When is a Bflat not a B flat?

When is a Bflat not a B flat?

My lack of formal education is showing again so I’m turning to others for help. A few days ago ago I made a comment about playing (in other genres and as a bassist) in my favorite keys, E flat and B flat. A friend said quite emphatically that in folk/blues B flat and C sharp are the same note but in the classical world they are not. My friend (who I’ll say now that I love dearly) is not classically trend and prefers the singer songwriter/ old time styles as a skilled guitarist and first-class luthier) is quite emphatic about this. One of the things I know is that he is sensitive to having his knowledge challenged so I won’t be asking him directly how he knows this.

Of course I immediately looked at my guitar (classical of course), my flutes (wooden and Bohm) and my wife’s piano (baby grand). What I didn’t see is a distinction of any kind between B flat and C sharp. My fiddle and bass don’t have frets so I suppose some "shading" of those notes are possible and some embouchure adjustments are possible on flutes could happen. Still I’m pretty sure that a lot of "classical" music is played on piano and the B flat isn’t re-tuned between pieces.

Before I dismiss his comments as non-sense maybe one of you can fill me in on why he might think the way he does. Is there a difference between B flat and C sharp and why?

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Your emphatic friend is wrong. Perhaps he meant B# and C or C-flat and B?

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I wish that was the case Michael.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

or A# and Bflat

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

To answer your question, a B-flat is not a B-flat when it’s in a Paddy Fahy tune.

And obviously your friend was comparing A# and B-flat as Tazzy suggests.

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Yes, B flat and C sharp are never thought of as similar. But if he meant B# and C / C-flat and B, then yes I think an explanation to what he said could be the slight change in the execution of the notes, where the musician might slightly lower the C/B and slightly raise the B#/C-flat, depending on the key in which they’re playing and especially if the B#/C-flat is the leading-note of the scale. But it’s something that’s done quite naturally and I guess I do the same when I play Irish music on my fiddle. It’s the same idea than double sharps and that kind of nonsense lol. When a composer puts a double sharp before an F, the musician plays… a G, but you know, it had to be notated as a double sharp because of reasons and musical commas and Musical Theory.
Also, not sure if that could be relevant but when classical music is written down, sharps tend to be used when the musical pattern is rising, and flats when it’s falling. So if you have a G major scale, and the composer wants the E to be flat, they can put a flat before the E when the melody follows a falling pattern, but a D-sharp if the pattern is rising. I suppose your friend might refer to that, but that’s a total convention and I don’t think everyone uses it.

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If he meant one of Michael or Tazzy’s suggestions, that’s an interesting question whose answer depends on context. (Quickly speaking and taking Tazzy’s example, A# and Bb are the same note on a piano. An orchestra’s violinist, on the other hand, will normally play them at slightly different pitches depending on where they fit in the overall chord and/or scale.)

If he actually meant Bb and C#, then no, he is wildly wrong in any normal musical context I’ve ever heard of — those notes are a minor third apart.

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I’ve heard variations on this idea, usually related to comparing 12 tone Equal Temperament to Just Intonation, and the way violinists will unconsciously shift into perfect intervals when they can. It’s usually on the subject of whether C# and Db are the same note. It makes no sense to compare C# and Bb, so I’m guessing your friend heard it somewhere and is mis-remembering Db as Bb since they sound almost alike.

Anyway, it’s an odd thing coming from a guitar player and luthier, where the frets lock us into 12TET, and it’s pretty obvious how far apart those two notes are.

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These notes are called enharmonic equivalents. For example B# sounds like C. Why we write one instead of the other is a matter of logic. Let’s say a musician plays in the key of C#. The scale is made of these notes: C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A# and B#. If you look closely, you will find two enharmonic equivalents in this scale, E# and B# which sound the same as F and C. However, in the logic of the key of C#, these notes have to be called by their enharmonic names. Now I have yet to come across a traditional tune written in C# so don’t worry too much! 🙂

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Quick answer: when it is a C# as many others have testified!
On a further theoretical note, when scoring music, the classical idea is to do it all in either sharps or flats and not mix them up! E.g. If you are in a sharp key signature, you would write a "B flat" as A#. One of my friends, who scores our band music, does mix up the sharps and flats, as he says it fits better with his concertina. How many times have I scrubbed out an Eb and changed it to a D#? Sorry, but just the way I was brung up to read music

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My bad. I did mean A# and B flat.

