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Okay, so I've scoured the internet, but I still don't get it...  

 

In the simplest language you can muster, what are the rules for writing accidentals?  

 

When a note you need for a chord is not included in your current key, how do you decide whether to write it as an A# and when as a B flat?  When a C flat vs. a B natural?  And when is it appropriate to use double flats and sharps?  

 

Here's my best guess at some rules.  If someone could tell me where I'm correct, where I'm wrong, and what I'm missing, I'd appreciate the help.  I never took theory, so please click your tongue at my ignorance and take pity on me.  

 

1.  Take a look at your piece.  Pick the key signature that will produce the fewest accidentals for your piece.  

 

2.  If you have an entire stylistically distinct section of the piece that is full of accidentals, change the key signature for that section to reduce them as much as possible.  

 

3.  If you just have some modulations for flavor here and there within a section, that's where accidentals are appropriate rather than a new key signature.  

 

4.  If those accidentals fit nicely into another key, use the sharps or flats appropriate to that key when writing the chord in which they appear.  For example, if I'm in C major, and then need an occasional F# instead of an F natural, I could think of it as swinging into the key of G major for a moment.  Since G major has F#, I would write that note I need as F#.  There is no key that has G flats, but no other flats, so it wouldn't usually make sense for me to write that note as a G flat.  Unless...

 

5.  Would an exception to rule four being something that's modal?  Then it makes sense to express those fun notes in the way that suggests the mode.  So if my key signature is C minor (B flat, E flat, A flat), but with a locrian feel to the section, so that I have diminished fifths...  G flats/F#s.  It would be most appropriate to write them as G flats to suggest the locrian mode?  

 

6.  Would another exception be when you have some modulations, say where the whole chord shifts down a half step, and then down a half step, and then down a half step..., and that pattern becomes apparent at a glance if you get into double flats and such, instead of reducing the number of accidentals as much as possible?

 

I'm looking at "When Mary thro' the garden went" by Stanford, edited by Rutter, and thinking to myself, why, John Rutter!  Why!?  It would be so much easier for the average choral singer to read if you would just consistently reduce to the fewest accidentals.  But is it meant for the eye of the superior musician, who can manage to keep track of all four parts at once, while sight-reading at tempo, and think to themselves, ah ha! I am now the 4th in the diminished globbublub chord.  Of course!? 

 

I admit, I don't know theory.  But the scholar writing the paper on Stanford can clearly take the time to figure out the enharmonic transpositions, and discuss the interesting structural things going on with the harmony.  I, the musician just need to be able to sight-read at speed.  Somebody explain the value of writing this way.  Why not just reduce to the fewest accidentals?  I know this only came about with the common practice period.  Why?  

 

And what are the rules?  

 

I'm writing a piece with lots of exciting chords, and I know someone is going to look at me like I'm nuts, and sweetly point out that something I've written as a natural, because... you know... fewer sharps and flats...  easiest to read that way, should actually be a triple sharped something else.  Or that, although my key is full of sharps, that one particular note should really be expressed as the flat enharmonic equivalent.  

 

Point me to a good book?  Anyone?  (:

-Maggie

 

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In this day and age, i'd say the general rule is to just write in a way that makes everything look as simple as possible. Avoid double sharps/flats, as well as enharmonic equivalents of natural notes like Fb, UNLESS it'd look more complicated otherwise (which is quite rare). If you're using enough accidentals that it becomes a big issue, it's best to do away with a key signature altogether. Try no to have both flats and sharps in the same bar. Those are the main rules I compose by!

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Guest Kibbletime

Okay, so I've scoured the internet, but I still don't get it...

In the simplest language you can muster, what are the rules for writing accidentals?

