In Western music, there are 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B. The symbol “#” means sharp. 7 out of these 12 notes receive a specific name (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and the others are identified by a sharp (#) or flat (b) of these notes, also called accidents (or alterations).

A sharp, by definition, is the shortest distance between two notes in Western music, as well as a flat. The difference in nomenclature (flat or sharp) serves only to indicate whether we are referring to a note above or below.

For example: D flat is the same as C sharp. Read the next section “What are tones and semitones” to complement this concept. Some representations and their equivalences are listed below to facilitate understanding:

  • E# = F
  • Fb = E
  • D## = E
  • Ebb = D

In practice, it is not usual to use the writing (##) or (bb) because it is much easier to write “E” than “D##”, for example. It doesn’t make much sense to use this second representation; we show it here only for the purpose of understanding. Likewise, the E# or B# nomenclature is not usually used, as they are the F and C notes, respectively.

However, saying E# (for example) is not wrong, and in some cases it is even the most correct option to use. Consider the C sharp major scale as an example. On this scale, the notes are: C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#. This representation would be the most correct, because if we wrote C#, D#, F, F#, G#, A#, C, we would be repeating the F and C notes in the representation. If someone asked: “On the C sharp scale, is the F note sharp?”, Your answer should be “yes”. This is easy to observe in the first representation. But in the second representation, you would say that the F note appears with and without a sharp. From the point of view of reference, this could impair the musicians’ reading and understanding.

But rest assured, for now you don’t have to worry about these details. Once you have understood and studied the main practical foundations of music well, it is worthwhile to begin to stick to details like this.

If you are curious about the math between the 12 notes of Western music and what differentiates one note from another in our perception of the brain, read the section Mathematics in Music.

Note:  On the piano, the white keys contain the notes with a specific name (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and the black keys contain the alterations (C#, D#, F#, G #, A#).