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In modern musical notation and tuning, an enharmonic equivalent is a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently. Thus, the enharmonic spelling of a written note, interval, or chord is an alternative way to write that note, interval, or chord. For example, in twelve-tone equal temperament (the currently predominant system of musical tuning in Western music), the notes C and D are enharmonic (or enharmonically equivalent) notes. Namely, they are the same key on a keyboard, and thus they are identical in pitch, although they have different names and different roles in harmony and chord progressions.

In other words, if two notes have the same pitch but are represented by different letter names and accidentals, they are enharmonic.[1] "Enharmonic intervals are intervals with the same sound that are spelled differently...[resulting], of course, from enharmonic tones."[2]

Prior to this modern meaning, "enharmonic" referred to relations between notes that were very close in pitch, such as F and a flattened note such as G, and with the interval between them smaller than the smallest step of a diatonic scale, but for which the pitches were not exactly identical,[3] as in enharmonic scale. "Enharmonic equivalence is peculiar to post-tonal theory."[4] "Much music since at least the 18th century, however, exploits enharmonic equivalence for purposes of modulation and this requires that enharmonic equivalents in fact be equivalent."[5]

The notes F and G are enharmonic equivalents.
E and F, however, are not enharmonic equivalents, because E is enharmonic with F.
Gdouble sharp and Bdouble flat are enharmonic equivalents, both the same as A.
Enharmonically equivalent key signatures of B and C major, each followed by its respective tonic chord

Some key signatures have an enharmonic equivalent that represents a scale identical in sound but spelled differently. The number of sharps and flats of two enharmonically equivalent keys sum to twelve. For example, the key of B major, with 5 sharps, is enharmonically equivalent to the key of C-flat major with 7 flats, and 5 (sharps) + 7 (flats) = 12. Keys past 7 sharps or flats exist only theoretically and not in practice. The enharmonic keys are six pairs, three major and three minor: B major/C-flat major, G-sharp minor/A-flat minor, F-sharp major/G-flat major, D-sharp minor/E-flat minor, C-sharp major/D-flat major and A-sharp minor/B-flat minor. There are practically no works composed in keys that require double sharping or double flatting in the key signature. In practice, musicians learn and practice 15 major and 15 minor keys, three more than 12 due to the enharmonic spellings.

Enharmonic tritones: A4 = d5 on C About this sound Play .

For example the intervals of a minor sixth on C, on B, and an augmented fifth on C are all enharmonic intervals About this sound Play . The most common enharmonic intervals are the augmented fourth and diminished fifth, or tritone, for example C-F = C-G.[1]

Enharmonic equivalence is not to be confused with octave equivalence, nor are enharmonic intervals to be confused with inverted or compound intervals.

Tuning enharmonics[edit]

In principle, the modern musical use of the word enharmonic to mean identical tones is correct only in equal temperament, where the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones. In other tuning systems, however, enharmonic associations can be perceived by listeners and exploited by composers.[6]


Main article: Pythagorean tuning

In Pythagorean tuning, all pitches are generated from a series of justly tuned perfect fifths, each with a frequency ratio of 3 to 2. If the first note in the series is an A, the thirteenth note in the series, G, will be higher than the seventh octave (octave = ratio of 1 to 2, seven octaves is 1 to 27 = 128) of the A by a small interval called a Pythagorean comma. This interval is expressed mathematically as:

\frac{\hbox{twelve fifths}}{\hbox{seven octaves}}
=\left(\tfrac32\right)^{12} \!\!\bigg/\, 2^{7}
= \frac{3^{12}}{2^{19}}
= \frac{531441}{524288}
= 1.0136432647705078125
\approx  23.46 \hbox{cents}


Main article: Meantone temperament

In 1/4 comma meantone, on the other hand, consider G and A. Call middle C's frequency x. Then high C has a frequency of 2x. The 1/4 comma meantone has just (i.e., perfectly tuned) major thirds, which means major thirds with a frequency ratio of exactly 4 to 5.

In order to form a just major third with the C above it, A and high C need to be in the ratio 4 to 5, so A needs to have the frequency

\frac {8x}{5} = 1.6 x. \!

In order to form a just major third above E, however, G needs to form the ratio 5 to 4 with E, which, in turn, needs to form the ratio 5 to 4 with C. Thus the frequency of G is

\left(\frac{5}{4}\right)^2x = \left(\frac{25}{16}\right)x = 1.5625 x

Thus, G and A are not the same note; G is, in fact 41 cents lower in pitch (41% of a semitone, not quite a quarter of a tone). The difference is the interval called the enharmonic diesis, or a frequency ratio of \frac{128}{125}. On a piano tuned in equal temperament, both G and A are played by striking the same key, so both have a frequency 2^\frac{8}{12}x = 2^\frac{2}{3}x \approx 1.5874 x. Such small differences in pitch can escape notice when presented as melodic intervals. However, when they are sounded as chords, the difference between meantone intonation and equal-tempered intonation can be quite noticeable, even to untrained ears.

One can label enharmonically equivalent pitches with one and only one name; for instance, the numbers of integer notation, as used in serialism and musical set theory and employed by the MIDI interface.

Enharmonic genus[edit]

In ancient Greek music the enharmonic was one of the three Greek genera in music in which the tetrachords are divided (descending) as a ditone plus two microtones. The ditone can be anywhere from 16/13 to 9/7 (3.55 to 4.35 semitones) and the microtones can be anything smaller than 1 semitone.[7] Some examples of enharmonic genera are

1. 1/1 36/35 16/15 4/3
2. 1/1 28/27 16/15 4/3
3. 1/1 64/63 28/27 4/3
4. 1/1 49/48 28/27 4/3
5. 1/1 25/24 13/12 4/3

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Benward & Saker (2003). Music in Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.7 & 360. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p.54.
  3. ^ Louis Charles Elson (1905) Elson's Music Dictionary, p.100. O. Ditson Company. "The relation existing between two chromatics, when, by the elevation of one and depression of the other, they are united into one".
  4. ^ Don Michael Randel, ed. (2003). "Set theory", The Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.776. Harvard. ISBN 9780674011632.
  5. ^ Don Michael Randel, "Enharmonic", The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), p.295. ISBN 978-0-674-01163-2.
  6. ^ Rushton, Julian (2001). "Enharmonic", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 0-19-517067-9.
  7. ^ C. André Barbera, "Arithmetic and Geometric Divisions of the Tetrachord", Journal of Music Theory 21, no. 2 (Autumn 1977): 294–323. Citations on 296, 299, 302–304, 307–309, 311–13, 315–19.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mathiesen, Thomas J. 2001. "Greece, §I: Ancient". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Morey, Carl. 1966. "The Diatonic, Chromatic and Enharmonic Dances by Martino Pesenti". Acta Musicologica 38, nos. 2–4 (April–December): 185–89.

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of enharmonic at Wiktionary