F is for Flat

Flats and sharps are semitone (or half-step) movements in pitch.  Flat means “lower in pitch by a semitone”, while sharp means “higher in pitch by a semitone”.  A semitone is the smallest interval used in classical Western music, equal to a twelfth of an octave or half a tone, since there are 12 semitones in an octave.  An octave is the distance between two musical notes that have the same letter name.  If a musician sings or plays a scale (‘do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do’) the first and last ‘do’ are an octave apart.  An octave is the distance from one note with a particular letter name to the next occurrence of that same letter-named note on a piano keyboard.  As we go up an octave, the frequency of vibrations doubles, so our ears will hear a note as one octave higher than another precisely because it vibrates twice as fast.  The syllables Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si are used to name notes the same way that the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, and B are used to name notes in English.

Sharp and flat notes are opposites, and sharps go up, while flats go down.  Sharps and flats are called accidentals, and this is a note of a pitch (or pitch class) that is not a member of the scale or mode indicated by the most recently applied key signature.  In music, an accidental has a sign placed immediately to the left of (or above) a note to show that the note must be changed in pitch.  A sharp (♯) raises a note by a semitone, a flat (♭) lowers it by a semitone, and a natural (♮) restores it to the original pitch.  A sharp symbol looks like hashtag symbol and the Italian bemolle symbol for flat is a stylized lowercase “b”, which can be created by typing 266d, and highlighting it and pressing Alt-X.  The Unicode character for the natural sign can be created by pressing Alt-X on (U+266E).  Double-flat accidentals as well as the double-sharp also exist.  A note’s pitch can be sharpened, or flattened and there really isn’t much more to it.  Flats and sharps deal with notes, but I am going to avoid explaining notes for now, as I am saving that for a later post.  Since you can’t really understand a flat in music, without knowing about pitch, scale and key, I will try and explain them.

Key denotes the major or minor scale in which a piece of music operates, and thus, the notes that belong in it.  A composer may choose to use accidentals, flat or sharp notes outside the song’s overall key that are applied to that note for only the bar where they are marked.  Perhaps the most important distinction to make between major and minor keys is that major keys generally sound upbeat, and minor keys generally have a melancholy tinge to them.  You can hear this difference in an example as small as individual chords, like when an A major chord sounds radically different than an A minor chord.  Major keys use major scales and minor keys use minor scales, which are determined by their patterns of half and whole steps.  A C flat is a C lowered in pitch by a half-step.  Often, you’ll hear people comment on a musician being sharp or flat, and what they mean, essentially, is that they’ve hit a note outside the key they’re supposed to be performing in.  Many keys contain sharps and flats and each major and minor key has an associated key signature, showing up to seven flats or seven sharps, that indicates the notes used in its scale.  The keys of C major and A minor are the only ones without any.

Pitch is the frequency of a sound, how high or low it is in relation to other sounds, the degree of gravity or acuteness of any sound.  A high frequency, produced by rapid vibration, creates a high pitch; a low frequency, produced by slow vibration, creates a low pitch. The chromatic scale contains 12 musical pitches.  The pitch of a note is the frequency of its vibrations.  The exact pitch of notes has varied over the years and nowadays differs to some extent between continent and continent or even between orchestra and orchestra.  Earlier pitches were generally lower, but not necessarily standardized.  Perfect pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of a note, according to generally accepted nomenclature, or any musical or tonal support.  Relative pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of one note with relation to another, given note.

Scale is a series of notes which define a diatonic tonality, often consisting of eight degrees, and containing a tonic and sometimes also a leading tone.  Scales are patterns of half and whole steps that create sequences of notes from the 12 pitches.  A scale can include any number and combination of these pitches.  Diatonic relates to the notes that occur naturally in a scale, without being modified by accidentals other than in the key signature.  Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality.  Degree refers to a note of a scale, usually as identified by number, like octave being associated with the number 8.  Tonic is the key center, or foundation of, a scale or melody.

Written for the April A-Z challenge.

14 thoughts on “F is for Flat

  1. Well done. And surprisingly the concepts of flat, sharp, and natural can be among the most difficult to explain to singers who are just beginning to learn how to read musical notations.

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