It’d be a shame if you avoided sharp (♯) and flat (♭) notes simply because you don’t know their exact meaning. However, this is important information to know if you want to play a wide variety of music using sheet music, chord progressions or another kind of music notation. As such, in this blog, I’m going to teach you the difference between sharp notes and flat notes, and how you should use them. I’ll also cover naturals (♮) and other important rules when it comes to music notation. Study first, practice after!

The Sharp Sign (♯)

  • The sharp sign (♯) is used to indicate that any of the natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) are to be raised in pitch by a semitone. A little mnemonic is to think of ladder when you see a ♯ symbol, since ladders are also used to climb and get up somewhere higher. The C# note sits between the C and D; it’s the black piano key on the right of the C. The same goes for the D#, F#, F# and A#.
  • Things are different for the B and E. On a piano, for example, there’s no black key to the right of these notes and you’ll simply have no choice but the play the white key on the right of the B or E. This means that to play a B#, you actually need to play a C, while to play an E#, you you’re supposed to play an F. This sounds confusing, especially for beginners. Why not just call a B# a C then? Unfortunately, that’s a little too difficult to explain for this blog, and it’s maybe best to just accept this for now.
  • When played with instruments without a fixed pitch range such as violins, there actually is a (tiny) difference between the B# and the C, and the E# and the F.

Name Change

As soon as one of the natural notes is given a #, its name changes. It’s pretty simple, because all you have to do is add ‘sharp’ to the note (e.g. C-sharp, F-sharp, etc).

The Flat Sign (♭)

Flat notes are notated with the flat sign (♭), and are basically the opposite of the sharp notes since they’re natural notes lowered by a semitone. The D♭ note, for instance, sits between the C and D and is the black key on the left of the D key of a piano. Just like sharp notes, some flat notes have two names, like G# and A♭, which are one and the same key on a piano. Still, it’s better not to use these interchangeably, but that’s a lesson for another day.

Name Change

As soon as one of the natural notes is given a ♭, its name changes. It’s pretty simple, because all you have to do is add ‘flat’ to the note (e.g. E-flat, A-flat, etc).

Key Signature

  • Most pieces of music have a key signature, which are the sharp and flat symbols at the start of the stave that must be remembered throughout the song. See the first of the two staves below for an example.
  • The key signature is always placed on the horizontal line of the note that’s to be raised or lowered. If there’s a flat symbol on the line of the B, every B in the piece has to be played as a B-flat (unless stated otherwise), regardless of octave.
  • Why are key signatures used? They’re used to make sure the composer doesn’t have to repeat the sharp and flat symbols time and time again in their notation, keeping the sheet music clean and easy to read.
  • Take a good look at the key signature before you start playing and remember to keep paying attention: the key signature can sometimes change once or more mid-song.


  • It’s not uncommon for a composer to want to raise or lower a certain note only when it suits them best. In this case, the sharp or flat symbol isn’t included in the key signature, but will be on the left side of each specific note that needs to be raised or lowered. These adjusted notes are called accidentals; check out the second stave below to see what these look like.
  • Important: When you add a # to an F to raise it by a semitone, all F notes in the remainder of the measure need to be played as an F# as well (unless stated otherwise). However, keep in mind that this only applies to the F-notes that are on the same line.

These two staves above show the same series of notes. The top one has been notated with a key signature, the bottom one shows accidentals.

The Natural Sign (♮)

  • Key signatures and accidentals can be ‘thrown out’ with the natural sign (♮). If the key signature includes a ♭ on the line of the B, each B should be played as a B-flat. If, however, you then run into a natural, you’re expected to play a regular B for that specific note.
  • Just like accidentals, naturals apply to the remainder of the measure unless stated otherwise.

Double Flats and Double Sharps

  • Double-sharps are indicated by a symbol resembling an ‘x’; double-flats feature double ♭ symbols (♭♭).
  • Regular flats and sharps raise or lower a note by a semitone; double-flats and double-sharps raise or lower a note by a full note.
  • Especially as a beginner, you won’t come across these symbols often.
  • Just like before, double-flats and double-sharps lead to a little confusion that simply must be accepted for now: on many instruments, a double-sharp C (Cx) is the same as a D.


As the name implies, the key signature at the start of a piece of sheet music has everything to do with the key the song is written and played in. If there’s no key signature, the piece is written in C-major or A-minor. If there’s a single #, it’s written in G-major or E-monir. Each number of symbols a key signature is made up of matches two specific keys. To learn more, you can check out more of our blogs about music theory.

See Also

» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Drum Notation 101: Tips & Tricks for Beginners

» Music Theory Books
» All Music Books
» Manuscript Paper
» Sheet Music Accessories
» Musical Instruments

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