Behind the Notation: Musical Spelling for Composers

Notes from a Student-Teacher Conversation between Zahra Partovi and Robinson McClellan

Have you ever wondered: “should this note really be a C-sharp, or would it look better as a D-flat? What’s the difference, anyway, and who’s responsible for the fact that the same pitch has two — or more — names? Can I speak to a manager about getting this mess fixed?”

If that’s you, then you have grappled with the delightful world of Musical Spelling: which note name to use where and how, and when and whether to apply a sharp, flat, or natural — or not to. Don’t worry, this is not music theory class, and there are no prerequisites. If you don’t know the terminology, just listen to the examples carefully and you’ll understand the important things: good musical spelling A) looks simple on the page and B) reflects how a note sounds within its harmonic and melodic context. That said, musical intervals will come up a lot in this article, so if you want a quick primer or need to refresh your memory, there are good free resources here and here.

Sometimes, musical spelling is like a spelling bee, with right and wrong answers. In 18th-century European harmony, the kind you learn in a typical Theory 1 class, it’s usually clear-cut: the scale / key determines the correct spelling. That sort of stuff is covered here, in abbreviated form.

Other times, spelling is a judgment call. When the harmonies get more ambiguous, things get tricky because the composer is no longer writing in the harmonic language that staff notation was designed for — after all, the notation is mostly unchanged since the 17th century or earlier. Two different experts may have two — or more — different, equally valid opinions about how to spell a particular note. This article provides some suggestions for those situations too.

These suggestions speak to the practical, in-the-moment concerns of a composer or arranger: “how should I spell this note!?” The ideas here emerged out of conversations between Robin McClellan and his composition student Zahra Partovi at Lucy Moses School in NYC, looking at scores of hers that do not always follow traditional European harmonic practices.

Why does spelling matter in music? Because performers care! Your job as a composer or arranger is to make their lives easier, and that means making the music easy to read. Every guideline here has this one, single, solitary goal: CLARITY. Sometimes that means following the time-honored rules of music theory. Other times you’ll have to make informed guesses.

We will begin with the most important suggestion of all: when in doubt, ask the people who will be performing your music what they find clearest.

But first, do the prep work to be the best musical speller you can be. And when you’ve read all this, try out our Spelling Brain Teaser. Read on.

Just Because it’s Popular Doesn’t Make it Right

When you learn an instrument, or take theory lessons, you encounter certain note spellings before you learn their alternates: You meet F-sharp first because it belongs to the very common and simple key of G major with only one sharp in its key signature; only later do you encounter its twin, G-flat, in the five-flat key of D-flat. Likewise you meet B-flat before you encounter A-sharp.

But the fact that F-sharp and B-flat are more familiar doesn’t necessarily make them preferable to their twins G-flat and A-sharp. Familiarity isn’t the same as clarity or — most important! — being easier to read. Why? Read on.

1. What Goes Up… Should LOOK Like it Goes Up. Same Thing for Down.

Down = Flat and Up = Sharp… All Else Being Equal

When a chromatic line (a series of half steps) moves downward, use flats — or naturals to lower notes that are sharp in the key signature. Going up, use sharps — or naturals to raise notes that are flat in the key signature. This is true in general, all else being equal — but not always.

CONTINUE to Section 2: Don’t Augment Your Troubles or Diminish Your Chances