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Enharmonic – Does It Really Complicate Our Lives?


enharmonic smallVery often, the following question is raised: actually, what is the reason for diverse verbal representation of notes if they have the same pitch?

True. However... it has not always be like that. Imagine that some time ago, there was a pitch difference between F sharp and G flat! Until equal temperament (i.e. tuning system used in contemporary European music) has been invented, in use were systems of unequal tuning. It means that instruments were tuned so as to provide only one clearly sounding interval, for example a fifth or a third, with consequences for the pitch of other intervals. It means that in those days two theoretically identical intervals – e.g. two major seconds – were of different size! Although today we can barely imagine it, thanks to the unequal temperament in those days every scale had an individual character, and it meant much more than today what scale a piece was written in. „D flat“ was not identical with „C sharp“. Remember, that once in use were quarter tones, too. Therefore, „D flat“ had a different pitch than „C sharp“, the actual distance between them measuring exactly a quarter tone. 
In the 18th century, due to its numerous advantages equal temperament (i.e. musical tuning system based upon semitone as its smallest unit) was gaining more and more supporters. Finally it became the principal tuning system. The outcome of equal temperament introduction is note pitch equalization. Since then different notes pitches now become equal, and are called enharmonic equivalents. Rules of classical enharmonic define when we should use one or another note name - hopefully we will soon return to this issue. Therefore, we can say that the introduction of equal temperament resulted in equalized pitch for various note names. One sound can have a maximum of 3 names, so do not worry – it might have been much worse! ;)

Practical hint:
All sounds with the exception of G sharp (G#) – A flat (Ab) have three equal names. The sound G sharp and its equivalent A flat make the only example of only two names for one note pitch. Since usually there are three names, it means these names are created on the basis of three neighboring sounds. For example, let us find two equivalents for C sharp (C#). 
First, we lower the following sound – a lowered D makes a D flat (Db). Another note neighboring to C is B, and as it is lower than C, it must be raised. By adding of a # we obtain B sharp (B#), which is equal to C. However, we still need another halftone, as we are looking for an equivalent to C sharp (C#). Thus, we have to raise our B sharp (B#) again: the outcome is B double sharp (Bx). As we have just seen, enharmonic equivalents are created by lowering or raising notes neighboring to our principal sound. If a single raising or lowering is not enough, we have to raise or lower a note again, which means we have to use a double sharp (x) or double flat (bb) symbol.

Please have a look at the following enharmonic equivalents.


The easiest way to find enharmonic equivalents is to raise and lower notes and check the location and pitch of the raised or lowered note on a keyboard. Of some help could also be just looking at a keyboard and trying to give proper names to raised or lowered notes :)

Through the possibility of using enharmonically equivalent scales enharmonic enables us to transpose pieces of music into more suitable keys. If we were not using equal temperament, though, enharmonic would alter the way pieces of music sound. It could be said that in a way enharmonic has led us to lose something truly unique – individual character of keys and scales, and their exceptional influence on music. On the other hand, enharmonic has made it easier for us to master music theory. Given that we were still using unequal temperament, our ear training classes would be much more difficult – we could never memorize the sound of particular intervals because it would be different for every key and scale!

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