How To Read Sharps And Flats For Your Piano Lessons

In my article Understanding The Piano Keyboard For Your Piano Lessons, I discussed the layout of the keyboard and that the black keys are referenced as both sharps and flats. What you’ll learn today is exactly how these keys are named and look on the Treble Clef and Bass Clef staff lines.

Sharps And Flats – Understanding Sharps

The first few piano lessons you’ll take will focus on the white keys on your piano keyboard but after you’ve become comfortable, you’ll begin to see sharps and flats in the exercises and songs in your music books.

The sharp symbol is a slanted version of the pound sign (right above the number 3 key on a computer keyboard) or the hashtag you may have seen on Twitter and Facebook feeds. It implies a higher pitch within the musical range of a song and can be placed on either clef staffs. To see the sharp symbol, let’s take a look at the image below as it sits on the treble staff line:

 

D Sharp Symbol on Treble Clef Staff

D Sharp Symbol on Treble Clef Staff

The quarter note sits on the key of D which is where the sharp symbol sits. What this tells you is to play the black key that is half a step up from the D key on the piano keyboard, seen in the image below:

D Sharp Key

D Sharp Key

Many of the advanced pieces you’ll learn to play will place the sharp symbol on the staff next to the clef so you’ll always know to play D# when that key comes up.

In other pieces of work you’ll play, the composer may have you play the key of D but for later sections, he/she may want you play D# for a few bars. To represent that, you can place the symbol alongside the note:

 

D Sharp Symbol Next To Quarter Note

D Sharp Symbol Next To Quarter Note

Both clef examples above produce the same results on your keyboard.

Sharps and Flats – Understanding Flats

Going in the opposite direction, the flat symbol portrays a lower pitch within a musical piece and can also appear on both clef staffs. It’s in the shape of a lowercase “b” but is pointed at the bottom. In the photo below I’ve placed the flat symbol next to the bass clef sitting on the key of B just like the quarter note:

 

B Flat on Bass Clef Staff

B Flat on Bass Clef Staff

Similar to the sharp symbol, you can place the flat symbol next to the note that needs to be turned from its normal key, in this case B, to a Bb (B flat):

Flat Symbol Next To B On Bass Clef Staff

Flat Symbol Next To B On Bass Clef Staff

Let’s see where on the piano keyboard this particular key is located:

B Flat Key

B Flat Key

In the piano keyboard above, the key we’re looking for is sitting an octave, 1 key and a half step down from middle C. That means you will have to move you hand to the left on the keyboard to hit that particular B flat. Read the following explanation to learn more about sharps and flats.

Sharps and Flats – Using More Than One Symbol Per Line And Space

In the examples above, I showed how the sharps and flats would look individually but you can add all 14 (7 sharps and 7 flats) symbols to the staff lines and spaces. Before I show them on the grand staff, here is a list of each one:

Sharps Flats
C# D# E# F# G# A# B# Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb

Let’s first see how the sharps would be placed on the grand staff:

Grand Staff Sharps

Grand Staff Sharps

In this image above, the two sharp symbols are on the keys of F and C, making them into F# and C#. When you play the D Major Scale, you end up playing F# and C# and if this score were to continue, you would automatically have to play F# and C# for both the treble and bass clef staffs.

Now let’s take a look at the flat symbol:

Grand Staff Flats

Grand Staff Flats

 

The E Flat Major Scale above has three flats – Bb Eb Ab and in this scale, you automatically start off by hitting Eb (the black key) instead of the white key. This goes for the key of Bb and Ab as well.

Having your sharps and flats listed next to the clef symbols will save a lot of time as you learn how to play a particular song. They stay present throughout the piece and prevents clutter as you read and learn the notes to play it.

Sharps and Flats – How To Reset Them

I mentioned above that certain notes within a musical piece can be turned into a sharp or flat just by placing the symbol next to the note. There are times when that note needs to go back to normal so that the D# or Bb will be played as D or B on the piano keyboard. The natural symbol will tell you to play the regular key on the keyboard:

Treble Clef Staff Lines w D Natural

Treble Clef Staff Lines w D Natural

Bass Clef Staff Lines w B Natural

Bass Clef Staff Lines w B Natural

With the natural symbols in place, you can play the white key of D on the treble clef and white key of B on the bass clef. You can see which keys to play in the images below and notice that the sharps and flats have been removed:

D Natural Key

D Natural Key

B Natural Key

B Natural Key

Conclusion

Knowing the difference between sharps and flats allows you to play a more diversified range of songs. Your piano lessons will continue to increase in performance and having these two symbols understood will assist you along the way.

Using the last two images above, where would Gb be placed? Leave your answer in the comments below.

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