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I don’t find the framing in terms of Db/C# specifically, to be helpful. The 12 notes of the piano/guitar/etc are quite limiting and the exact pitch for a note is always context dependent. I like this walkthrough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaYOwIIvgHg


Then blues and Irish musicians tend to play fast and loose with their thirds and sevenths, those often being f# and c# in Irish tunes. Wouldn’t even be the blues if you always played equal temperament thirds.

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

There is a significant difference between Bb & C#.
There is no difference between enharmonic notes. (A# is Bb)
Where there is a difference is when the pitch of a note is not how it appears. (it’s bent)

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

What about H?

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Surely it’s just a technical thing for how you WRITE the notes down, depending what key you are WRITING in. It makes no difference to the note you PLAY, which certainly wouldn’t be any different on your instrument.

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Gobby, are you responding to the OP’s header, his question, the correction or one of the subsequent replies?

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The mind truly boggles david50!

Yes, and I had to explain H to some of my friends just the other day, Yhaal House, when it cropped up in a Finnish score!

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If you were playing a G dorian tune on fiddle, the Bb note could be a little different than an A# note that you would play if you were playing a tune in C#. Depending on your sense of temperament.

Re: When is a B flat a B flat…

I occasionally strive for equality in scalar theory as a utopian ideal but my natural, eccentric human sensibilities tend to sway me toward frequent, flexible, nuanced variation. And random expressions of individuality.

[note: music is expression. if this expression is unique it does not follow convention. i.e. the *notes* played are the elements of the entire composition. convention may insist that unplayed notes are part of the music; even when the notes are not played. This is the gist of the theory of equal-temperament, 12-note chromatic theory.
This particular convention is sound theory but does not work for music which does not follow this particular convention. This convention is self limiting though it’s likely the intention was to be more inclusive.]

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

What is H?

In German-speaking countries, B denotes what English-speakers think of as B flat, so H is used for B. It’s just a convention and doesn’t affect how notes are written on the stave.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Your friend is sensitive to having his knowledge challenged !! As Sol Foster has pointed out above, Bflat and C# are a minor third apart for heaven’s sake. Play him those notes as in the beginning of the Cuckoo Waltz - the Laurel and Hardy theme tune. Seems appropriate in his case!

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

That is of course the Dance of the Cuckoos.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

B flat and C sharp? 4 semitones of difference. B sharp and C flat are the same note, however, they’re notated differently on the scale. Same goes for E sharp and F flat. Your friend is in error.

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The subject is really about A# and Bb, and bp24’s video may help to explain the microtonal variations of pitch involved. On my second instrument [1], whenever I play double stops I tend to use Pythagorean intonation on the top note and just intonation on the lower note. It satisfies my ears and, I believe, the ears of my audience.

[1] = the kazoo.

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Ross, I think there is a way you can help your friend to understand the way things are without hurting his feelings. Tell him he is basically correct, but that in both case (blues and classical) there are exceptions. First point out that with instruments like the guitar and the piano (if it is tuned to equal temperament, as most pianos are), A# and Bb are indeed the same note. It doesn’t matter if it is a blues guitar or a classical guitar or a piano used for jazz/blues or a piano used for classical music. With a guitar, if a note is ‘bent’, as Ben says, then it is possible for A# and Bb to be different. With instruments like flutes or fiddles/violins, players can and do routinely play A# and Bb differently, depending on the musical context, and especially if they are not playing with a piano. In the classical world there is a long tradition of enharmonic notes being different and a famous flute player in the Baroque era, Quantz, even went so far as to have his flutes made with different keys for Eb and D# (the other enharmonic notes could be played with different fingerings, but not these two). During the 19th century, the matter was discussed under the heading "sensitive notes", and in the modern era, it is also discussed at length. For my instrument, the flute, Roger Stevens’ _Artistic Flute Technique and Study_, discusses contexts in which notes are sharpened and flattened according to the musical context at considerable length, and I am sure that there are comparable discussions in advanced books on violin playing. So you can tell your friend that he is certainly right for the world of classical music (except for classical guitars and pianos and other instruments where the player has no control over the intonation of a note) and right for the folk/blues world for instruments where the intonation can’t be adjusted. Chet

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His friend is not "certainly right for the world of classical music" or any music.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Why is that, Michael Eskin?

