writing and tab programs will NOT place notes where I want them. Perhaps the option is there and I just don't know how to use it but I suspect that if it isn't obvious a lot of folks are going to ignore it. Hopefully this is a technology issue and not a lowering standards issue. Since every Tom, Dick, and Harry, can write and publish it's hard to know if you are referring to professional publications or junk you are finding on line. Perhaps you could make your question better by offering a few examples.

Some of it may very well be ignorance. Perhaps a young musician with little formal education is posting work and is not aware of the meaning behind the note names.

As for your last question, does it matter? I really think it does. For one thing enharmonic tones are a feature of equal tempered tuning and not in Just tuning. There is a real loss if information. The movement of notes will not appear correct. And it will be difficult to identify chords properly when sight reading, at least for guitar and I suspect piano too.

  • If you've read some of my answers and comments, you'll be well aware of my view of some (a lot!) online stuff. I've been tripped up , in key E, seeing an Abm chord written. Just couldn't find it! But that's not exactly what I'm highlighting here - that's just some guitarist who didn't know better. This question has hopefully struck a chord - for wont of a better phrase..! I know which I prefer! – Tim Jan 14 at 18:01
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    I wonder/worry if you've hit on the source of this: the software that people are using. In Musescore, for example, you can't place a Cb or B# on the staff, even by using the up and down arrows. You have to place a C (or B) and then use the explicit sharp or flat tool to add the accidental. Likewise with double sharps and double flats - you have to go out of your way to notate them. It is not aware of the key signature when placing notes. Even if it were, as I mentioned in my comment, it's not always possible to determine the notation intention. So people might just be lazy. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 at 18:15
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    I do use Musecsore and GuitarTux, and both have idiosyncrasies. However, I refuse to distribute things that are not "correct". I may get lazy about fixing them but if so I won't publish. I wouldn't want to screw up my students. – ggcg Jan 14 at 18:17
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    @ToddWilcox Every version of Musescore I've ever used is certianly aware of the key signature when placing notes. If you have a key signature of (say) E major, clicking on or typing F (in note entry mode) will place an F#. Of course it won't have a sharp by it, but with the key signature it is still an F#. Selecting it and pressing UP will change it to Fx (F double-sharp) and pressing DOWN will change it to F natural. – pizzapants184 Jan 14 at 19:20
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    @pizzapants184 I just checked and you're correct. I'm not sure why I've had trouble placing Cb and E# etc. in the past. Perhaps if I'm working way outside the key signature (which is very often). I know I've had to jump through hoops to get unusual accidentals placed in the past. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 at 19:45
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Most composers I know operate on two levels: theoretical and practical.

The difference between A and Bbb only matters for analytical purposes. When reading melodically double-flats and double-sharps can be difficult for performers to read because they lead to more diminished and augmented intervals (like G to Bbb, or Bbb to C) - which composers try to avoid notating.

The last step of the composition process for many composers is to go through each instruments' part and review it for readability. So, for instance, if a line goes Gb-Bbb-C, they will change that Bbb to an A because it will be clearer to a performer.

I don't necessarily think it's because the writers are lazy or ignorant of theory. It's the composer's job to convey the notes clearly to the performer, not to give them a theory lesson.

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    I disagree with your assessment of "difficult to read". On guitar it is much easier to read the whole chord as a unit and if enharmonic notes are used it really screws you up. That statement is relative. – ggcg Jan 14 at 17:56
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    @ggcg I could probably be clearer. I'm referring to sight-reading the pitches melodically (one after another). If you're reading a stacked chord, then the double-flat may be clearer because it preserves the appearance of stacked thirds. My point is that theory shouldn't get in the way of clarity. – Peter Jan 14 at 18:08
  • I don't think this case is really what the OP is talking about. He's asking about chord mis-spellings (and I think also cases like D# major instead of the conventional Eb major) – Michael Curtis Jan 14 at 19:19
  • @MichaelCurtis I interpreted the question differently than you. The OP asked about "erroneous information" and whether it was put there to make "easier to read dots." He doesn't mention anything about chord misspellings or key signatures in the question. – Peter Jan 14 at 19:47
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    @Peter Assuming a piece is written in C# minor. If I see a melodic line like this A#-B#-C# it makes sense and easy to read as opposed to a line that says A#-C-C# which is a bit confusing. And similar Bbb-Ab-Gb shows the melodic line clearly. – Lars Peter Schultz Jan 29 at 0:33
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It may be erroneous and the smartest thing to write at the same time. Consider film scores, here a piece in any key will often be written without any sharps or flats at the key signature. It would look like it were considered in C maj or Amin, wich may be utterly untrue, but it makes practical sense: Musicians read it easily and do not miss as many flats / sharps by accident. Is it "correct" ? Probably not.

I like writing my stuff in the correct way, but sometimes I will change it in for practical reasons... If one analyzes it, he will find out soon enough. But yeah... my guess it is lazyness, and giving in to lazyness, time pressure and so on...

