In this example, Einojuhani Rautavaara sometimes uses flat and sometimes uses sharp in some 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. Aug 13, 2019 at 0:29
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    Not true, uncle bob. Aug 13, 2019 at 2:26
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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
    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. Aug 13, 2019 at 13:23
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    The "rules" for the strict note-naming so far as theories of harmony go are one thing. The rules for marking the parts to be played are laid out pretty well in jjmusicnotes' answer. Aug 13, 2019 at 14:22

1 Answer 1


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.


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