When a note you need for a chord is not included in your current key, how do you decide whether to write it as an A# and when as a B flat? When a C flat vs. a B natural? And when is it appropriate to use double flats and sharps?

the rules if written out would probably look something like this:

a. all notes within any given diatonic scale or mode can be spelt without skipping a letter.

b. simplicity:

eg. between a# and bb, bb is preferred as tonic because a key with bb and eb is easier to read than a key with fx cx gx d# a# e# b#.

c. melodic function:

eg. bb instead of a# as an auxiliary note is preferred for a trill on the note a.

d. harmonic function and making alteration and borrowing apparent:

eg. tendency tones in an augmented sixth, 7th in leading tone diminished seventh, 3rd in subdominant minor.

some composers are more practical than others in spelling for orchestral parts especially when transposition complicates them further. harp music defies the rules altogether because of the specificity of its enharmonics. contemporary music tends to spell intervals that make chromatic lines easier to read.

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I did not read your post, but to answer the thread topic:

 

1- if writing tonally, use accidentals according to prevailing harmonies (even if composers didn't actually do this until the late 19th century). Similarly if you're using some other kind of system

 

2- otherwise, do whatever's easiest/ simplest for the performer to read 

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Okay, so I've scoured the internet, but I still don't get it...  

 

In the simplest language you can muster, what are the rules for writing accidentals?  

 

When a note you need for a chord is not included in your current key, how do you decide whether to write it as an A# and when as a B flat?  When a C flat vs. a B natural?  And when is it appropriate to use double flats and sharps?  

 

Here's my best guess at some rules.  If someone could tell me where I'm correct, where I'm wrong, and what I'm missing, I'd appreciate the help.  I never took theory, so please click your tongue at my ignorance and take pity on me.  

 

1.  Take a look at your piece.  Pick the key signature that will produce the fewest accidentals for your piece.  

 

2.  If you have an entire stylistically distinct section of the piece that is full of accidentals, change the key signature for that section to reduce them as much as possible.  

 

3.  If you just have some modulations for flavor here and there within a section, that's where accidentals are appropriate rather than a new key signature.  

 

4.  If those accidentals fit nicely into another key, use the sharps or flats appropriate to that key when writing the chord in which they appear.  For example, if I'm in C major, and then need an occasional F# instead of an F natural, I could think of it as swinging into the key of G major for a moment.  Since G major has F#, I would write that note I need as F#.  There is no key that has G flats, but no other flats, so it wouldn't usually make sense for me to write that note as a G flat.  Unless...

 

5.  Would an exception to rule four being something that's modal?  Then it makes sense to express those fun notes in the way that suggests the mode.  So if my key signature is C minor (B flat, E flat, A flat), but with a locrian feel to the section, so that I have diminished fifths...  G flats/F#s.  It would be most appropriate to write them as G flats to suggest the locrian mode?  

 

6.  Would another exception be when you have some modulations, say where the whole chord shifts down a half step, and then down a half step, and then down a half step..., and that pattern becomes apparent at a glance if you get into double flats and such, instead of reducing the number of accidentals as much as possible?

 

I'm looking at "When Mary thro' the garden went" by Stanford, edited by Rutter, and thinking to myself, why, John Rutter!  Why!?  It would be so much easier for the average choral singer to read if you would just consistently reduce to the fewest accidentals.  But is it meant for the eye of the superior musician, who can manage to keep track of all four parts at once, while sight-reading at tempo, and think to themselves, ah ha! I am now the 4th in the diminished globbublub chord.  Of course!? 

 

I admit, I don't know theory.  But the scholar writing the paper on Stanford can clearly take the time to figure out the enharmonic transpositions, and discuss the interesting structural things going on with the harmony.  I, the musician just need to be able to sight-read at speed.  Somebody explain the value of writing this way.  Why not just reduce to the fewest accidentals?  I know this only came about with the common practice period.  Why?  

 

And what are the rules?  

 

I'm writing a piece with lots of exciting chords, and I know someone is going to look at me like I'm nuts, and sweetly point out that something I've written as a natural, because... you know... fewer sharps and flats...  easiest to read that way, should actually be a triple sharped something else.  Or that, although my key is full of sharps, that one particular note should really be expressed as the flat enharmonic equivalent.  

 

Point me to a good book?  Anyone?  (:

-Maggie

 

1.  Take a look at your piece.  Pick the key signature that will produce the fewest accidentals for your piece. 

 

No, you choose the key that the piece is actually in. If it is in F major then use the signature with one flat. I've seen exceptions in cases of modes, though.