  • Key signatures make sight reading much easier. Like if I see a piece with 3 sharps my mind and fingers immediatly know where to go when reading the notes, which means I kind of don't even need to think of the 3 sharps: I am simply greared into playing the right notes. Exception would be if the music changes key signature every other second so to speak; in that case it seems more relevant with no key signature. – Lars Peter Schultz Jan 29 at 0:15
  • I agree there is a lot of musical sense in it. But apparently people DO choose to write only accidentals for these practical reasons. I guess it may be different for different musicians, as well as styles. Obviously many film scores have changes in tonality, or sometimes no (or little) tonality at all. – Chai Feb 13 at 17:01
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My feeling is that these mistakes are made when the writer isn't used to reading the staff or doesn't understand the harmonic implications of enharmonic spellings.

...does it really matter?

I say it matter only if you want to be able to refer to chords by letter names and accidentals and if you want to consistently describe relative relations of tones and chords.

The point can be illustrated by pushing things to the absurd. How about a circle of diminished sixths? Or a C major chord spelled Dbb E Fx? Those would be obviously silly to even the beginning student.

It shouldn't be too hard to go from that beginner level to explain why F A C D# resolves in Am as Gr+6|i6/4 V functioning as an inverted, altered subdominant, but F A C Eb resolves in Bb as V7|I functioning as a dominant, and the difference is implied by the enharmonic spellings even though both chords in isolation sound like dominant seventh chords.

When people write Co7, spell it C Eb Gb A, and then resolve it to C# major they need to be corrected... on both errors!

It's totally unacceptable in educational materials.

4

Many jazz arrangers will substitute B for Cb, even when it's the b7 in Db7 or the minor third in Abm. It sends me mad, but it's the convention in that style. They'll spell a dim7 chord whatever way avoids a 'difficult' accidental.

It's very common in printed song copies to see a diminished 7th chord mis-spelt, in fact it would be quite remarkable to see Cdim7 spelt with a Bbb. This doesn't worry me in the slightest!

In the 'classical' and academic worlds you're more likely to see one spelt 'correctly'. But would you fault Beethoven for this? Why not?

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    The Beethoven chord at the green arrow is clearly F#°7. Since it's followed by a G chord in a C minor context, these chords are vii°7/V and V. Both chords are spelled correctly. – Dekkadeci Jan 22 at 6:47
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With jazz, at least, I think there is an underlying reason to use an easier spelling: the enharmonic function can actually be contradictory between melody and harmony.

For example, I love using a Db7b9 chord (or an Fdim7/Db) for the penultimate note of "A Christmas Song," which is melodically a D natural. But, harmonically, that's an Ebb in the chord, the b9 of the Db7b9 chord. (And, no, I can't spell it as a C#7b9 chord, as that can't resolve to the final C chord.)

And this is entirely an accepted harmonization. That suggests heavily that jazz doesn't maintain the distinction between enharmonic chords.

This can happen even outside of jazz, as long as someone is playing with harmony in a way that presupposes equal temperament. But it's so common in jazz that it makes sense that they don't even bother.

(I also note that, I'm already cheating one note, I also go ahead and use a B instead of a Cb. The stacked thirds are already obscured either way.)

2

You've already answered your question: some notation may be ignorance, some in purpose to make it easier for reading.

But there seems to be another reason: toward a modern notation!

as they speak about traditional notation there must be a movement to change things:

http://musicnotation.org/tutorials/enharmonic-equivalents/

It says:

„Various Approaches

There are at least three different approaches to the representation of enharmonic equivalents in chromatic staff notation systems:

  1. Not Explicitly Differentiating Between Enharmonic Equivalents …while assuming twelve-tone equal temperament for intonation and/or relying on contextual cues and conventions for harmonic/melodic function and intonation.“ ...

and:

These approaches involve nomenclature as well, since the traditional note and interval names make a distinction between enharmonic equivalents. For example, the first approach above lends itself to using a novel nomenclature for notes and intervals, otherwise the names of some notes and intervals would remain ambiguous.

„To conclude, there are different views on just how important it is to distinguish between enharmonic equivalents in music notation, and on how not doing so might affect the understanding of their intonation and tonal function. Fortunately, there are also corresponding approaches to representing them (or not) in a chromatic staff notation system.„

  • In orthography the rules about correct writing are adapted to errors and ignorance. When I read on facebook it seems that today most german (even teachers) aren‘t able to differ the article das and the relative pronoun das from the conjuction dass. You can find everythig! Why should it be different in music notation? I‘m not a purist nor a culture pessimist. But if you consider that most adult leave school as musical analphabeths after nine years of 2 lessons of music ... it‘s just ignorance. But there are 2 kinds of ignorance: you don‘t know it better or you just don‘t mind. Does it matter? – Albrecht Hügli Jan 14 at 20:57
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Í‘ve overlooked the term publishers in your question. Now I‘ll answer a pretty different argument. There are series of pop music and classic pieces like easy piano of sikorski edition or yamaha publishing. Who wants to publish music that can‘t be read by beginners of keyboard playing? (Some may say: but the easy reading aspect was already mentioned. But I want to emohasize the commercial aspectfor the publishers.

Computer notation programs can manage this (but they still need a great work of editing by hand, this needs time and will rise the costs for a product that would better been sold without editing the enharmonics.)

  • The term publishers was edited in without reference to me later. Not overlooked - not there. – Tim Jan 16 at 8:29

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