Einojuhani Rautavaara sometimes uses flats and sometimes uses sharps in chords.

Once it's atonal music, what're the rules for sharps and flats?

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    As far as I can tell, each composer uses his/her own rules. Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 0:29
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    Not true, uncle bob. Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 2:26
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    I found some useful answers here: youngcomposers.com/t20211/accidentals-in-an-atonal-piece Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 2:28
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    It's also worth thinking about whether or not this is 'truly atonal'. It doesn't sound like twelve-tone serialism. While it's not centred on a standard key it is relatively consonant. It's using chords which will tend towards a tonal centre or implied root note. It's possible the sharp/flat decision is based on 'spelling' the most coherent chords.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 9:43
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    @jjmusicnotes If the rules you put forward are indeed a kind of standard, and not just common sense and personal preference, then a few examples would give your answer more weight. Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 13:23

2 Answers 2


Fair question. Think about these things:

1.) Context (lots of sharps / flats already? Which would simplify the music?)

2.) The direction (sharps = up / flats = down)

3.) The instrument (strings more comfortable reading sharps / winds more comfortable with flats)

4.) Writing intervals the way they sound (does that really need to be "C-D#" or would "C-Eb" make more sense?)

5.) Voice-leading (this is part of "context" from above - what makes the most sense voice-leading wise? Atonality and functional harmony can coexist; just because your chords have functional voice-leading does not mean that they can't exist within an atonal framework.)

Make the decisions that make the most sense. The more you can simplify the music, the better.


General rules for accidentals (in atonal contexts)

In her chapter on "Using accidentals in an atonal context", Elaine Gould lists three conventions for note-spelling (which she indicates also apply to tonal contexts):

  • Use the most familiar intervals — perfect, minor and major — rather than augmented and diminished intervals
  • Chromatic-scale figures use sharps to ascend, flats to descend [including double sharps and flats when appropriate]
  • Spell stepwise figures as a scale, i.e. as adjacent pitch letters.

In making the latter point, she gives the illustration of using F# - G - Ab rather than Gb - G - G#.

Rules for serialism

Although there are not rules specific to serialism, there are various systems of accidentals outlined by Gould.

  1. Accidentals on every note. The early serialists (i.e., the Second Viennese School) wanted to emphasize that every pitch was one among equals, rather than F#, say, being a variant of F. This generally makes for the easiest and most accurate reading. However, she goes on to point out that in particularly dense scores, the plethora of accidentals can inhibit reading, and the sociopolitical point is now well understood.

  2. Accidentals apply only to the individual note. This system uses sharps and flats only. If a sharp or flat is not present, then the note is natural. She advises, however, to use a natural sign in the case of a natural immediately following its sharp or flat. Thus, in the sequence F# F F F, a natural sign would be placed with the first F following the F#.

Gould also suggests the inclusion of a prefatory note indicating what convention is being used.

Elaine Gould, Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation (Faber, 2011), 85 – 87.

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