Accidentals

A mark placed before a note which indicates that the previously understood pitch of the note should be altered by one or two half steps (semitones). To raise the unaltered pitch by one half step (semitone) the sharp is used, to lower it by one half step (semitone) the flat is used. To raise the pitch by two half steps (semitones), a double sharp is used and to lower it by two half steps (semitones) a double flat is used. If the key signature indicates that a note be played sharp or flat and the unaltered tone is desired, a natural is used to indicate this.

Typically, the accidental alters the pitch of the note that it is attached to as well as any subsequent occurence of the same note (identical line or space) in the same measure. Notes with the same pitch name, but higher or lower octave should not be effected. Any note with an accidental that also has a tie across a barline carries the accidental to the note on the other side of the barline. Notes in the new measure that are not tied to altered notes from the previous measure are performed using the current key signature.

Table of Accidentals
Notation
English
French
German
Italian
Spanish
Double Sharp
Double dièse
Doppelkreuz
Doppio diesis
Doble sostenido
Sharp
Dièse
Kreuz
Diesis
Sostenido

Natural

Bécarre
Auflösungszeichen or Quadrat
Bequadro
Becuadro
Flat
Bémol
Be
Bemolle
Bemol
Double flat
Double bémol
Doppel-Be
Doppio bemolle
Doble bemol


Alternate Notation for Double Accidentals

The following accidental symbols (though rarely used) may be found in some compositions. They are not common and may provide a level of confusion for experienced performers because they are redundant. It is more practical to simply place the appropriate accidental symbol in front of the note. Since these accidental symbols are typically used in highly chromatic passages (passages with lots of accidentals), it makes sense to simplify the notation with as few accidental symbols as necessary. This means that the performer must only process the critical information. The recommended notation is shown on the right.

 
Double Accidental Alternate Notation
 
Alternate
Notation
Combined Symbols
Natural & Flat
Combined Symbols
Natural & Sharp
Double Natural
Natural Flat
Natural Sharp
Recommended Notation
Double Flat chaging to flat

There is no specific name for the combined natural symbol and flat symbol. The placement of a natural symbol next to a flat symbol (as shown in the second note on the left example) would logically translate into the natural symbol canceling the first flat of the double flat shown on the first note. So the first note with the double flat would lower the written pitch (C) by two semitones. The second note with a natural symbol and a flat symbol would lower that written pitch (C) only one semitone. The example on the right is the preferred notation since it shows the same pitches and is easier for the performer to read.

Double Flat changed to flat
Double flat changing to natural Double Natural - The double natural symbol is a theoretical accidental symbol and is not used in common practice. The double natural is very confusing and redundant, because there is no functional difference between a double natural symbol and a regular natural symbol. Both symbols cancel any alteration of the pitch from prior accidentals. With the examples on either side of this, the actual written pitch (C) would be performed. Thus, it is more useful to avoid the use the notation shown on the left and use the accepted notation shown on the right. Double flat changed to natural
Double sharp changing to sharp

There is no specific name for the combined natural symbol and sharp symbol. The placement of a natural symbol next to a sharp symbol (as shown in the second note on the left example) would logically translate into the natural symbol canceling the first sharp of the double sharp shown on the first note. So the first note with the double sharp would raise the written pitch (C) by two semitones. The second note with a natural symbol and a sharp symbol would raise that written pitch (C) only one semitone. The example on the right is the preferred notation since it shows the same pitches and is easier for the performer to read.

Double sharp changed to sharp
Double sharp changing to natural Double Natural - The double natural symbol is a theoretical accidental symbol and is not used in common practice. The double natural is very confusing and redundant, because there is no functional difference between a double natural symbol and a regular natural symbol. Both symbols cancel any alteration of the pitch from prior accidentals. With the examples on either side of this, the actual written pitch (C) would be performed. Thus, it is more useful to avoid the use the notation shown on the left and use the accepted notation shown on the right. Double sharp changed to natural
 

Triple Accidentals

Triple flat

This term refers to an accidental symbol that lowers a note by three semitones (or three half steps). This symbol is indicated by three flat (♭) symbols preceding the note. It should be noted that the triple flat is extremely rare and can only be found in a very few compositions throughout all of the history of modern musical notation. It is only used in classical music and is more theoretical than practical. Most musicians (professional or amateur) will never see or perform a triple flat in their entire musical career.

