When I start teaching a new banjo, guitar or mandolin class, I first ask my students whether or not they know their alphabet. These students, many whom are adults, look at me with a bit of disdain, as though I just asked a question that is far beneath their level of intelligence. After all, we all learned our alphabet in kindergarten, didn’t we?. So they answer, “Yes .. we know our alphabet”. Be careful, I say. This is a trick question.
A to G
Say your alphabet real fast from “A” to “G”. Now say it backwards real fast from “G” to “A”. Going forwards was easy wasn’t it? Did you hesitate on the way backwards though? If you’re honest, you will say that you hesitated if not simply stopped between letters. You see, the majority of us never learned our alphabet going backwards.
Sharps (#) and Flats (b)
Now the good news. In music you only need to know the alphabet from “A” through “G”. There is no “H” note or beyond in music. Seems rather easy. The “not so good” news is that we throw in these notes called sharps and flats between most of the musical alphabet but not between every note. Why make it easy on you right? For the beginning music student, the musical alphabet just got a little complicated. The sharps and flats are known as enharmonics because they provide two letter names for one single note. The notes A through G are called natural notes and can best be remembered as all the white keys on the piano.
We don’t have an equal number of sharps (#) and flats (b) as we do natural notes (A through G). Think of your fretted instrument as though you were playing a piano. It is important that you remember which notes do not have sharps or flats between them. The answer is that “B” to “C’ and “E” to “F” do not have sharps and flats between them. Those are the same two sets of white keys that are next to one another on the piano. Let’s not forget though, that a fretted instrument doesn’t have keys but uses fret.
So there is your musical alphabet from A to G. Throw in the sharp and flats and you have twelve notes in all.