Enharmonic Spelling

Weekly Newsletter # 16

November 25, 2021

Well, now I’d like to continue where I left off last week. For those who haven’t yet read last week’s newsletter, please read it here. 

Last week we discussed intervals and how they function when making major, minor and diminished chords. You may have noticed something interesting when I described the “recipe” for a minor chord. As I mentioned, the intervallic structure of a minor chord is a m3+M3 (minor 3rd + Major 3rd). The example I used was Cm which is spelled out as C- Eb - G. 

You may have asked why Eb and not D#? This is a very important question, and one that I hear frequently. 

What would you call the second fret on the E string? Is it an F# or a Gb? 

If you use one or the other and you’re not sure why, this will be a very important lesson for you. 

Enharmonic Spelling is the concept of calling a note that can be either a flat or a sharp by its correct name. The C minor chord example above asks about Eb vs. D#. The answer to the question, “which one is correct?” depends on the root note. 

Since the root note for the example was a C, it must be assumed that C is the key. After all we have no other information besides the root note C. 

Building that Cm chord requires the root note, 3rd and 5th of the chord. When building chords, you must always assign a letter to every step of the scale. For example, we are looking for the 3rd and 5th, but there must theoretically also be a 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th to the scale as well. We are simply pulling the 3rd and 5th from a scale in order to build the chord. 

In every major and minor scale there are seven notes that correspond to the seven letters we use of the musical alphabet: A - B - C - D - E - F - G 

Proper enharmonic spelling demands that each letter is assigned to one of the seven notes of the major or minor scale. What this means is that there must never be a situation in which there is a missing letter from a scale. In other words, you might have a D#, Db or D natural in a scale, but the letter D must be present somewhere. So too is the case with every other letter in every major and minor scale. 

In order to avoid having a missing letter within a scale, you must therefore avoid having a double letter. This means that there can’t be both a Gb and a G# in the same scale or key. 

The way this applies to last week’s lesson is that when naming the 3rd and 5th of the chords you build, it is important to think of the correct letter that matches that particular scale degree. 

What is the 3rd letter after C? Well, if I say every letter beginning with C I would end up with: C - D - E - F - G - A - B. 

When using a C root note, some sort of D will be the 2nd degree of the scale. Some type of E will be the 3rd, some type of F will be the 4th etc. 

This means that when looking for the m3 of C you must recognize that it’s a 3rd and therefore must be the third letter after C. This rules out the D# because D is obviously not the third letter after C. Since it must be an E then we must necessarily call it Eb. 

This works in every instance of major or minor harmony. Whenever you are dealing with a major or minor key, this will be the strategy used to determine what to call a specific letter. 

What is the M6 of B? Well in order to find out, you must count up 4 ½ steps from B. This puts you on a note that can be called either G# or Ab. Without even knowing the key signature of B or knowing whether it’s a sharp key or a flat key, you can figure this out. 

What is the 6th letter after B? 

B - C - D - E - F - G - A 

The 6th letter is G and since we want a Major 6th, we must call it a G#. An Ab wouldn’t work because A is the 7th of B, not the 6th. 

This works every single time and will allow you to correctly spell out chords and notes of a scale. I encourage you to try and put this into use by figuring out the notes within any major or minor chord. Find a chord progression you play and try naming the notes within each chord. 

Using enharmonic spelling while doing this will allow you to begin to see the fretboard in a much different and more effective way. Learning to “think within a key” is essential to playing fluently, and enharmonic spelling is the first and most important step in that journey. 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Max Rich 

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