I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • A above a key on the piano is the key to its immediate right, while a half step below a key on the piano is the key to its immediate left.
  • A is two half steps. A whole step above is two keys to its right, while a whole step below is two keys to its left.
  • An changes the pitch of a note. A raises a note by a half step, while a lowers a note by a half step. A cancels a previous accidental.
  • A raises a note by a whole step, while a lowers a note by a whole step.
  • Be sure to write accidentals to the left of a note, directly across the line or space on which a note appears.
  • Notes have when they are spelled differently but sound the same.

In the last chapter, The Keyboard and the Grand Staff, we discussed the letter names of the white keys on the piano keyboard and noted that the black keys are grouped into alternating sets of two or three. Before we discuss the names of the black keys, however, we must first learn about half steps and whole steps.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

A is considered to be the smallest , or distance between two notes, in Western musical notation. Example 1 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the white-key pitches and some half steps labeled. On the piano keyboard (see Example 1), for most of the white-key notes, a half step above that note will be the black key to its upper right, while a half step below it will be the black key to its upper left. For example, the black key to the upper right of G is “in between” the notes G and A; one would say that this black key is a half step above G and a half step below A. Two pairs of white keys—E/F and B/C—do not have black keys in between them (see Example 1). This is because E–F and B–C are both half steps. Having the black keys grouped into sets of either two or three makes it easier for a keyboardist to see and feel them more quickly.

A piano keyboard is shown with the white keys labeled. Half steps between B/C, E/F, G and G sharp and A and A flat are shown.
Example 1. A piano keyboard with letter names on
the white keys; some half steps are labeled.

 

A is the equivalent of two half steps. Example 2 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the white key pitches labeled, and some whole steps bracketed. Pairs of white keys with a black key in between them (A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, and G and A) are a whole step apart. To find a whole step above the notes E or B, simply count two keys to the right: a whole step above E is the black key to the right of the note F, while a whole step above B is the black key to the right of the note C. Likewise, count two keys to the left to find a whole step below the notes C or F: the black keys to the left of the notes B and E, respectively. To find a whole step from a black key you will want to count two keys to the right or left. For example, a whole step above the black key to the right of C is the black key to the right of the note D. A whole step below the black key to the left of B is the black key to the left of the note A.

A piano keyboard is shown and white keys are labeled. Whole steps between A and B, E and F sharp, and D flat and E flat show also labeled.
Example 2. A piano keyboard with letter names on the white keys; some whole steps are labeled.

 

What do half steps and whole steps sound like? The short video shown in Example 3 demonstrates:

Example 3. Dr. Chelsey Hamm (Christopher Newport University) demonstrates the sound of a half step and a whole step.

Sharps, Flats, and Naturals

An  changes the pitch of a note. A  (♯) looks like a tilted hashtag, and it raises a note by a half step. A  (♭) looks like a slanted lowercase “b,” and it lowers a note by a half step. A  (♮) looks like a tilted box with a line sticking out of the top left and bottom right corners, and it cancels a previous accidental such as a sharp or flat. Sharps, flats, and naturals are the three most common accidentals.

A (or 𝄪) raises a note by two half steps (i.e., a whole step). A (𝄫) lowers a note by two half steps (i.e., a whole step). Accidentals are always written to the left of a note, regardless of stem direction. An accidental should be written directly across the line or space on which a note appears.

Example 4 shows both correct and incorrect ways to notate sharps, flats, and naturals:

Correct and incorrect ways of drawing accidentals are shown. The correct accidentals appear to the left of a note, on the same line or space as the note. Incorrect accidentals are too large, too small, or are on a different line or space than the note.
Example 4. Correct and incorrect ways to draw accidentals.

The Black Keys on the Piano Keyboard

Example 5 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the black keys labeled. Black keys that are a half step above a white key take the name of the white key and add the word “sharp.” For example, the black key to the right of the note C is called “C-sharp” and is written as C♯. Black keys that are a half step below a white key take the name of the white key and add the word “flat.” For example, the black key to the left of the note D is called “D-flat” and is written as D♭.

A piano keyboard is shown. The white and black keys are labeled. Each black key note has both a sharp and a flat name.
Example 5. A piano keyboard with the letter names of the
black keys labeled.

F is also known as E♯, and E is also known as F♭. C is also known as B♯, and B is also known as C♭. Example 6 also shows some of the double-sharp and double-flat accidentals. A double sharp is two half steps above a note. For example, D𝄪 is also E; E𝄪 is also F♯ (or G♭). A double flat is two half steps below a note. For example, A𝄫 is also G; C𝄫 is also B♭ or A♯.

A piano keyboard is shown with white and black keys labeled. Additionally, double accidentals are shown on some of the white keys.
Example 6. Double accidentals on the piano keyboard.

Enharmonic equivalence

You will have noticed by now that each key on the piano keyboard has more than one name. Notes have when they are spelled differently but sound the same. For example, you can see that C♯ and D♭ are enharmonically equivalent, as seen in Examples 5 and 6. Example 6 also shows that the note D is enharmonically equivalent with the notes C𝄪 and E𝄫. In other words, playing a D, C𝄪, or E𝄫 will result in the same pitch.

Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet
  1. Half and Whole Steps on the Piano Keyboard and in Staff Notation (.pdf)
  2. Half and Whole Steps in Staff Notation (.pdf)
  3. Writing and Identifying Notes with Accidentals, p. 1 (.pdf), pp. 9–11 (.pdf)
  4. Keyboard to Staff Notation Matching (.pdf)
  5. Enharmonic Equivalence, p. 3 (.pdf), (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Black Keys on the Piano (.pdf, .docx)
  2. Half and Whole Steps on the Piano Keyboard (.pdf, .docx)
  3. Writing Accidentals (.pdf, .docx)
  4. Writing and Identifying Accidentals (.pdf, .docx)
  5. Half and Whole Steps in Staff Notation (.pdf, .docx)
  6. Enharmonic Equivalence (.pdf, .docx)

Media Attributions

  • Piano Half Steps
  • Piano Whole Steps
  • Correct and Incorrect Accidentals
  • Piano Black Keys
  • Piano Double Accidentals

License

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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