When Are Notes Sharp Or Flat?

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Have you ever wondered what the distinction between sharp and flat notes is, and when it’s more appropriate to use – for instance, a Db instead of a C#? They’re the same note right, so why does it matter?

With my demonstrations in the video above, I will help you grasp the contexts in which you should use either a sharp or flat note.

Example 1: Common Practice

If we were to put together an F major scale, would it be:

  • F, G, A, A#, C, D, E; or
  • F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E

When the full scale is written out, it might already seem clear to you which one is the correct answer. The second option uses all letters of the musical alphabet, whereas the first skips a letter which goes against common practice.

Example 2: Theoretical Notes

This rule also applies when a note only theoretically exists. Consider for example the D# harmonic minor scale, which is built from the intervals: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.

Take note that this is a natural minor scale, but instead with a sharpened 7th degree.

This would be an incorrect interpretation:

  • D#, F, F#, G#, A#, B, D.

Instead, we would do this:

  • D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B, C##.

Notice that E# is a theoretical note, and while C## is technically the same as D, we can’t skip a letter in heptatonic scales.


The confusion on whether a note is sharp or flat usually comes from a scenario with no context. If you select a random note on the fretboard, it could for example be either D# or Eb. Without context, it’s unclear. So be sure to understand the context of the music if you’re in doubt!

Darryl Syms has been teaching guitar for more than 15 years, and in that time has helped thousands of students across the world excel on guitar.

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