I. Fundamentals

Half- and Whole-steps and Accidentals

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • A above a key on the piano is the key to its immediate right, while a half-step below a key on the piano is the key to its immediate left.
  • A is two half-steps. A whole-step above a key on the piano is two keys to its right, while a whole-step below a key on the piano is two keys to its left.
  • An changes the pitch of a note. A raises a note by a half-step while a lowers a note by a half-step. A cancels a previous accidental.
  • A raises a note by a whole-step, while a lowers a note by a whole-step.
  • Be sure to write accidentals to the left of a note, directly across the line or space on which a note appears.
  • Notes have when they are spelled differently but sound the same.

In the last chapter, The Keyboard and the Grand Staff, we discussed the letter names of the white keys on the piano keyboard. There are also black keys on the piano keyboard, which are grouped into alternating sets of two or three. Before we discuss the names of the black keys, however, we must first learn about half- and whole-steps.

Half- and Whole-steps

Example 1 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the white key pitches, and some half-steps labeled:

A piano keyboard is shown with the white keys labeled. Half steps between B/C, E/F, G and G sharp and A and A flat are shown.
Example 1. A piano keyboard with letter names on
the white keys; some half-steps are labeled.

A is considered to be the smallest , or distance between two notes, in western musical notation. On the piano keyboard (see Example 1) a half-step above a white key note (for example, the note G) is the black key to its upper right. Likewise, a half-step below a white key note (for example, the note A) is the black key to its upper left. In other words, the black key to the upper right of G is “in between” the notes G and A. One would say that this black key is a half-step above G and is simultaneously a half-step below A. Two pairs of white keys—E/F and B/C—do not have black keys in between them (see Example 1). This is because E to F is a half-step and B to C is also a half-step. The piano keyboard is arranged like this so that it is easier to play. Having the black keys grouped into sets of either two or three makes seeing and feeling them easier and quicker for a keyboardist.

Example 2 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the white key pitches labeled, and some whole-steps bracketed:

A piano keyboard is shown and white keys are labeled. Whole steps between A and B, E and F sharp, and D flat and E flat show also labeled.
Example 2. A piano keyboard with letter names on the white keys; some whole-steps are labeled.

A is the equivalent of two half-steps. Pairs of white keys with a black key in between them (A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, and G and A) are a whole-step apart. To find a whole-step above the notes E or B, simply count two keys to the right. A whole-step above E is the black key to the right of the note F, while a whole-step above B is the black key to the right of the note C. Likewise, to find a whole-step below the notes C or F, simply count two keys to the left. A whole-step below C is the black key to the left of the note B, while a whole-step below F is the black key to the left of the note E. To find a whole-step from a black key you will want to count two keys to the right or left. For example, a whole-step above the black key to the right of C is the black key to the right of the note D. A whole-step below the black key to the left of B is the black key to the left of the note A.

What do a half-step and a whole-step sound like? The short video, shown in Example 3, demonstrates:

Example 3. Dr. Chelsey Hamm (Christopher Newport University) demonstrates the sound of a half-step and a whole-step.

Sharps, Flats, and Naturals

An  changes the pitch of a note. A  (♯) looks like a tilted hashtag, and it raises a note by a half-step. A  (♭) looks like a slanted lowercase “b,” and it lowers a note by a half-step. A  (♮) looks like a tilted box with a line sticking out of the top left and bottom right corners, and it cancels a previous accidental such as a sharp or flat. Sharps, flats, and naturals are the three most common accidentals.

A (or ♯♯) raises a note by two half-steps (i.e. a whole-step). A (𝄫) lowers a note by two half-steps (i.e. a whole-step). Accidentals are always written to the left of a note, regardless of stem direction. An accidental should be written directly across the line or space on which a note appears.

Example 4 shows both correct and incorrect ways to notate sharps, flats, and naturals:

Correct and incorrect ways of drawing accidentals are shown. The correct accidentals appear to the left of a note, on the same line or space as the note. Incorrect accidentals are too large, too small, or are on a different line or space than the note.
Example 4. Correct and incorrect ways to draw accidentals.

The Black Keys on the Piano Keyboard

Example 5 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the black keys labeled:

A piano keyboard is shown. The white and black keys are labeled. Each black key note has both a sharp and a flat name.
Example 5. A piano keyboard with the letter names of the
black keys labeled.

Black keys that are a half-step above a white key take the name of the white key and add the word “sharp.” For example, the black key to the right of the note C is called “C-sharp,” and is written as C♯. Black keys that are a half-step below a white key take the name of the white key and add the word “flat.” For example, the black key to the left of the note D is called “D-flat,” and is written as D♭.

F is also known as E♯, and E is also known as F♭. C is also known as B♯, and B is also known as C♭. Double sharp and double flat accidentals also exist, and some of these are found in Example 6. A double sharp is two half-steps above a note. For example, D𝄪 is also E; E𝄪 is also F♯ (or G♭). A double flat is two half-steps below a note. For example, A𝄫 is also G; C𝄫 is also B♭ or A♯.

A piano keyboard is shown with white and black keys labeled. Additionally, double accidentals are shown on some of the white keys.
Example 6. Double accidentals on the piano keyboard.

Enharmonic equivalence

Notice that the keys on the piano keyboard have more than one name. Notes have when they are spelled differently but they sound the same. For example, you can see that C♯ and D♭ are enharmonically equivalent, as seen in Examples 5 and 6. Another example, seen in Example 6, is the note D. This note is enharmonically equivalent with the notes C𝄪 and E𝄫. In other words, playing a D, C𝄪, or E𝄫 will result in the same pitch.

Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet
  1. Half- and Whole-Steps on the Piano Keyboard and in Staff Notation (.pdf)
  2. Half- and Whole-Steps in Staff Notation (.pdf)
  3. Writing and Identifying Notes with Accidentals (.pdf.pdf.pdf)
  4. Keyboard to Staff Notation Matching (.pdf)
  5. Enharmonic Equivalence (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Black Keys on the Piano (.pdf, .docx)
  2. Half- and Whole-steps on the Piano Keyboard (.pdf, .docx)
  3. Writing Accidentals (.pdf, .docx)
  4. Writing and Identifying Accidentals (.pdf, .docx)
  5. Half- and Whole-steps in Staff Notation (.pdf, .docx)
  6. Enharmonic Equivalence (.pdf, .docx)

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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