Accidental Symbols in Music

The Meaning of Accidental Symbols



Accidentals are a special symbol within music. These symbols appear within the actual lines and stanzas of the sheet of music to let the musician know when to slightly lower, slight raise, or play the note in its natural state. An accidental appears just before the note in which it affects.

As far back as the 1700’s accidentals have appeared on sheets of music to alter the key signature in specific places. When an accidental is placed with in the piece of music it affects the notes within the measure only. This means that all of the same note within a measure after the accidental has been placed, will be either lowered or raised by the same accidental. Once the measure ends, the note goes back to being played as the key signature specifies.

The accidental does not affect a note that is an octave different even if it is within the same measure that the accidental occurs. An accidental can continue over a bar line only if the notes are tied together.
There are three main types of accidentals: flats, sharps, and naturals. Flats are used to lower the note a semitone, sharps are used to raise the note a semitone, and naturals are used to indicate when a note that is either flattened or sharpened by the key signature (or immediately preceding accidental).


While it is understood that once the measure ends the note reverts back to what the key signature indicates it should be played as sometimes it can be a little confusing. That is why sometimes there are courtesy accidentals put in place. These accidentals allow the musician to know that the note has reverted back to whatever the key signature has indicated it should be. Courtesy accidentals are used sparely as it is understood that once a measure ends so does the change to the note.

There are such a thing as double accidentals, although these are rarely used. A double accidental either raises or lowers the note a whole step. For example an F with a double sharp on it is enharmonically equivalent to a G, a step higher than an F. On the reverse, for example, a B with a double flat on it would be enharmonically equivalent to an A, which is a step lower than a B. The same happens when an accidental is placed on a note that is already sharped or flattened by the key signature. If you place a flat accidental on B when the key signature already contains a B-flat the note would be enharmonically equivalent to an A.


Because sight reading music can be a taxing job, accidentals are used as sparingly as possible by the composer. Musicians have to be able to quickly read and interpret the notes based on the key signature and accidentals can be a stumbling block when learning a new piece of music but are often necessary to help the piece flow.