Note names

In this post I’m going to explain the logical system behind note names. I’m sure that this will not only be interesting for people starting to make music. Experienced musicians will also get some interesting information. Did you know that there are many symmetrical aspects of note names?

Below you see some music app screenshots. All of them have one thing in common: They show symbols like d, Bb, g, C6 or G4. So what is the meaning of these symbols?

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Why note names?

These symbols help you to find a certain tone in different music apps, but also at other musical instruments. SoundPrism for example shows tones in a different order compared to MorphWiz or Orphion. Imagine me playing a tone in SoundPrism and wanting to play that same tone in MorphWiz? How would I find that tone?

At that stage note names come into play: SoundPrism shows me which tone I have just played, e.g. the tone g. Now I can open MorphWiz or Orphion and find that same tone. By tapping the appropriate UI element the same tone sounds in all three apps.

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A logical system

At first view the note names shown in the apps before seem to be arranged arbitrarily and without system. But that’s not the case. Let me explain this using this Animoog button. As you can see, the button is labeled with A#1.

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The label A#1 can be separated into three components: The letter a, the sharp # and the number 1. What is the meaning of these three components?

Meaning of the letters

The letter a is one of the seven alphabetical letters a, b, c, d, e, f and g. These letters represent the scale a-minor which can be assigned to piano keys as follows:

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Meaning of the symbols # and b

To this point we only assigned letters to seven white keys of the piano. But how about the black ones?

Composers did decided not to introduce extra letters for the remaining tones. Instead they had the idea to relate the black keys to the white ones. Thus the same letter was assigned to the two black keys surrounding a white key, but extended by a b (flat) and a # (sharp). The sharp is assigned to the tone at the right side of the white key and the flat to the tone at the left side.

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As a consequence every black key of the piano has two names. Thus the tone with the name a# is also called bb for example.

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Meaning of the number

Now we are able to name the tones of twelve piano keys. But a standard piano has 88 keys. How about them?
To remember 88 letters would be quite strange. Fortunately there are tones that sound incredible similar. An example:

Because of that extraordinary similarity composers decided to assign the same letter to those tones. All four tones played in the previous examples are labeled with the letter d.

But how can we distinguish between the four ds? To solve that numbers like 0, 1, 2, 3 etc. were introduced and assigned to the d. Thus the first d in the upper example is called d1, the second d2 and so on.

This system is also supported by the Animoog-Keyboard: The keyboard starts with the seven tones c2, d2 to b2. After that the order starts from the beginning, but with a 3 instead of a 2 saying c3, d3, e3.

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Symmetry model

The symmetry model, especially the key related melodic circle supports also understanding note names. This is shown by the following video.

Summary

  • Note name consist of three parts: A letter, a flat or sharp and a number indicating the octave.
  • All note names are related to the seven tones a, b, c, d, e, f and g. These are the tones of the white keys of the piano.
  • The black keys of the piano are also labeled with the letters a to g, but extended by sharp or flat.
  • The key related melodic circle of the symmetry model is well suited to explain note names.

24 thoughts on “Note names”

  1. irritating to start with a minor and not c major (its the same notes just starting with c)
    (because then its less irritating to explain the white and black keys, but maybe u got a plan to where this is leading?)
    doesn’t every child learn in kindergarten to sing > do re mi fa so la ti do > c major

    1. Actually the reason to start at the a was simply that the alphabet also starts there. Additionally it becomes obvious that the seven tones a to g are equally distributed around the symmetry tone.

      You are right, for work with children I would also recommend to start with the major scale because it corresponds most to the over tone series and thus is most natural.

      1. the alphabet thing seams to work fine in the english language
        it’s not my native language
        a minor in english are the letters
        a, b, c, d, e, f, g
        in german it is
        a,h,c,d,e,f,g,

      2. lol, i wrote non sense
        if u say to be give an b i would play b flat (ais/b)
        b flat is b in german depending which scale u r in
        u see it gets confusing pretty quickly

      3. so a little 12 tone Musical keyboard with note names on it would make it easier for musicians from all over the world so we know which pitches we are talking about – i always have to remember myself that the note names in english are different

  2. It could be added, for clarity’s sake, that c sharp and d flat are not the same note, since they are some cents apart from one-another, what we have on the piano is just an approximation that makes things easier to play and hence helps composers create more complex pieces.

    The irritating thing about the piano layout is that it’s really c major centric, which is of course the most boring of all scales…

    Anyway, good and easy introduction!

    1. I agree that c sharp and d flat are not the same notes. But in my opinion not the just intonation is the reason for that. Much more its the musical context that makes the two tones sounding so different. Thus the difference between c sharp and d flat is also relevant for equal tempered tuning. What do you think?

      1. yeah of course, just to make an example if you have a diminished C major triad the fifth will be a G flat and not an F sharp, because you are diminishing the fifth from where the note is in the scale i.e. on G

    1. Thats a little bit confusing: c sharp and d flat are the same tones at the piano; But in music the same tone can sound completely different depending on the context; The tone a for example sounds completely different when used in a-minor context then in a-major. The same applies to c# and db. Thats why we were saying: It are different tones.

  3. I find the scrambled use of words note / tone irritating. There is a big difference between them that we usually discard in our minds and use these two different definitions to describe the same thing in our minds which is wrong

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