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Referring to the original claim that Bb and C# were the same note.

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To fair, either Ross or his friend probably just got the notes mixed up…accidentally(get it).

Bb and C# are certainly not the same under any circumstance but Bb and A#, or C# and Db etc may or may not be depending on whether you are playing an equally tempered instrument or not.

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I guess it depends on your definition of what "the same note" means. Just because an instrument is built that makes physical compromises so that one can, using the same key, button, or fret position, play a note that is close to, but neither A# or Bb using the same fingering or key, does that make them "the same note"? Certainly isn’t the case for continuous pitch instruments like violin or slide whistle. 🙂

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As I said, the error is mine. Not talking bout C # at all. I meant to say ( and as friend said) it’s A #/B flat, although I suppose we could have the same discussion about C#/D flat. I get the idea of "shading" notes for the sake of the tune, be it Classical or Dixieland. As a lifelong bassist (as opposed to a frustrated guitarist) it’s something I do all the time! Sometimes up sometimes down, it depends. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like to play in flat keys. Friend gets it too. The only thing he won’t seem to acknowledge is that the phenomenon of "note shading" is common to all music, all that I know about anyway! He seems to believe that classical is another universe. As friend is fond of saying "don’t try and teach a pig to sing opera…you can’t do it and it annoys the pig"!

Ya’ll should hear the discussions about "Just Intonation" and "Equal Temperament". I limit myself to being a listener on that one. The tuner app on my phone has 45 different temperaments including D’Alembert (1752)Mol. Meantone (1/5 EG#-Interp.Poletti…as opposed to the 1/6 version, 8 Werkmeister variations, and Young’s "nearly the same" simplification of his 3/16th S. comma mollified meantone. Equal and Just are in there somewhere. I’m a bit afraid to try and look these up to see what they mean!

Any way thanks for the responses. I guess that when it comes to music there is just an equal mix of science and art. And hey, if you’re in town let me know. Friend and I would enjoy a tune or two with you.

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^Ross said it well. As a harpsichordist, I have to deal with temperaments all the time, and equal temperament is a freakin’ disaster on that instrument, and most of the time I am in meantone, which means that I cannot play in the key of A-flat because that’s where I stick the "wolf" tone. That gives me the keys and all their modes in the range from three flats to four sharps (E-flat to E major around the circle of fifths)—and all those different keys do have different sounds to them. Too, a harpsichord not only sounds much better in meantone or its relative tunings, but it has more volume, too, as the intervals aren’t fighting each other. In equal temp, A# and B-flat are the same, but in historical temperaments, A# is indeed sharper than a B-flat, and in my available-key range, I tune it as a B-flat. But when in a session, my double-bass dulcimer is tuned to equal temperament.

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As a side comment, my fiddler S.O. and I have a sort of running joke whenever I refer to the Eb key on my flute. Sez her… "You mean the D# key?" (with arched eyebrow).

I call it that because it seems to be the common usage, and it’s listed as an Eb key in fingering charts for 6 and 8 keyed simple system flutes. I think she approaches it more from the music theory angle (she’s better at theory than I am). Since we play Irish and Scottish music almost exclusively in the sharp keys, when this note comes up in something like "Crested Hens" it’s an accidental written as D#. I’m still going to call it an Eb key though, just to annoy her.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

For fiddlers, A# and Bb aren’t the same, even in equal temperament. which note is written dictates which finger you use to play it. A# means you push the A finger up, Bb means you pull the B finger down (intonation differences do usually creep in, but that is irrelevant). If you see A# B you play the A# then add a finger, if you see Bb B you play the Bb and slide up.

