Why do I favour some names of notes in the chromatic scale over their other names?
July 1, 2005 1:53 PM   Subscribe

MusicianFilter: Why do I favour some names of notes in the chromatic scale over their other names?

To me, when mentioning the 'black' notes in the chromatic scale in speech, they're always:

C# - Eb - F# - G# - Bb

and never:

Db - D# - Gb - Ab - A#

My question is two-fold:

1) Why do you think this is?
2) Do you have/do this as well?

Please also state which is your primary instrument. Mine is guitar, and I'm wondering if that could have an influence, even if I can't directly tell how. I also play a little piano.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane to Media & Arts (15 answers total)
Best answer: Surely it's because of the order in which everyone usually learns their key signatures? I.e. you learn F#/Bb in the appropriate keys long before anyone makes you look at keys where, say, Gb or D# makes an appearance. At least, I know that's where I see the preference coming from personally. Oh, and saxophone.
posted by dragstroke at 2:01 PM on July 1, 2005

Best answer: Agreed. I think it's just what key signatures you learn first/most often and get used to. I play trumpet and I will always say Eb before D#, and Bb before A#. Then again, I guess it all depends on what key I'm playing in.
posted by bwilms at 2:08 PM on July 1, 2005

Best answer: I do this too, and piano is my primary instrument.

It has to do with the circle of fifths. You start at C, with no sharps or flats: then you add either one sharp, which is F#, or one flat, which is Bb; then you add another sharp, C#, or another flat, Eb, and so on. The notes in your list are the ones you always encounter first in a trip around the circle of fifths, so they are the most familiar "black key" notes.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:09 PM on July 1, 2005

I think it comes from preferring to use keys that have fewer sharps and flats than absolutely necessary. So, C# is first used in the A major scale (3 sharps) while Db is first used in the Ab major scale (4 flats).

Now, where it is the same (or relatively similar), Ab is first used in the Eb major scale (3 flats) and G# is first used in the A major scale (3 sharps.) There, besides the key of the song, instrument choice probably plays a role.

My primary instrument is saxophone (mainly tenor, some alto) with keyboards, clarinet and guitar. Going back and forth between instruments pitched in different keys possibly why my sense of pitch is all screwy....
posted by andrewraff at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2005

Response by poster: Right! This makes a lot of sense. Thanks guys.

So how come then that some people insist on saying "D#" or "Ab"?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:15 PM on July 1, 2005

I'd agree that the spellings in your first list are more common, so they're the first ones that comes to mind. I do the same thing, and the only time I really worry about getting them right is when I'm spelling chords that other people will read, and I don't want to look like the amateur hack that I am if I write, for example, a minor third as a sharp-2 instead of a flat-3. It really slows me down, but boy do I feel smart when I figure out that my F should really be written as an E#.

More on enharmonics here.
posted by Buzz at 2:33 PM on July 1, 2005

I play trombone, an instrument which is "naturally" tuned in Bb. This means that in particular, a key signature containing Ab is only one key signature away (in the circle of fifths) from the natural key for my horn, while a key containing G# is five key signatures away. So for me, it's preferentially Ab over G#. F# vs. Gb is pretty much a wash; and while you'd think that by this logic I should prefer Db over C#, that's pretty much a wash too. (My guess for that one is that C# is used frequently in d minor, which is the relative minor to F major, a frequently-used key on the trombone; and when I was learning the trombone, pieces in d minor were more common than pieces in Ab major.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:41 PM on July 1, 2005

I play piano. I can't think of many situations where I've had to identify a note completely out of context, but I guess I'd probably use the name from the simpler key signature, like most of you here: F# instead of Gb, for instance. F# just seems more common/normal than Gb.

Although for things like D# / Eb it'd be about 50:50, 'cause both of those seem pretty 'normal' to me.

However, most of the time I'm talking within some kind of context, like a key of a piece or a scale, and then I would automatically use the appropriate name for that key. Say, if we were in Db major, I definitely wouldn't talk about 'F#'s.

Isn't that the normal thing to do? I'm struggling to think of situations where you'd talk about notes completelely out of context, and therefore have to make a decision about what to call it. When do you guys do this?
posted by chrismear at 3:14 PM on July 1, 2005

Chrismear: When performing in formal ensembles, with written music (where the key is visible to me) I would reference the note as it is appropriate in the key. However, in a less formal situation, with no written music, if I'm telling someone what note I'm playing I would most likely say Eb instead of D#, etc. This is mainly because I don't have a healthy background of music theory and without seeing the notes I have a hard time knowing what key I'm playing in without really thinking about it.
posted by bwilms at 3:25 PM on July 1, 2005

Response by poster: What bwilms said. I call it rock & roll pragmatism. :)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:41 PM on July 1, 2005

I'm sorry, but I don't fully agree with any of the answers here, although they all have merit.

Read these two wikipedia articles.
posted by wackybrit at 10:18 AM on July 2, 2005

Best answer: Wackybrit: spot on! Bully!

Point being that C# = Db only in the 'well-tempered' system of intonation, which is a musically relatively recent invention. You'd be amazed at what a kludge your guitar is, intonation-wise. Even guitars with the Buzz Feiten tuning system are kludges; the BFTS has the not-inconsiderable advantage that it's been designed to be a kludge that happens also to sound good.

btw, Buzz Feiten is not a cutesy-poo misspelling of "buzz fighting;" it's the inventor's name. The system has nothing to do with fret buzz. And if you're a guitarist interested in intonation issues you should definitely look into it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:27 PM on July 2, 2005

Best answer: Well, getting into just intonation, not only does a C# not equal a Db, a C# doesn't even necessarily equal another C#. For example, the C# in an F#maj chord has a slightly different frequency than the C# in an Amaj chord.

Written music, the frets on a guitar, and the keys on a keyboard are all imperfect physical approximations of musical theories. For the sake of this question, in which frets, keys, and/or the notes on a staff are the reference point, "because it's easier that way" is a reasonable answer.

Here are some interesting examples in which you can hear the differences between just intonation and equal temperament.
posted by Buzz at 9:53 AM on July 4, 2005

Response by poster: Jeez, I asked this question as a lowly songwriter/guitarist! And here I was thinking a spade was always a spade.

Thanks for the insightful answers all!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:29 PM on July 4, 2005

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