The best way to understand the role of sharps and flats in music theory
is to observe how they appear in relation to scales - a sequence of
intervals relative to a root (1) note.
Take a look at the scale pattern below...
2 3 4 5 6 7
This scale is known as the major
Now, there's a separate lesson on this scale, but we're going to
reference it in this lesson because of how fundamental this scale is to
The major scale can be seen as a scale with no sharp or flat
intervals - simply 1 2
3 4 5 6 7.
The major scale, therefore, is our starting point, our foundation for
creating any other scale as well as being a scale in its own right (and
used a lot in music).
In other words, we widen or narrow intervals from
their original major scale positions to create new scales. The movement
of these intervals creates sharps (♯)
and flats (♭)
(note: I'm lazy so I tend to just type a b
for flat, but the
symbol is a more stylised ♭.
Also, it's common to use a standard # hash for sharp,
proper symbol is ♯).
Let's say we moved the 7th tone of the major scale down one fret
position. In music theory, that's known as a flat 7th or minor 7th (♭7). We've
flattened/lowered the 7th by one semitone/half step, giving us a new,
flat 7th scale...
2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
that flat 7th scale has its own name, Mixolydian, but with only one
tone difference from the elementary major scale.
Going back to the original major scale pattern, we could sharpen a tone, such
as the 4th.
This is like the opposite of flattening a tone, so we move it up one
fret/semitone/half step this time, creating a sharp 4th (♯4) scale, also
known as Lydian...
2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
So, the first thing to remember is that sharps and flats can be seen as
referenced against their original
position in the major scale. That is why the major scale
is so important in music.
This means that if you see the symbol ♭2 used in a scale
sequence, you'll know it's a flat/minor
Even minor scales
can be seen as referenced against the major scale - the minor 3rd is simply
a flat 3rd (♭3), which means the
3rd interval (3)
of the major scale has been flattened by one semitone/half
you work/play your way through the scales section on this site, you'll
come across various combinations of sharps and flats, which is what
gives a scale its unique sound.
and flats in guitar chords
Just like with scales, sharps and flats exist within certain chord
forms. Think of chords as a group of tones pulled out of a scale - that
way, you'll better understand how the sharps and flats in chords can be
connected to a scale with the same intervals - crucial for being able
to select your notes for a solo.
Take a basic major triad, which consists of the root(1st),
tones from the
major scale. Here's a very typical chord shape for the major triad (an
E shape barre
If we flatten the 3rd, we get a minor triad - 1,
So, just like with scales, when a chord tone is flattened, it is
simply moved down one semitone/half step (the equivalent of one fret
And of course, there are other sharp/flat tone chords, such as this
jazzy flat 5th and flat 7th chord...
3 ♭5 ♭7
If you were to superimpose a major scale pattern over that chord shape,
you can (hopefully)
see how this chord has been formed (clue: the 7 and 5 have been
So by starting with the major scale as our foundation, we can see
that all sharps and flats are positioned in relation to it.
learn more about building chords, arpeggios and scales in other lessons
on this site. This specific lesson is just about understanding where
sharps and flats come from!
E | F | F♯ | G
| A♭ | A | B♭ | B
| C | C♯ | D | E♭ | E
Now, you could
actually call F sharp "G flat", because it's the same note
(enharmonic). You could
also call B flat "A sharp" - again, the same note.
So what makes a specific note sharp or flat? It's all about the context
in which the note is used.
Firstly, we use sharps or flats to make reading a sequence of notes in
example, if we were spelling out a scale which included the note A, we
would rarely use Ab along side it, because that would mean the presence
of two As. We'd therefore use its enharmonic G♯ instead.
Secondly, we use sharps or flats for consistency. Try not to mix sharps
and flats. For example...
E flat major scale...
F G A♭ B♭ C
C sharp major scale...
D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯
Notice how we use B♯ instead of a natural C, because of that first
"rule" of only
using a note letter once, and we're already using C♯.
So you can see that by ensuring each note letter is different,
and consistently using sharps or flats in a scale's
notation, we can make the spelling of scales clearer and
easier on the eye. It also has a significant function in musical
notation (but it's not absolutely necessary to learn that as you'll