Enharmonic choices

Some sample questions:

  • Do I write this in C#-major or Db-major?
  • Do I write a C# or a Db at this point in the music?

There are many factors governing such choices. This page addresses some of them. The opinions here are the author's own, presented in the hope that they may be helpful when you come to weigh different factors when making your own choices.



Rising chromatic passages and falling chromatic passages

The often-quoted 'rule' is that rising passages should use sharps, falling chromatic passages should use flats. The reason is clear from an illustration:

The examples on the left, marked as a poor choice, require natural signs to cancel accidentals; those on the right, marked as a better choice, do not.

But there are other important considerations.

The vertical position of notes and slope of beams should, where possible, follow the pitch of the music

This is the main contention of this article. It makes the music so much clearer to read.

This is much more important than a misguided desire to avoid double sharps, double flats, and so on. (I say this because it is often the only apparent reason for some choices made in published music.)

In some cases this is uncontentious. Consider:

It is difficult to imagine any reason for writing the example on the left, with falling pitches represented by rising noteheads.

Yet published music is full of (not quite so egregious) cases which make the music more difficult to (sight) read than it need be. The remainder of this article gives cases found in the author's everyday saxophone-playing experience, and makes suggestions for better enharmonic choices which could have been made, following the principle above.

Examples found in published works, and suggested improvements

You're the cream in my coffee:

There's no need to avoid E#, B# or Fx, especiallly in Alto Sax parts for Big Band where sharp key signatures are commonplace.

Sleigh ride:

The G# G G# G G# passage is unnecessarily awkward to read. The pitch goes up and down; so should the notes!

Mr Success:

Again the alternating C and Cb just make things more difficult to (sight) read than if the Cb is replaced by B, so that the altitude of the note-heads follows the pitch.

Also from this publication a less clear-cut example:

I've preferred sharps in the rising triplets as there are sharps earlier in the bar (and in preceding bars) and it is almost (but not quite) like a rising chromatic scale where sharps are expected. However, if we look at a wider context:

then shortly afterwards there is a key change to four flats. Flats in the rising triplets may pressage this giving some warning. On the other hand, five bars rest should be enough to mentally accustom oneself to the new key, so I still prefer the sharps. This is a reminder, however, that there are often different considerations which should be weighed.

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