1 The Musical Alphabet

The Musical Alphabet

Western music is made up of 12 main notes. A note is a noise at a certain pitch. The way we can tell which note is which is by giving a pitch a letter.

We use the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. 

But Lewis, that’s only 7 notes, how do we get 12?

Well, there are notes that go in-between. Rather than having 12 letters of the alphabet, we add “sharps ♯” or “flats ♭” (for ease of typing ♯ = # and ♭ = b). So the notes in-between A and B would be A# or Bb. The pitch of the note is the same. To explain this, there is a pattern below that shows the flats and sharps.

A   A#   B   C   C#   D   D#   E   F   F#   G   G#

A   Bb   B   C   Db   D   Eb   E   F   Gb   G   Ab

They are all the same pitch, just written differently for theory reasons.

The notes above are called the chromatic scale. Looking back at the pattern, when we go to the next note we move up or down a semi-tone. This is always the next note up or down. for F# to G is a semi-tone, F to E is a semi-tone. They are sometimes called half steps too.

If we go up 2 semitones, that is called a tone. So going from B to C# would be a tone and Eb to F would be a tone. They are sometimes called whole steps.

We can do this over larger gaps too, so if we start at a C and go to an F, that would be 5 semi-tones or 2 and a half tones.


B and E don't have sharps, equally C and F don't have flats when we play the guitar. However when we are looking at theory, they do exist. But don't worry too much about that at the moment, learning the chromatic scale will be more useful for now.

Most of the time we will use only sharps or flats when looking at the musical alphabet. We usually don't have sharps and flats together in a scale or a key.

The easiest way to remember this is with an acronym for the notes. For the Sharps, you could use “Big Elephants Sleep (S for sharps)”. For the Flats you could use “Can’t Flat”, or you could make up your own. Personally, I remember an episode of The Simpsons where Homer joins a quartet called the "BE Sharps" which plays on the theory. It doesn't matter how, just as long as you remember it!


Main points to take away:

  • Physically, our instruments don't have a B#. E#, Cb, Fb. 
  • The gaps between 2 consecutive notes are called semi-tones
  • 2 semi-tones is 1 tone