Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is the Difference Between Sharp Notes and Flat Notes?

Written by MasterClass

Jun 13, 2019 • 4 min read

What is the difference between F-sharp and G-flat? Are they really just the same note? What about C natural and B-sharp? Such questions have puzzled amateur musicians for generations. And there are two ways of answering—one from an acoustics perspective and one from a music theory perspective.

Close

What Are Sharp Notes in Music?

Sharp notes are notes that sound a semitone higher than notes that appear on the lines and spaces of a musical staff.

  • As an example, the note G is represented on the second line of the treble clef staff. The note G-sharp is indicated with that same notehead with a # symbol placed to the left of it.
  • The # symbol universally indicates a sharp note. For instance, the following image indicates the note C# on the treble clef.
Diagram of c sharp in music

Close
  • You can also raise a note that’s already sharp by using a double-sharp symbol. In the following image, a C-sharp is followed by a C double-sharp.
Diagram of C sharp and double sharp in music

Close
  • On a piano keyboard, all of the black keys can be notated as “sharps.” (They can also be notated as “flats.”)
  • Any note can be a sharp or a flat — even white keys on the piano. For instance, the note F (a white key on the piano) can also be notated as E-sharp. The note D (also a white key on the piano) can be notated as C double-sharp.

What Are Flat Notes in Music?

Flat notes are notes that sound a semitone lower than notes that appear on the lines and spaces of a musical staff.

  • As an example, the note B is represented on the third line of the treble clef staff. The note B-flat is indicated with that same notehead with a ♭ symbol placed to the left of it.
  • The ♭ symbol universally indicates a flat note. For instance, the following image indicates the note A♭ on the treble clef.
Diagram of A flat in music

Close
  • You can also raise a note that’s already flat by using a double-flat symbol. In the following image, an A-flat is followed by an A double-flat.
Diagram of A-flat followed by an A double-flat in music

Close
  • On a piano keyboard, all of the black keys can be notated as “flats,” and can also be notated as “sharps.”
  • Any note can be a sharp or a flat — even white keys on the piano. For instance, the note B (a white key on the piano) can also be notated as C-flat. The note D (also a white key on the piano) can be notated as E double-flat.

What Is the Difference Between Sharp Notes and Flat Notes?

Sharps and flats fall into a musical category called “accidentals.” They represent alterations to “natural” notes like C or D or B.

There are two ways to think of sharps and flats: acoustically and in terms of music theory. As an example, let’s consider two notes: D#4 (the pitch D# in the fourth octave on a piano) and Eb4 (the pitch Eb in the fourth octave on a piano).

Acoustically, D#4 and Eb4 are the same notes. They both represent sound waves vibrating at a frequency of 311.13 Hz in standard instrument tuning. As such, if you were to play a D#4 and an Eb4 on the piano, you would be striking the same exact piano key. A person with absolute pitch would not be able to tell you one note is a D# while another is Eb. Acoustically, they are exactly the same.

In terms of music theory, a note would be called either D# or Eb depending on what key it appears in. Western music is divided into groups of sharp keys and flat keys.

  • C major is neither a sharp key nor a flat key. It contains no accidentals—only natural notes. (The same is true for its relative minor key, A minor.)
  • From C major, we can follow the circle of 5ths and cycle through multiple “sharp keys”: G major, D major, A major, E major, B major, F# major, and C# major. Additionally, the relative minor keys of these key signatures are also “sharp keys”: E minor, B minor, F# minor, C# minor, G# minor, D# minor, and A# minor.
  • We can also cycle in the other direction from C major, and follow a circle of 4ths through multiple “flat keys”: F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb. As was true for sharps, the relative minor keys of these flat keys are also considered “flat”: Dm, Gm, Cm, Fm, Bbm, Ebm, Abm.

As a general rule, “flat keys” get flat accidentals and “sharp keys” get sharp accidentals. Thus, to return to our notes D# and Eb, D# traditionally appears in sharp keys, such as E or B. Eb traditionally appears in flat keys, such as Ab or C minor.

So what’s more important: the acoustics or the music theory? Ultimately, it’s the acoustics, since that’s what listeners will experience. A listener doesn’t care if a piece of sheet music says D#4 or Eb4: she will hear the same exact audio frequency from her seat in the audience. And at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing about music: how it sounds to an audience.

Become a better musician with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by musician masters, including Carlos Santana, Hans Zimmer, Tom Morello, and more.