An Introduction to…Pitch

An Introduction to Pitch

Understanding the basics of music theory can go a long way in helping you read music, create music, and communicate with other musicians. And Sheet Music Direct is here to help! Take a look at our introductions to other key music theory topics, including chords and rhythm.


Half Steps and Whole Steps

The distance between two pitches is called an interval. The smallest interval in basic theory is the half step. Adjacent keys on the piano are a half step apart. A whole step is the next larger interval and is equal to two half steps (a two-key distance on the keyboard.)

Notice that the white keys B and C are not separated by a black key. There is also no black key separating E from F. These are the naturally-occurring or, simply, natural half steps. While the natural half steps are fairly easy to locate on an instrument, we have to remember them when looking at a staff.

Sharps, Flats, and Naturals

Although pitches are named using only seven letters of the alphabet (A through G), a complete octave is divided into twelve tones.

We only use a seven-letter musical alphabet because most songs are based on seven-note scales. A scale can be spelled quickly by using all seven letters. Some of the letters may have accidental symbols after them to show exactly which of the twelve possible notes is desired. Accidentals are of vital importance, so try and remember this:

An important term for a scale note is diatonic, meaning "from the scale." Diatonic is also used to describe chords and melodies that are based on a scale. There are seven diatonic notes in a scale, leaving five non-diatonic (or non-scale) notes within the one-octave range. This is reflected in the design of the piano keyboard. The white keys form a C major scale. In between the white keys are five black keys. The white keys are said to be diatonic to the C major scale. The black keys are non-diatonic to the C major scale. The entire 12-note pattern repeats so music can be played in higher and lower registers.

The white keys are called natural notes, referred to as C-natural, D-natural, and so on. The black keys are sharp or flat notes, named by referring to the key/note to its left or right (below or above on the staff). For example, the note between C and D may be referred to as C-sharp or D-flat.

Until we know which scale a note is associated with, we can't tell which name (sharp or flat) is the correct one for an accidental, so for now we'll use both. When writing notes on the staff, accidentals are placed before the notehead. When spelling or saying a note name, the accidental comes after.

Double Sharps and Flats

As you've noticed, it's possible for a pitch to have more than one name. These names are called enharmonic equivalents.

In addition to the enharmonics already covered in this article, pitches may have double sharp and double flat names. Study the note names on the keyboard diagram below.

Accidental Rules

An accidental applies to all notes of the same kind that fall in the same measure, unless it is cancelled by another accidental. In the measure below, the first and second F notes are sharp. The third one is cancelled with a natural sign.

Accidentals are also cancelled by the bar line. Here, the F in the second measure is natural.

Tied accidental notes may cross the bar line. However, the accidental is cancelled when the tied note ends. Here, the F-sharp sustains across the bar line, but the next F, in measure 2, is natural.

In common practice, courtesy accidentals are sometimes used to remind the performer that an accidental has been cancelled.

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