 

2.  If you have an entire stylistically distinct section of the piece that is full of accidentals, change the key signature for that section to reduce them as much as possible.

 

Again, the signature should reflect the music, so if you have a middle section in a different key, change it accordingly. Often, though, in tonal music you don't change the key signature despite changes in the actual music. For example a classical piano sonata, with all it's key changes, would be written with one key signature, because it starts and ends in that key and as a whole is "in" that key, or centered around it.

 

3.  If you just have some modulations for flavor here and there within a section, that's where accidentals are appropriate rather than a new key signature.  

 

Yeah.

 

4.  If those accidentals fit nicely into another key, use the sharps or flats appropriate to that key when writing the chord in which they appear.  For example, if I'm in C major, and then need an occasional F# instead of an F natural, I could think of it as swinging into the key of G major for a moment.  Since G major has F#, I would write that note I need as F#.  There is no key that has G flats, but no other flats, so it wouldn't usually make sense for me to write that note as a G flat.  Unless...

 

Well, there are conventions in notating things according to how they function in the diatonic system. If you have that note because it's part of a german 6th chord, notate it as F#. If it is a descending chromatic note between G and F, notate it as G-flat.

 

5.  Would an exception to rule four being something that's modal?  Then it makes sense to express those fun notes in the way that suggests the mode.  So if my key signature is C minor (B flat, E flat, A flat), but with a locrian feel to the section, so that I have diminished fifths...  G flats/F#s.  It would be most appropriate to write them as G flats to suggest the locrian mode?  

 

If you're shifting into a different mode, I guess it'd make sense to notate it as such.

 

6.  Would another exception be when you have some modulations, say where the whole chord shifts down a half step, and then down a half step, and then down a half step..., and that pattern becomes apparent at a glance if you get into double flats and such, instead of reducing the number of accidentals as much as possible?

 

I don't see how double flats would make that pattern clearer at all.

 

 

 

In this day and age, i'd say the general rule is to just write in a way that makes everything look as simple as possible. Avoid double sharps/flats, as well as enharmonic equivalents of natural notes like Fb, UNLESS it'd look more complicated otherwise (which is quite rare). If you're using enough accidentals that it becomes a big issue, it's best to do away with a key signature altogether. Try no to have both flats and sharps in the same bar. Those are the main rules I compose by!

 

If you are writing within a diatonic harmonic system then it is not about making it look simple. You have to write the notes as they function, although often I find myself confused over how exactly to interpret a certain chord or melody. But if you write an obvious augmented sixth chord, notate it as an augmented sixth chord and not a seventh chord, regardless of what looks easier to read. Also, flats and sharps in the same bar happen all the time everywhere.

 

As for the myriad of other methods to derive your pitch material, maybe not.

 

 

 

 

And hey OP, I understand your frustration haha. People say good things about Schoenberg's texts on theory, so maybe you could check those out.

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Sigh... Thanks all.  So the basic drift I'm getting is a few "Yay! Pity the musician! Write for fewest accidentals!"  (Thanks Robin, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that's a good idea).  But I'm getting a lot more people saying, nope, the clarity of function of the chord trumps the clarity of reading an individual line.  

 

May I take a wild guess that those in the later camp grew up playing piano or other chord based instruments and took a lot of theory, so thinking that way makes the most intuitive sense to them?  And that those of us in the other camp grew up taking violin and trumpet and other instruments where you are thinking predominately about your line, rather than the whole chord?  

 

When I read music as a singer, I glance at other parts during long rests to find my next entrance note, or during a long held note, but for the most part, since I have no key to play that automatically gives me a C# whenever I want one, and since I do not have perfect pitch, I spend my mental energy thinking keeping my eyes firmly glued to my line in the music, and thinking now I need a C#, okay, so up a 4th, and next the run with the whole tone scale...  My attention is taken up remembering where I currently am, and anticipating the next pitch in relation to my current pitch, because I need to essentially pluck it out of thin air.  I suspect it leads to a much more line based way of thinking about music than the average piano player.  

