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Enharmonic Spellings

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MarkMcD:
Hi all,

I'm not exactly a beginner, but I am largely self taught and I always find myself having the same problem when writing scores.

Is there a simple rule to follow when writing in any given key, as to which enharmonic spellings I should use?

For example: I'm writing something in E minor, I want a B flat, should I write a B flat or an A sharp.  My thinking is that since E minor is a 1 Sharp key, then I should use sharps.  If I want a C sharp, should I write a C sharp or a D flat? 

Then to further complicate the situation, when do I need to use double sharps or flats, not just in the key of E minor, but in all keys?

I suspect it's a complicated subject with no single golden rule of thumb.  I have tried to read up about it but I just find myself getting more and more confused with the whole thing.

Thanks for any help on this subject I really appreciate it.

Mark

Mahlerian:

--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 02:37:08 PM ---Hi all,

I'm not exactly a beginner, but I am largely self taught and I always find myself having the same problem when writing scores.

Is there a simple rule to follow when writing in any given key, as to which enharmonic spellings I should use?
--- End quote ---

Yes.  Think about the function of the note.  What is it doing in this particular situation?


--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 02:37:08 PM ---For example: I'm writing something in E minor, I want a B flat, should I write a B flat or an A sharp.  My thinking is that since E minor is a 1 Sharp key, then I should use sharps.
--- End quote ---

If it's acting as a flattened fifth degree of E, then it's a B-flat.  If it's acting as a sharpened fourth degree of E, then it's an A-sharp.  If there's a tonicization, think in terms of that regardless of the key signature.


--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 02:37:08 PM ---If I want a C sharp, should I write a C sharp or a D flat?
--- End quote ---

Same as above.  Depends on what it's doing.


--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 02:37:08 PM ---Then to further complicate the situation, when do I need to use double sharps or flats, not just in the key of E minor, but in all keys?
--- End quote ---

The third of D# major is an F##.  The leading tone of D# minor is C##.  As above, think in terms of function.  This may seem unnecessarily complicated, but it actually makes it easier for the performers to read and understand.

Then again, if the music isn't written in terms of functional tonality, use the notation that is easiest to understand, in which case double sharps or flats will rarely be useful, but the same idea about the tendency of a note in a given situation still applies.

ComposerOfAvantGarde:
There is no exact rule of thumb, but the best guide when dealing with chromatic harmony in a tonal context is to spell the chromatic notes as part of the harmony (or implied harmony) of the passage of music you are writing. In a passage in E minor, use a B flat if the harmony is built on a chord that uses B flat; G minor as a chromatic mediant would be a perfect usage of B flat instead of A sharp here. If the harmony is a chord that uses A sharp (imagine F sharp as a secondary dominant/applied dominant to B (Roman numerals: V7/V) as an example) then use the A sharp.

As to the question of whether you should use a C sharp or D flat, again it comes down to what the harmony is in exactly the same way. Think about the harmonic context of every chromatically altered pitch and write it according to the quality of the chord and how that chord functions.

Double sharps and double flats follow exactly the same principle. In the key of C sharp minor, again the use of certain applied dominants within the tonic key require double sharps (such as V7/II where C double sharp is the leading note to the root of chord II or V7/V where F double sharp is the leading note to the root of chord V) and other chromatic alterations (eg chromatic mediants) would need spellings that make them correctly appear as triads. In D flat major, one of the chromatic mediants you could come accross is a B double flat major triad, for example.

When it comes to non-chordal notes in a melodic line (passing notes, neighbour notes et al) you can employ chromaticism as well, although in this case it is always best to consider how intuitive it is to read. Usually the best way to judge this is to consider the contour of the line and the non-chord note's relationship with the next one (eg a non-chordal B flat descending to chordal A is much easier to read than a non-chordal A sharp descending to a chordal A natural). Avoid having to immediately cancel sharps and flats with naturals, if you can.


Personally, I find tonal music notoriously complex and convoluted when it comes to the notation of accidentals, it is very hard to understand for a beginner, but considering you are not a beginner then the only advice I can give is to have a look at the harmonic or melodic contexts of the music you are writing.

MarkMcD:
Mahlerian and Jessop,

Thank you both for your explanations, I think I actually understood most of it  ;)

I think more or less I was already doing what you both have suggested, but music theory is really not my strong point and you have helped me a lot.  I know I really should study music theory, but I find that reading alone never really sinks in, I function much better when I have someone explain to me.

However, just to clear up one final point.

Is it ok to have the same tone described in different ways in the same section of music (not in the same bar I would assume, but say the next bar or 3 or 4 bars further on), depending on it's function, or should you always describe a certain tone in the same manner throughout the section/piece as a whole whist it remains in the same key?

Thanks again for your time, I really do appreciate it.

Mahlerian:

--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 04:09:33 PM ---Mahlerian and Jessop,

Thank you both for your explanations, I think I actually understood most of it  ;)
--- End quote ---

You're welcome.


--- Quote from: MarkMcD on May 27, 2018, 04:09:33 PM ---Is it ok to have the same tone described in different ways in the same section of music (not in the same bar I would assume, but say the next bar or 3 or 4 bars further on), depending on it's function, or should you always describe a certain tone in the same manner throughout the section/piece as a whole whist it remains in the same key?
--- End quote ---

The former.  You can and should spell it differently if it functions differently, even if it's within a single bar (you can find plenty of examples of this in chromatic music by Mahler, Wagner, and the like), though readability is the main goal, as Jessop emphasized, and unnecessary accidentals can hinder that.

The opening of this song by Schoenberg is a good example.  You might want that C# in bar 2 to be a Db in line with the tonic chord one beat earlier, but that would confuse the function of the harmony (here an A major chord) and paradoxically make it more difficult to read.

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