Author Topic: Enharmonic Spellings  (Read 16643 times)

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Offline MarkMcD

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Enharmonic Spellings
« 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?

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

Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #1 on: May 27, 2018, 02:55:33 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?

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

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 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.

If I want a C sharp, should I write a C sharp or a D flat?

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

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?

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.

« Last Edit: May 27, 2018, 03:15:57 PM by Mahlerian »
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

ComposerOfAvantGarde

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #2 on: May 27, 2018, 03:16:34 PM »
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.
« Last Edit: May 27, 2018, 03:18:55 PM by jessop »

Offline MarkMcD

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #3 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  ;)

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.

Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #4 on: May 27, 2018, 05:23:55 PM »
Mahlerian and Jessop,

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

You're welcome.

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?

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.
« Last Edit: May 27, 2018, 05:39:57 PM by Mahlerian »
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

Offline MarkMcD

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #5 on: May 28, 2018, 04:34:08 AM »
Thanks again Mahlerian,

I think I can go about things a little more confidently now.  I suppose the trick is to make things as intuitive as possible, always with an eye for ease of reading.


The problem is that I am more often than not, sat on the sofa with my laptop, as opposed to at my piano (which, in conjunction with Sibelius, always tends to input the correct spellings).  My sofa doesn't have the same capabilities  ;D

As always your advice is much appreciated.

Kind regards
Mark

Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #6 on: May 28, 2018, 08:19:41 AM »
One addendum:

An example of what you should never do is the kind of notation Satie uses in Vexations.  Unless, of course, your intent is to frustrate the performer.  It's perfectly suitable for that.



Note, among other things, that time when a Bbb moves to an A#.  Visually it moves down, but the pianist has to play the note a half step higher.
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

Offline MarkMcD

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #7 on: May 29, 2018, 01:32:53 AM »
Wow, that is vexing and ultimately I don't think it would give the performance anything as no one would play the piece in concert without knowing it inside out.  It would certainly make learning it a much harder task though.


Thanks again Mahlerian.


I have learned something new.  I actually learned 2 somethings.  After having a good rummage around the various features of Sib 7.5 I found that there is actually a plug-in that will do the job of "simplifying accidentals" in the drop down menu of the note input tab, plug-ins.  It changes all accidentals to fall in line with the most conventional configuration for a given key.

I know there's no substitute for actually knowing the theory, but I really takes the hard work out writing away from the piano.

Thanks again to all who helped me with this, it is much appreciated.

Mark


Offline Carlo74

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #8 on: July 04, 2021, 12:01:28 AM »
Hello, I had the same questions about enharmonic spelling and found this thread to be very helpful but I'm left with one example I still can't explain. It's in the second half of Greensleeves. All versions I've seen in E minor write the melody as D C# B and in all version in A minor it is written as G F# E. So they write a raised 6th instead of a diminished 7th which seems logical in the harmonic context but wasn't the rule to write flats when descending? regards, Carlo

Offline (poco) Sforzando

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #9 on: July 04, 2021, 11:21:15 AM »
Hello, I had the same questions about enharmonic spelling and found this thread to be very helpful but I'm left with one example I still can't explain. It's in the second half of Greensleeves. All versions I've seen in E minor write the melody as D C# B and in all version in A minor it is written as G F# E. So they write a raised 6th instead of a diminished 7th which seems logical in the harmonic context but wasn't the rule to write flats when descending? regards, Carlo

I'm sure the other guys can explain this better, but there's no rule to write flats when descending. That is perhaps the fallacy you're under. In a simple mainly diatonic context, the G-F#-E preserves the sense of a descending scale.
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Offline VonStupp

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #10 on: July 04, 2021, 12:23:25 PM »
I'm sure the other guys can explain this better, but there's no rule to write flats when descending. That is perhaps the fallacy you're under. In a simple mainly diatonic context, the G-F#-E preserves the sense of a descending scale.

That is correct. The raised sixth is showing the fluctuating mode, in this case Dorian, not the voice leading.

Of course, I do not know how or when the harmonizations of Greensleeves have been adjusted and changed over the centuries either. It seems unlikely strict rules of voice leading would have been applied.

Not as technical, it is a nice bit of singer-tuning psychology to keep that note raised when descending.

VS
« Last Edit: July 04, 2021, 12:32:51 PM by VonStupp »
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Offline Carlo74

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #11 on: July 04, 2021, 11:17:52 PM »
I'm sure the other guys can explain this better, but there's no rule to write flats when descending. That is perhaps the fallacy you're under. In a simple mainly diatonic context, the G-F#-E preserves the sense of a descending scale.

Hmm so maybe this rule I read or heard about would apply if the G was to resolve to an F? Then one would right a G flat not an F sharp in between am I right? And because the movement in Greensleeves is not chromatic the obvious choice is to keep it diatonic and not use the same letter twice?

Offline Carlo74

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #12 on: July 04, 2021, 11:28:17 PM »
That is correct. The raised sixth is showing the fluctuating mode, in this case Dorian, not the voice leading. Of course, I do not know how or when the harmonizations of Greensleeves have been adjusted and changed over the centuries either. It seems unlikely strict rules of voice leading would have been applied. Not as technical, it is a nice bit of singer-tuning psychology to keep that note raised when descending. VS

I'm starting to think I'm trying to understand the rules for a game that has no rules... Another rule I picked up is that in classical music the melodic minor scale has a raised 6th and 7th only when ascending. Greensleeves clearly makes use of this scale but without the rule of a natural 6th and 7th when descending. This may seem off topic but I'm trying to find out what comes first: the flow of the melody, the harmonic context or the function of this particular note in the scale?

Offline Szykneij

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #13 on: July 05, 2021, 03:32:09 AM »
I'm starting to think I'm trying to understand the rules for a game that has no rules...

When writing chorale harmonization during my freshman theory classes, we were told that parallel fifths weren't allowed. When it was pointed out that Bach did it, the reply was "yes, but he was Bach".
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Offline VonStupp

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #14 on: July 05, 2021, 05:08:41 AM »
I'm starting to think I'm trying to understand the rules for a game that has no rules...

That's the ticket! Once you learn all of the rules and how to use them correctly, applying them to history shows all of the ways they don't fit into black and white, pretty packaging. Of course, that is what makes music interesting.

I liken it to learning equations. You learn how to go about it plugging in numbers, and then applying them into real life situations isn't always as straight forward. Knowing the numbers and their processes is imperative, but not the end of the story.

I remember first learning about sonata-allegro form, and then going into Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn and seeing how they adapt the form for their own use. Rules are an excellent rudimentary blueprint to learn, but not necessarily something to live by as far as creative juices are concerned.
« Last Edit: July 06, 2021, 11:19:04 AM by VonStupp »
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Offline (poco) Sforzando

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Re: Enharmonic Spellings
« Reply #15 on: July 05, 2021, 08:29:39 AM »
When writing chorale harmonization during my freshman theory classes, we were told that parallel fifths weren't allowed. When it was pointed out that Bach did it, the reply was "yes, but he was Bach".

Check out the inner voices in Chopin's Etude op. 27/8 in Db, mm. 19-20.
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