 

Do I love to have a minor second against the tenors?  Dear god, yes!  Lean into that sucker and enjoy the glorious tension in the chord.  But I can't wait for the tenors to sing their note and then find the minor second.  If I do, I'm late.  It all has to come from my line.  My current note, and my next note.  If I am having a difficult time finding a particular note, I may look at the other parts and see that, oh yes, of course, there's an augmented 4th between me and the basses, no wonder that's difficult, okay, it's correct, it's just going to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, hang on with your fingernails...  But ultimately I'm used to thinking about each line as it's own melody, and then enjoying the interaction of the different lines, as opposed to thinking chord, chord, chord.  

 

Thanks for the recommendation for Schoenberg!  I'll see what I can find.  

 

I'd love to actually take theory, but it's hard to find a class when you aren't currently enrolled as a student somewhere.  Boston is full of great schools, and some of them do open certain classes to the general public, but just a little light music history.  Not theory, not composition.  Catch 22, I don't have the prerequisites to be considered for a masters and actually get into a program somewhere.  Unless I write some really bang up music first to prove myself, and sit for a theory exam, for which, you know, I'd need to know theory.  

 

Sigh...  I'll keep plodding along and get there eventually.  Thanks for all the responses.  You have given me many things to google.  (:

 

-Mags

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P.S.  Here are a couple things I wrote in case anyone is curious.  Pardon the terrible midi.  Need to get myself Sibelius or Finale.  MuseScore is full of bugs and sounds terrible, but it has the advantage of being free and I love to be a supporter of something open source.  (:  

 

http://youtu.be/EI2qy6azSaw

http://youtu.be/EFnuoDb4uzo

http://youtu.be/E32Kip3mcMw

 

The last one is a real bear to sing, but it sounds just like a little pond full of frogs in New England.  Spring peepers, american toads, green frogs, and bull frogs.  I based the melody for each voice part off a different species and then overlapped them so that each part stands out distinctly.  Which is what frogs do in the wild.  You need your little call to be heard, so you call during someone else's rests.  And perhaps also because they need their calls to stand out, each species seems to tend toward dissonance with the other species with which they share territory.  Put it all together and you get the most fabulous sound...  Biophony!  But, of course, very difficult to sing...  

 

I've been posting sheet music to choralwiki if anybody else is there as well as here.  

 

I'll polish up my piece I'm working on currently, and get it posted.  Thanks for all your help.  I'll get smarter, I promise.  Your effort won't go to waste.  

 

-Maggie

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Hmmm... someone has just given a thumbs down to item #1.  But why?  

 

The most annoying thing about this piece is...  

 

Can't get better without feedback.  Much obliged.  

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Hmmm... someone has just given a thumbs down to item #1.  But why?  

 

Plain old trolling. Don't mind the thumbs down or the harsh, unconstructive answers - focus on honest feedback instead (BTW, I hope to give it if possible).

 

Can't get better without feedback. 

 

That's true for every single one of us :toothygrin: .

 

HINT: try looking into other people's works and provide feedback of your own (i.e. if you're a singer, we could use some suggestions from you on our vocal pieces). That will certainly increase your chances at getting your works noticed and commented ;) .

 

ANOTHER HINT: try posting your works here. This site supports YouTube links, and it makes it easier for us to comment.

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in tonal music:

 

notate it as a flat if it resolves down to a natural, as a sharp if it resolves up to a natural

 

notate it as a double-flat if it resolves down to a flat, as a double-sharp if it resolves up to a sharp

 

otherwise:

 

write whatever makes sense in the harmonic context

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No worries, I wasn't offended.  I was hoping if I called out mystery reviewer number 1, then maybe they would leave me some feedback in addition to the thumbs down.  (:  So far they haven't taken the bait.  It may not have been someone here.  I just noticed I got a few extra views on my youtube channel after I introduced myself here, so that was my assumption.  

 

That's a good idea about giving feedback for the choral pieces.  I'd be delighted, and if I see anything that works for my group, (or Anne's group, or Emily's group, or Adrian's group, or Todd's group, or Rob's group... :D  I know an awful lot of choir directors) I will pass it along.  Most people I know would be delighted to have a chance to premier something new, as long as it will work for the singers they have on hand.  

