Have you ever wondered why sharps or flats exists? Do you know when to use musical accidentals? If you don’t know the answer then you are in luck because in this lesson we are going to learn what an enharmonic in music is.
Regardless of the instrument you play, you need to know the concept of enharmonic in order to understand musical scales and chord constuction.
What is enharmonic in music?
An enharmonic equivalent is a note, interval, chord or key signature that sounds the same as other note, interval, chord or key signature but is named differently. Therefore, the enharmonic spelling of a written note is an alternative way to write that same note.
The enharmonic equivalent meaning may have confused you, but the truth is that there is a very important reason why they exist. And you’ll understand it perfectly with the examples I will show you.
But first let’s look at the main different enharmonic equivalents that exist in music.
As we have said before, an enharmonic equivalent is nothing more than a note that sounds the same as another but has a different name.
Let’s see a few examples of this notes:
- C = B#.
- C# = D♭.
- D# = E♭.
- E = F♭.
- F = E#.
- F# = G♭.
- G# = A♭.
- A# = B♭.
- B = C♭.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to study this table above because you’ll see how to deduct the enharmonic equivalents throughout this article while losing the fear of this concept. But what I do want you to understand is the concept of sharp and flat symbols.
In other words, the music accidentals.
What is accidental sign in music?
A music accidental is a sign or symbol that indicates the modification of a pitch. There are 5 types
of musical accidentals:
- A flat accidental (♭) will cause the note to sound one semitone or half step (fret) lower than the original note.
- A sharp accidental (#) will cause the note to sound one semitone or half step (fret) higher than the original note.
- A double flat accidental (♭♭) will cause the note to sound two semitones or a whole step (fret) lower than the original note.
- A double sharp accidental (x) will cause the note to sound two semitones or a whole step (fret) higher than the original note.
- A natural sign (♮) will cancel all the previous music accidentals and return the note to its natural pitch.
As its name indicates, a double sharp is formed by two sharps and a double flat is formed by two flats. I know this doesn’t tell you much, but with the examples below you’ll understand it perfectly.
In any case now that we know the music accidentals we can expand the initial table to see more enharmonic equivalents.
Examples of enharmonic notes
Let’s see now a couple of examples to undertand better the enharmonic equivalent meaning.
Major scale (b flat enharmonic equivalent)
You probably know the C major scale:
C D E F G A B C
This scale is formed by the following distribution of intervals:
W W H W W W H
W: Whole step or tone.
H: Half step, half tone or semitone.
⚠ Note: (if you don’t understand this you can read the post about the major scale).
Let’s see it in a bigger table to make it clear:
Having built the C major scale, let’s build now the F major scale:
👀 Now stop and take a good look at the table.
Do you see anything strange? Anything that seems odd to you or that you think is not right? If you don’t see it I’ll give you a hint, look at the fourth degree. We have A# even though we already have A in the third degree. And not only that, we are missing B in the scale.
So we have not one, but two problems.
Is there any way to solve this? Yes, with the enharmonic equivalent.
If you remember from the enharmonic equivalent chart, A# is the same as B♭, so if instead of sharps we use flats we have our problem solved.
Perfect, thanks to enharmony we know that the F major scale is composed by F – G – A – B♭ – C – D – E.
Do you see now the importance of enharmonic in music? Well, in order for you to fully understand it and be able to know when to use sharps or flats by yourself without the need of the table, let’s see an example with chord construction.
Enharmonic equivalent examples with chord construction
If you remember the article that explains how major and minor chords are built, a chord can be formed with the root, its third and its fifth. In addition, and this is the key concept, if the third degree lies 2 whole steps above the root then the chord is major and if it lies 3 semitones the chord is minor.
Perfect, knowing this we are going to build the C major chord. To do this we start from the C note which is the root. E is the major third because it lies four semitones above C, and G is the perfect fifth because it lies seven semitones above C.
Perfect, so now we are going to build the C minor chord.
Again, we start from C which is the root, and we look for the minor third at a distance of 3 semitones, which it would be D#. However, this doesn’t work for us because D is not the third degree of C but the second (remember C is the first, D is the second, E is the third, F is the fourth…).
We need E.
Now think, E is 4 semitones (or half steps) above C, but we need it at a distance of three. How do we achieve this? By lowering E by a half step and getting E flat.
And if we add to this that the fifth degree is G, because it’s always at a distance of 7 semitones, we have our minor chord.
Did you get this last music theory exercise right? After all, D# and E♭ are enharmonic notes, but because E is the third degree of C we have to use E instead of D.
Once we have seen the easiest concepts, let’s move on and see the double sharp. In order to understand this concept we are going to take triads as an example.
As an example, we’re going to see the B augmented triad step by step and very slowly so that
you don’t have any doubts and learn this new concept.
We start looking for the B major triad, which is quite easy. We just have to remember that a triad is a 3-note chord, so the B major triad consists of B, D# (which is the third degree) and F# (which is the fifth degree).
Therefore, as you can see in the image above, we can also say that the B major triad is composed of a major third interval followed by a minor third interval.
So far I guess everything is known and there is no problem on your side. So let’s see the augmented triad. To do this, we remember that an augmented triad consists of two major thirds above the root.
How do we raise it another semitone? With a double sharp note (x)
Therefore, the augmented B chord is formed by B, D# and Fx.
Since you’re an intelligent person, I’m sure that when you saw the above example with the double sharp, you quickly thought that then there must also exists a double flat enharmonic equivalent, and so there is.
Let’s see it.
To undertand it properly let’s look at the E flat diminished chord. And, as before, let’s start checking the E flat minor triad.
The E flat minor triad consists of E flat, G flat (which is it’s minor third) and B flat (which is it’s perfect fifth). And we can also say that it is composed of a minor third interval followed by a major third.
Okay, so now let’s build our E flat diminished third.
To achieve this, we have to lower the major third interval by a semitone to make it minor. In other words, we have to diminish B flat. As a result, B becomes double flat, as you can see in the image below.
Therefore the diminished E flat triad is made up with the notes E flat, G flat and B double flat.
And with this we have finished this article. Now you should undertand what an enharmonic in music is and the enharmonic spelling of a written note.