Accidental Rules – Accidentals and Key Signatures

UMT Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures

According to the "Essential Dictionary of Music Notation" (published by Alfred Publishing), an Accidental is a "Temporary alteration to the pitch of a note".  There are 5 Accidental Symbols - the Double Flat sign, the Flat sign, the Natural sign, the Sharp Sign and the Double Sharp sign.

The Dictionary also states: "When these symbols are used in the music, apart from use in the Key Signature, these Symbols are called Accidentals".

When these symbols are found at the beginning of each line, they represent the Key Signature.  The Sharps or Flats in the Key Signature represent the Major or minor scale (the tonality) of the piece of music.

So, what rules do we have to follow when naming notes with Accidentals and Key Signatures? Let's find out!

Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures - What is the Difference?

When naming notes with Accidentals and Key Signatures, we have to be aware that the Accidental Symbol or Sign (the sharp, flat, etc.) has different rules when it is:

  • found at the beginning of each line of music in the "Key Signature";
  • found in the music itself (and is not a part of the Key Signature).

Let's play "Spot the Boo-Boo"! Spot the Dog wants to know if all the notes that are affected by an accidental have been circled in this example?  What are your thoughts?

UMT Accidentals and Key Signatures - Spot the Boo Boo
UMT Accidental Rules - Spot the Boo-Boo Answers

Here we see the Correct answer.

There are rules that affect the accidentals found in the Key Signature.  Then there are also rules that affect the accidentals found within the music.

This can be a confusing concept to understand.  Please check out the other Blogs in this Series:

This Blog will look at ways we can support our Students in learning how Accidentals are part of the Key Signature and how they can also be found within the music.

When I introduce Students to this concept, I start by presenting them with a piece of music that has Accidentals and Key Signatures.  I then ask my Students to:

  • Identify the Key Signature (the Major or minor tonality).
  • Name the Sharps or Flats in the Key Signature.
  • Point to notes within the music that are affected by the Sharps or Flats in the Key Signature.
  • Identify different accidentals (a separate sharp, flat, etc.) that are found within the music, and discuss what notes are affected by those accidental.
UMT - Accidentals and Key Signatures

I have found that it is important to remind students that, if there is an F Sharp in the Key Signature, it applies to every single F anywhere on the Staff - and that includes Ledger Lines.  An Accidental only applies to the notes on that line or in that space within that measure.

Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures

When there is an F sharp and a C sharp in the Key Signature, every single F and C in the music is played as a sharp (unless it is temporarily canceled). It doesn't matter what Clef Sign or if the note is written on the Staff itself or using 20 Ledger Lines, the accidental in the Key Signature affects every single F and C!

In the Example, we have a Double Sharp on the first C in Measure #2. Notice that this Double Sharp written in Space #2 of the Bass Staff only affects the other C written in Space #2 of the Bass Staff in Measure #2 only.

The Accidental written in the music will only affect the note/notes on that line or in that space up until cancelled by the Bar Line or by another Accidental.

A Key Signature Accidental (a sharp or flat in the Key Signature) can be temporarily affected by another Accidental.

Students should review that:

  1. an accidental in the Key Signature affects every single note with that name anywhere on the Staff (including Ledger Lines).
  2. an accidental in the Music/Measure only affects a note written on that line or in that space within that measure.
UMT Accidentals and Key Signatures
UMT Accidentals and Key Signatures

Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures

So, what happens when we have an accidental in the music, but that accidental is not a part of the Key Signature?

*Sigh* - Yes, Accidentals are written in the Key Signature and they are also written on notes within the music.

The key point that Students must understand is that an Accidental written in the music is a temporary change for the note!

In Measure 1, the Sharp on Space #3 affects every E written after it appears on Beat #2.  We do not need to write a sharp in front of the Es on Beats #3 & #4.  They have been affected by the Space #3 Sharp on Beat #2.

In Measure 2, the first Space #3 E is now simply "E".  It is not called E Natural, nor does it need a natural sign to cancel the Sharp in Measure 1.

When that Bar Line is written at the end of the measure, it erases any and all of these temporary Accidentals within that measure.  I love how easily Bar Lines get rid of those temporary accidentals.

Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures - Pop Quiz Time!

Let's have some fun.  Take a look at the Pop Quiz below.

When we circle a note that is affected by an Accidental, that Accidental can be

  • a part of the Key Signature;
  • a temporary change of pitch on a specific line or space.
UMT Accidentals and Key Signatures Pop Quiz

Sometimes I feel like I should be called the "Queen of Doubt".  I often second guess myself when I have to think quickly. If, like me, you question whether you are 100% positive of the correct answers to this Pop Quiz, I encourage you to become a UMT Member today.

You will also get 2 extra Worksheets (with matching answers) that match this blog:

  1. Worksheet - Circle the Notes. By circling the notes, Students can see what notes are affected by the Key Signature and by any Accidentals.
  2. Worksheet - Naming Notes. Reviewing the placement of the Accidental when naming the notes is very important!
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Accidental Rules - Accidentals and Key Signatures - Pop Quiz Answers.

Here are the Answers to our Pop Quiz.  How did you do?

UMT Accidentals and Key Signatures Pop Quiz Answers
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Keep on Learning... With a Smile and a Song!

Shelagh McKibbon-U'Ren

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