Sunday, October 6, 2013

The difference between D sharp and E flat

Anyone that works with me knows that I am a nerd about...everything. But especially note spelling. Sharps vs flats, etc. And I always come off as pedantic or as an asshole. Usually the latter. For me it's simple:

1) Is it correct spelling in the context of the harmony/key? (The key is E major. No, that is NOT an A flat minor chord.)
2) Does the note choice facilitate easier reading melodically? (Reading C sharp to E flat kinda sucks.)
3) Some combination/give-and-take of 1 and 2.

But that's not always enough. These are not heard examples. Those cases are fine on paper, but what about sound? Who cares if we call a D sharp a D sharp or an E flat?

Tonight I heard a great example. It's actually a great, familiar example of a number of things. And it helps that the verses and chorus are the same harmonically.

Radiohead, "Creep"

This song has two classic pop/rock harmony cliches:

-a major three chord (III) that moves to IV
-a IV chord that becomes minor (iv)

And here's where I can talk a bit about the difference between D sharp and E flat. The guitar plays different broken arpeggios of the following:

The chromatic line D, D#, E, Eb, is quite plain. And even out of context that makes sense: the non-diatonic note is spelled with a sharp ascending, flat descending.

But for nerdy/pedantic/asshole purposes that is not enough. Context is most important. In the key of G major, a chord built on the third scale degree is B major. Obviously. And a chord built on the fourth scale degree with a flatted third is C minor. Yes. Ok.

But beyond that...what is the difference between a D sharp as part of a B chord and an E flat as part of a C chord?

It's possible that not everyone hears this the way I do, and maybe it seems really obvious,, I hesitate to say this word...the psychological effect of the D sharp is so very different from the E flat. I find this terribly profound. In equal temperament, these two pitch classes are the same. Yet within the contexts of B major and C minor triads, they mean such different things.

Just listen to the song, and listen carefully for that chromatic line. It's the harmonic and emotional backbone. Doesn't the D sharp sound bright? It "lifts." While the E flat is so dark. It really pulls down to the D, which is part of the G chord.

Again, maybe it's obvious. I know it's all mind tricks. Centuries of cultural conditioning. But still.

Am I over-talking this point? Eh. But I find it so interesting. And it's all tied to note spelling and context. So there. I may be pedantic AND an asshole. But sometimes I'm right.


  1. I couldn't agree more with this post. And it reminds me of another of my music theory pet peeves. It irks me to no end to hear a teacher tell a student that a triad (or seventh chord, or ninth chord, etc.) is a series of "stacked thirds" even going to the point of saying the third of a major triad is a major third above the root and (wait for it) the fifth is a minor third above the third. The relationship of each note of the chord to it's root is of the utmost importance, far great than it's relationship to any other note in the harmony. Plenty of fodder there for a rant...another day!

  2. Hey man call it whatever you want but the real question should be, "DOES IT FRIGGIN SHRED, GUY? HUH? DOES IT?"

    That's the question.

    And the answer is...nay. It doth not shred.

    And as far as cords go - I don't know what triads mean that's all like science or something - but you only need two notes. The route note and the one up above it that makes a power cord. It's actually harder to play than all those fancy jazz cords (aka wussy cords). I mean even that Jango guy couldn't do it. Maybe it was because he was always trying to show off by only using his first two fingers. Anyone who watches James Hetfield knows you have to use yer pointy finger and your ring finger. But whatever...get a grip, Jango. Seriously.

    But if I have to choose I'm going with D sharp because it's sharp and sharp things are pointy and I like pointy things. Flat things are soft and wimpy and some girls are flat and I don't like that. I like Madonna she used to be pointy.