 

And, yes, we singers spend an awful lot of valuable rehearsal time marking scores to make them work for breath support, etc, so I'm sure I'll have feedback to give.  

 

I've been having a good time working my way through your work by the way!  Great stuff.  

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You can't go wrong with reading Chopin's music. Besides being beautiful, they are all teaching pieces. Many of his works are written in all the keys with a good bit of modulation, so accidentals will be all over the place. The ones with six sharps or flats will illustrate chromatic melodies that necessarily use double sharps and flats. Why?  Because the idea is to show upward and downward movement from line to space and from space to line. He will use double sharps in flat keys and double flats in sharp keys.

 

So Chopin is good, and see Stravinsky's Firebird, first movement, whose key signature has 7 flats! and is chromatic from the get go. What joy! Again, like Chopin the sharps and flats are mixed to show a clearer up and down line.

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You can't go wrong with reading Chopin's music. Besides being beautiful, they are all teaching pieces. Many of his works are written in all the keys with a good bit of modulation, so accidentals will be all over the place. The ones with six sharps or flats will illustrate chromatic melodies that necessarily use double sharps and flats. Why?  Because the idea is to show upward and downward movement from line to space and from space to line. He will use double sharps in flat keys and double flats in sharp keys.

 

So Chopin is good, and see Stravinsky's Firebird, first movement, whose key signature has 7 flats! and is chromatic from the get go. What joy! Again, like Chopin the sharps and flats are mixed to show a clearer up and down line.

Thanks!  That's a helpful place to start! 

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I just had a look at this piece. I think to address your query: the b naturals should be c flats. For instance at 1:05, you are in e flat minor, and b natural is foreign to that key, so it wouldn't normally appear.

 

In diatonic music, if you have the feeling of going "up" a note, then it is probably up to a higher scale degree. Chromatic alterations are almost felt like a change in 'mood' or color. They are usually passing or neighbour notes with sharps leading a semitone up and flats leading a semitone down, but modal shifts are also possible. If you analyse the passage you're writing harmonically it should be clear what to write.

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to clarify what it meant where i rambled on about the treatment of "melody", if it's not a straight scale (which you can spell without a gap, which if made up of less than seven tones is omitted where necessary) you just have to spell it in a way that outlines the shape of the ornament. bb because the step movement of a trill on a should reflect on the notation. same goes for any other melodic effect. auxiliary tones are like trills, passing tones have been mentioned by every other follow up post, appoggiatura should be approached by leap and resolved by step, etc. etc. to make things easier, the new tone shouldn't be on the same line or space unless it's an anticipation, suspension, retardation or pedal if not playing the role of harmonic alteration (chord quality for example, in c major to minor, e to eb instead of d#) and things like that. as for chromatic lines it'd help to spell them in a way that the chromatic tones fill up as passing tones between the notes of the scale which have been fixed in place by the "no gap rule". try to allow two unique pitches on the same line/space on a chromatic scale (c# d d# e as opposed to db d d# e). hope you'll find this helpful enough.

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I just had a look at this piece. I think to address your query: the b naturals should be c flats. For instance at 1:05, you are in e flat minor, and b natural is foreign to that key, so it wouldn't normally appear.

 

In diatonic music, if you have the feeling of going "up" a note, then it is probably up to a higher scale degree. Chromatic alterations are almost felt like a change in 'mood' or color. They are usually passing or neighbour notes with sharps leading a semitone up and flats leading a semitone down, but modal shifts are also possible. If you analyse the passage you're writing harmonically it should be clear what to write.

Bravo, you!  This is actually the piece that started my line of inquiry.  I had posted it to choralwiki and someone pointed out that exact spot with a bit of an explanation.  But I wasn't quite sure I'd gotten everything, even after I asked them for some clarification, so I thought I would ask again over here too.  When you say "analyze the passage you're writing harmonically" that sounds to me like "step 1:  take all of music theory 1 and 2 so that you know how to analyze your passage harmonically."  (:  The accumulation of explanations by various people from slightly different angles is starting to rub off.  The darkness is lifting, even if it isn't noon here yet.  Thanks!

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