Help my understanding of sharps in music notation?
January 24, 2023 12:18 PM   Subscribe

I know the basics of notation, but I don't get something in a piece of sheet music I'm looking at now. It's in E major, so I know that F, G, C and D are all sharps in this key. But at certain points in the melody, some G notes are marked as sharps. What gives?

My instinct is to take that note up another semitone, so that it becomes an A. But if that's right, why not just notate it as an A?
posted by Beverley Westwood to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
Do the G notes marked as sharps follow G notes marked as naturals?
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:21 PM on January 24 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Unless it's a double sharp, you would not take it up another semi-tone.

Sometimes an accidental will be specified even where the note is within the key signature as a sort of reminder. Usually this is where the context might have confused things, like where it was natural in a previous bar.
posted by lookoutbelow at 12:25 PM on January 24 [13 favorites]

That is one logical way the notation could have developed and some notation systems, like commonly used chord notation systems, do it that way.

But in standard music notation, c# always just means c#. They will sometimes add the sharp if there was a previous c-natural on the same line/space previously in the same measure. It is needed in that case, as otherwise the c-natural will continue through the entire bar.

Also they sometimes add the sharp as a reminder to players - let's say there was a c-natural in the previous measure, or say on another staff in the same measure. This is more of a convenience mark, not absolutely necessary.

If they want to sharp that scale degree again, there is a special symbol for that, the double sharp. It looks like a little x.
posted by flug at 12:27 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

What lookoutbelow said.

>Sometimes an accidental will be specified even where the note is within the key signature as a sort of reminder.

Also known as a courtesy accidental. I suspect this is what you're seeing. If a G sharp follows a G natural in the same bar, that is restoring the G sharp from the key signature. Accidentals carry through for a full bar. So if the G sharp is in a new bar and follows a G natural in a previous bar, it's a courtesy accidental. It's not totally necessary, just a reminder.
posted by foxjacket at 12:32 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Is the piece perhaps borrowing from, or shifting mode to, the parallel minor key? The courtesy accidental would be a reminder of the mode shift back to the original key.
posted by fedward at 12:52 PM on January 24

An accidental on a note that seems unnecessary because it is also in the key signature doesn't double apply. It more than likely is because that same note the last time it occurred had an accidental (a double sharp, natural, etc.) on it and this one is a courtesy accidental put there by the engraver or composer to remind the player, even though it isn't strictly necessary to do so. Sometimes there may quite a few measures back to the last time that note occurred, but the engraver still puts the courtesy accidental because of convention.
posted by cmm at 1:36 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

it’s just a courtesy reminder to the player. most likely there was a G natural accidental in that measure or phrase beforehand.
posted by hollisimo at 3:11 PM on January 24

It's likely an advisory sign which is not changing the note, only reminding you of what it should be. Strictly speaking an advisory sign should always be in brackets but these are often omitted.
posted by Coaticass at 1:39 AM on January 25

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