Triple Flat

Triple Flat

The triple flat symbol alters the pitch of the note to which it is attached as well as any subsequent occurrence of the same note (identical line or space) in the same measure. Notes with the same pitch name, but a higher or lower octave, are not effected. Any note with a triple flat that also has a tie across a barline carries the triple flat to the note on the other side of the barline. Notes in the new measure that are not tied to altered notes from the previous measure revert to their original pitch and are performed using the current key signature. It should also be noted that a triple flat will always be shown with three flat symbols (♭♭♭), regardless of the key signature. The example below shows a rare triple flat in the Piano Sonata No. 1 by Nikolai Roslavets, written in 1914. Notice that the flat symbols are connected at the top by beams and courtesy accidentals are also shown enclosed in parentheses marks.

Piano Sonata No. 1 (1914) - Nikolai Roslavets

Triple Flat - example

Triple sharp

This term refers an accidental symbol that raises a note by three semitones (or three half steps). This symbol is indicated by a sharp symbol (♯) and a double sharp symbol (Double Sharp) preceding the note. It should be noted that the triple sharp is extremely rare and can only be found in a very few compositions throughout all of the history of modern musical notation. It is only used in classical music and is more theoretical than practical. Most musicians (professional or amateur) will never see or perform a triple sharp in their entire musical career.

Triple Sharp

Triple Sharp

The triple sharp symbol alters the pitch of the note to which it is attached as well as any subsequent occurrence of the same note (identical line or space) in the same measure. Notes with the same pitch name, but a higher or lower octave, are not effected. Any note with a triple sharp that also has a tie across a barline carries the triple sharp to the note on the other side of the barline. Notes in the new measure that are not tied to altered notes from the previous measure revert to their original pitch and are performed using the current key signature. It should also be noted that a triple sharp will always be shown with the sharp (♯) symbol followed by the double sharp symbol (Double Sharp), regardless of the key signature. The example below shows a rare triple sharp in the Etude no. 10 from Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineur, Op. 39 (1857), by Charles-Valentin Alkan.

 

Etude no. 10 from Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineur, Op. 39 (1857) - Charles-Valentin Alkan

Triple Sharp - example

 

Courtesy Accidental

A musical notation that is often placed before any note that is in a measure following a measure where that same note had been previously altered. The accidental sign is often placed in parentheses to designate that this is a courtesy accidental and is the original note value before alteration. The use of parentheses is used at the discretion of the composer or editor.

All notes that have accidentals placed before them revert back to the original note after each barline, in other words, the accidental changes only those notes in the measure where the accidental is found (at the identical line or space). The only exception to this is when a note is tied across the barline. Any subsequent note would revert back to the note in the key signature. This often usd to facilitate the easier reading of the notation in highly chromatic passages.

In the example below, several courtesy accidentals are shown. In the first measure of the treble clef, a D natural below the staff is a courtesy accidental from the previous measure (not shown). In the second measure in the treble clef, the note E in the top space is altered by a natural symbol which raises the pitch by one semitone (one half step). Since the natural sign alters all occurences of the top space note E in this measure, there is no need for any additional accidental sign. In the example, however, the editor uses a courtesy accidental (this time within parentheses) to remind the performer that the note E continues to be altered by the previous accidental.

In the first measure of the bass clef, the note D shown above the staff and is altered with a flat accidental to lower that note to a D flat. The second D above the staff in the same measure uses a courtesy accidental (the flat accidental) to remind the performer that the D has been altered in this measure. The barline removes the effect of the accidental, so the note D in the bass clef of the second measure is no longer lowered. The composer has added the natural sign as a courtesy accidental to remind the performer that the previous accidental is no longer in effect. Additionally, the E flat on the second ledger line above the staff uses a courtesy accidental to remind the performer that the E natural in the previous measure is no longer in effect. Notice that the courtesy accidental is used in this situation, even though the earlier accidental was with a different octave.

Also courtesy accidental; cautionary accidental; reminder accidental.

Courtesy Accidentals