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Conical Bore said "As a side comment, my fiddler S.O. and I have a sort of running joke whenever I refer to the Eb key on my flute. Sez her… "You mean the D# key?" (with arched eyebrow).
I call it that because it seems to be the common usage, and it’s listed as an Eb key in fingering charts for 6 and 8 keyed simple system flutes. I think she approaches it more from the music theory angle (she’s better at theory than I am). Since we play Irish and Scottish music almost exclusively in the sharp keys, when this note comes up in something like "Crested Hens" it’s an accidental written as D#. I’m still going to call it an Eb key though, just to annoy her."

It depends on the key you’re playing in. It will be a D# key if you’re playing in E. You "can’t" use the same letter name twice in one scale, so in E.
E F# G# A B C# D# E
If you’re playing in Eb, its an Eb key
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Trish Santer, while I understand what you are trying to say, sharps and flats are often mixed. Key signatures with flats often use sharps as accidentals (and vice versa). It is more according to the chord than the key signature. The key of G minor (two flats) almost always uses F#, which is the leading tone and part of the dominant chord (D major). It gives you "harmonic minor". This is true in many minor keys.

Chords, themselves, sometimes mix sharps and flats: C#dim7 is C# - E - G - Bb.

Unconventional key signatures can even mix sharps and flats. I wrote a tune in A Freygish (phrygian dominant) with a key signature of Bb and C#.

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AB said:
"Slate Magazine
April 20 2010 10:08

‘The centuries-old struggle to play in tune.’
By Jan Swafford"

Thanks AB, I enjoyed that.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

I always think of the piano notes when note names are given. Obviously on a piano, Bb and A# are one and the same note.

On fiddle, if you play an open A, then a Bb, your ear will probably prefer the sound of the Bb played a fraction flatter than normal, as it’s true "piano" pitch would sound a bit strident.

Now play an open D and that same Bb together. You might now want to fractionally raise the pitch of the Bb to give the note more presence and brightness, along with the open D.

That upper note, to me, is not a Bb any more - its an A# .

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tl;dr: notes with # should be intonated sharper than ther equivalents with b. So the A# in an F# major triad should sound flatter than the Bb in an Ab7. The reason for this lies in the Harmonic series (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonic_series_%28music%29).

There´s this rough guide for intonation over any root note that I use when singing/conducting choirs.

1: flat
b2: very sharp
2: sharp
b3: sharp
#3: flat
4: sharp
#4: flat
b5: sharp
5: sharp
#5: flat
b6: sharp
#6: flat
b7: sharp
#7: flat
b8: sharp
8: sharp
#8: flat

Most of it comes down to whether a note is any kind of upward leading note, like major 3rds or sharp 11ths (which should sound a bit flat when compared to 12TET) or it points downward, like the b2 or the dominant 7th (which should sound a bit sharp).
The rest of it comes down to feeling, like the "1", by which I mean a root note that I reach from above, like in a descending scale, in which case I sometimes tend to not sing it flat enough. The opposite is given when I reach the root note from below, especially when singing from #7 to 8.
For those who wonder why the b7 should be intonated sharp, although the respective overtone is flat: The b7 mostly is used as the downward leading note in a dominant 7th chord. For that reason I don´t hear it as a 7th at all but rather as a 4th above the tonic chord that follows said dominant. And that one should be slightly sharp in order to sound right.

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Jim D - I always like that "first finger on the A string" test, it’s a quick demonstration that shows that temperament is a real issue for fiddlers, not just academic.

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Everyone so far seems to have interpreted the question as being about the naming of notes as sharp/flat etc. To play a wild card, is it possible that what Ross’s luthier friend was referring to was ‘in-between notes’, ‘blue notes’ etc.? It is, of course, a sweeping generalisation to refer to *all* folk and blues but it is certainly the case that the blues uses pitches that lie (or slide) between the semitones of the 12-tone system. The same is true for some players of Irish trad - listening to recordings of older fiddlers, you often hear the 3rd and 7th degrees of the scale slightly flattened (or where you expect them to be flattened, slightly sharpened). So it could be that, for certain players, in a tune played in G, there was no categorical difference between F-natural and F#, only a range of shades in between.

