Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Key of C accidentals


happy birthday
happy birthday  
QUESTION: Hi Clare. I came across a happy birthday tune which was in the key of c major. So no sharps or flats.  But the piece has quite a few accidentals E flat, F sharp, G sharp.  

How can that be?, as it goes against the theory? I've attached a file to show.

ANSWER: Hello Sunny,

There are two types of notes in music: diatonic, which means they're found in the scale of whichever key your piece is in; and chromatic, which aren't.  Chromatic notes in a melody always resolve onto a diatonic note - they decorate it and make a simple melody more elaborate.  Chromaticism in the harmony make it richer and more complex.

"Happy Birthday To You" is a nursery tune composed for very young children so it needs to be as clear and simple as possible.  The melody is diatonic and can be harmonised with one chord per bar using the most elementary harmony - I V V I Ib IIb  and Ic V7 I at the end.  There's usually more than one way of harmonising a melody, though, and this arrangement's more elaborate, with a lot of diminished 7ths and a totally unnecessary modulation to the relative minor, hence the accidentals.  It's over-elaborate and the cadence in bars 5-6 is weak, so it's not particularly effective (and made me laugh when I read it), but it's not incorrect.

Hope this helps.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Dear Clare,

Thank you for your reply, more than happy to wait for an answer that i can understand well. I am not very advanced in understanding harmony, or theory, however have the basics of the circle of fifths, triad formation as you mentioned in your earlier.  Thanks for the distinction of chromatic...let me look it up further to see how it works within neutral keys like C and its relative Am.

Ok great! i see how the notation for inversion works, i'll be on the lookout when i get that far. Glad i asked, I thought it had to do more with the actual scale degrees which obviously it doesn't.

I do not however get how the introduction of G# modulates it to the relative minor being Am again with all neutral notes.  Is the G# then specifically the chromatic note in this piece? I'd really like to see after your pointing it out what connection and how the C key makes with it's relative minor Am.

Sorry for drawing this mail out so much.

Hello again Sunny, and thanks for being patient - my monitor died on me at the weekend so I was without a computer for three days.  These things are sent to try us.

The minor scale differs from the major scale in three places: the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are minor intervals rather than major ones.  BUT it is extremely important harmonically that the distance between the leading note and the tonic should be a semitone, so in the harmonic minor scale the 7th note of the scale is always sharpened and that sharp is never part of the key signature but always written as an accidental.

So if we contrast C major and C minor we can see the difference straight away: C D E F G A B C as opposed to C D Eb F G Ab would be Bb but we have to sharpen the leading note so Bnat C.  If you're writing a melody in C minor it has the usual three-flat key signature and you put all the B naturals in as accidentals.  They're not chromatic notes as they're part of the key.

Relative major/minor keys share the same key signature.  When you sightread the first thing you look at is the key signature, which tells you which two possible keys you're in, then you have a quick look through for accidentals - if you're in the minor key you'd expect to find the sharpened leading note by the end of the first phrase.  For example, you're sightreading a piece with three sharps in the key signature, so you instantly know you're either in A major or F# minor, but if you're in F# minor you'll expect to find E#s.  The process is that fast - it's all about thinking in the key and knowing your way around all 24 keys (major and minor).  "Remember, there's no such thing as a difficult key, just a key you haven't learnt about/practised well enough."

To be honest I don't think you're ready to learn about modulation yet - don't try to run before you can walk! - but since you've learnt about the cycle of 5ths you know that, in any given key, the three most closely related keys, and therefore the easiest to modulate to, are the dominant, subdominant and relative major/minor.  

In order to modulate you need the following: a) a pivot chord which is common to both the key you're leaving and the key you're moving to b) the dominant 7th of the new key c) its resolution (= perfect cadence) in the new key.  The new dominant 7th or new leading note will always have an accidental, so that's the first thing you look for if you're analysing harmony.  Say we're in C major (and I'll give this example in C major but don't get into the habit of only thinking in that key) we know the key signature's no sharps or flats, so if we start finding Bbs in a phrase we know we're modulating to the subdominant (F), if we find F#s we're modulating to the dominant (G), if we start finding G#s we're modulating to the relative minor (A min) and so on.  I've said "we're modulating" because we don't actually get there until that perfect cadence.

Hope this helps.

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


57 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 42 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 45 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 20 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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