The Key to Understanding Key Signatures: Note Teams

Why are some notes sharp or flat?

Before I taught piano, I never really thought about why some notes are sharp (♯) and others are flat (♭). I just followed the written notation like an instruction manual.

But as a piano teacher, I began to get questions from students and their parents:

  • Why is this note called C♯ and not D♭?
  • Why do we even have an E♯? Why don't we always call it F? 

As I began to think about and research these questions, I found a lot of information:

  • what a sharp or flat is  
  • which sharps or flats go in each key signature

But I never found a satisfying explanation of why we use sharps and flats. 

So I kept digging and pondering. 

Music as a Team Sport

As a mom of active boys, I wondered if there was a way to use sports to explain musical notation.  And so, Team StickeyTM was conceived. 

Team Stickey
Team Stickey, Copyright 2021 Attune Music and Math, LLC

The team has 7 players: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

Each player is assigned to 1 of 12 pitches as shown:

Pitches that are adjacent to each other are said to be separated by a "half step," while pitches that have one pitch between them are separated by a "whole step." Think of a player stepping from one circle to the next. 

  • To move to the very next circle, the player needs to step forward with only one foot (a half step). 
  • To move 2 circles away, he has to step forward with one foot (to land on the first circle), and then step forward again with the other foot to reach the second circle (a whole step).

The starting pitches are spaced such that:

  • C, D, and E are separated from each other by a whole step
    • F, G, A, and B are separated from each other by a whole step
    • The CDE group is adjacent to the FGAB group on both sides (B is a half step from C; E is a half step from F)

    Rules of Play

    Just like team sports assign each player to a position on the field (e.g., first base in baseball or striker in soccer), we assign each player to one of 7 positions: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

    The order and spacing between these positions is fixed: do, re, and mi are separated from each other by a whole step, as are fa, sol, la and ti. However, the positions can move relative to the pitches: do may be at any of the 12 pitches. 

    When C is on do, all the players occupy one of the positions without moving off their starting pitches:

    But if do moves to a different pitch, some of the players must move so that every position is occupied, following these rules:

    Rule 1: The 7 players must stay in alphabetical order.

    Rule 2: A player is only allowed to move one pitch to either side of his starting pitch. 

    • If he moves to a higher pitch (clockwise), then the player must add the suffix "♯" (read "sharp") to his name.
    • If he moves to a lower pitch (counterclockwise), then the player must add the suffix "♭" (read "flat") to his name.

      Forming a Note Team

      The Note Team Builder game is a printable resource that provides a hands-on experience of building Note Teams (and learning key signatures in the process). 

      To form a Note Team,

      1. Start each player on his assigned pitch.
      2. Rotate the solfa wheel until do is on the desired pitch.
      3. Determine which players need to move to make every solfa position occupied.
      4. Add the sharp or flat suffix to the names of players that moved. Hint: Every player that needs to move will move in the same direction, so a note team can have sharps or flats, but never both. 

      For example, if do is between C and D, only 2 of the players' starting positions will be on a solfa position. To keep all 7 notes on a solfa position, the other 5 players need to move down one pitch to become flat:

      The resulting Note Team has 2 naturals (C, F) and 5 flats (A♭, B♭, D♭, E♭, G♭). D♭ is do.

      There is one other way to move the players in the example above to make a Note Team. Can you figure it out? In this alternate solution, what player is do

      [For an interactive game to figure out the answer to this and other configurations, get the Note Team Builder game.]

      Key Signatures Define Note Teams 

      The key signature at the beginning of a score simply defines the players in the Note Team for that piece. 

      For example, if they key signature shows 1 sharp, you know one player is sharp (F♯) and the rest are natural (use the Zig-Zag of Fifths as a shortcut to know which players are sharp or flat for every key signature). 

      For measures following this key signature, any notes that would have been F will be F♯. The sharp symbol is not written in front of every F note because the Note Team has been defined: F is not part of the Note Team; F♯ is.  

      If you want to substitute F in for F♯, add a natural (♮) in front of the note. 

      Defining a key signature (or Note Team) up front simplifies the score by eliminating the need to write a sharp or flat symbol every time notes in the team are played. Instead, only changes to a team note are notated by placing a natural (♮), sharp (♯) or flat (♭) before the modified note.

      Note Teams also help the musician focus on only 7 of the 12 pitches, so he or she can more easily build chords and navigate playing a piece.

      Copyright 2021 Attune Music and Math, LLC

      Categories: : Key Signatures, Music Theory