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@CMA - not quite everyone… see my post above. 🙂

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I don’t know what Ross’s friend was on about, and maybe it was about the bends and slides in Blues, but that still doesn’t make much sense to me.

I used to play electric Blues guitar and acoustic bottleneck slide before falling down the Irish/Scottish rabbit hole. In that genre of music, the bends and slides are a means of expression, like the articulations in Irish music. And as with Irish music, the articulations aren’t "the notes" of a tune (all due respect to Llig’s view of articulations in old threads here).

A good bottleneck slide player will land on 12TET scale notes for the melody line, or it sounds awful and out of sync with the rest of the band. An electric guitar player doing a deep string bend will return to the 12TET scale note enforced by the fret layout. There is room for expression there, and a guitarist might go pretty far "out" from the key the band is playing. Especially slide players. But there is always a return to 12TET as the common baseline.

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//Jim D - I always like that "first finger on the A string" test, it’s a quick demonstration that shows that temperament is a real issue for fiddlers, not just academic.//

Hi TomB-R, yes I think it is for a few reasons. When I played piano before talking up fiddle, I just accepted all the note pitches and combos without thinking (on a properly tuned piano, btw!), and everything was fine.

I then noticed, when playing guitar, that tuning to suit the ear that would make the rest out of tune. Eg - going from strings low to high, the strings D-G-B would sound perfect as an open chord. Then I’d find a fingered D chord out of tune (the 2nd string D-note would be flat compared to the 3rd string A). So then, the tuning would need to compromised.

Of course on fiddle, the ear gets more aware of these intonation issues, so we adjust the same note slightly sharp or flat depending on context, usually narrow major thirds (eg G+B), wide minor thirds (G+B), but we always seem to favour perfect fourths and fifths. Octaves are immutable, I think.

Also, you don’t get much consecutive semitone work in fiddling generally, so the ear seems to pay more attention to pitch accuracy (imo) than with the standard notes of a scale.

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I am still not convinced that Ross’ friend was not just referring to how you correctly notate the music, and simply giving the B/Bb as an example. Consider this extract from the article referenced below:-

"If you’re going to say flat 7,” and you’re in C major, your B must become Bb.
It can’t be A# (which makes the same sound), because “A” is the 6th tone of C major. And by calling this A#, you’d be playing the sharp 6 rather than the flat 7. That distinction is important."

This gets clarified when you read the whole article @
https://www.hearandplay.com/main/ask-jermaine-when-to-use-sharps-or-flats

It points out in that article that the mistake is often made by ear players, which indicates, as I suspect, that the distinction is merely in the notation. I’m an ear player myself and to me my fiddle strings may as well be musical saws, Though I can read music I never give thought to the notes while I play. To quote the old Will Harmon thing, I just put my fingers where the notes are. Writing it down, especially in classical music, requires more precision.

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Clearly this a really complex topic. In the end I can only believe that friend made a statement that was oversimplified, backward, and was, as I like to say, wrong. That said he’s a good guy and a pleasure to play tunes with. I can only surmise from the learned responses that a Bflat and A# are rarely the same thing unless there are frets or keys involved.

As an aside, is there a way that accordion (box or piano) or concertina players can use the bellows to shade notes like harmonica players often do. Might be a whole new discussion.

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" is there a way that concertina players can use the bellows to shade notes"

Yes, but the pitch variation is waaaay less than what you can get with other instruments. It’s mostly a tone and volume thing. For low notes and especially on baritone/bass concertina you can get a little bit of perceptible pitch change. Otherwise you’re stuck with leading into a note with a grace note a half or whole step below. Or, playing the half/whole step below at the same time for a tiny moment, which gives a certain flavor too. Nothing really like a good fiddle twiddle or harp schlarp.

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Re: Who decides?

Enlightenment is good, Mr. Faison. Just don’t expect everything will be perfect.

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Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Point taken, David L about the mixing of sharps and flats in harmonic minors and other more esoteric scales. But I was thinking of my friend’s habit of mixing them in other parts of the scale, which does confuse me somewhat.

Re: When is a Bflat not a B flat?

Thanks Ben. Know that one of my deepest beliefs is "the enemy of good is better"!