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Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Determining the # of sharps or flats in a song



How do I know how many sharps or flats are in a song Iím writing on the piano when I write it out by hand on sheet music? I'm getting confused because some notes I'm writing are accidentals. Meaning there a part of the song but are not mainly repeated sharp or flat notes like the others through out.


ANSWER: Hello Sterling, and thanks for being patient.

You need to identify what key you're in and that will give you its key signature, so start by learning the cycle of fifths and major scales.  I wrote about them in detail here:  Then include minor scales:

Accidentals enable you to change key, either passing through the new key or modulating to it.  I explain that here and also say a bit more about minor scales:

Normally when you're learning to compose you stick to diatonic notes - leave chromaticisms until you're a bit surer of what you're doing.  

Hope this helps.

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

QUESTION: Thanks for replying back Clare. Do you know if a music composition software will tell an Pianist who many sharps or flats are in their song when they play it plugged into their labtop computer? If so what program do you recommend?


Hello again Sterling,

I'm sorry but I don't know anything about composition software - the only tools I use for composition are manuscript paper and a pencil.  I'm confused by your question, though - if you're the composer the first thing you establish is your home key so as you think in it.  If you're not thinking in the key what are you doing?  Coming up with random chords that sounds nice?  That's not a composition, that's musical gibberish.  If you're going to compose you need an understanding of how music "works" - it's the difference between picking up a few phrases in a foreign language and learning the language properly. If you don't acquire a complete grasp of the grammar and syntax you'll never progress beyond baby talk.

I've already said, and it's a point that bears repeating, that it's the relationship between chords that is all important, not their pitch, and in order to determine their relationship you need to know the key.  Gmaj followed by Cmaj tells me nothing.  If I know we're in C major then the relationship is V I = a perfect cadence, which behaves like a full stop at the end of a phrase.  If I know we're in G major then the relationship is I IV, which is incomplete so we're clearly moving somewhere.  Without being told the key, I have no way of knowing which it is and nor would a computer program.  

If you don't know Chinese, there's no use my giving you an English-Chinese dictionary and asking you to write me a couple of paragraphs in Chinese. You won't end up with grammatically correct, well-written prose; at worst you'll have gibberish and at best you'll have pidgin - odd words strung together in an incorrect order that overall make a vague kind of sense. The same goes for music. It's not a branch of mathematics, but a language with its own grammar and syntax which you need to understand before you try to compose.

There are no "tips or tricks" to acquiring a sound knowledge of music theory - you've just got to knuckle down and learn it. You study theory to recognise the "tools" of music when you see them written down, but you should also study aural to recognise them when you hear them, which is vitally important. You start off by recognising intervals and reproducing them by singing them back, and you gradually progress to triads, cadences, modulations etc. The aim of all this is to enable you to develop inner hearing as *you must be able to hear internally every single note you read or write*. When you compose, do so away from an instrument - hear it in your head, write down what you hear and then try playing it to see how accurate your internal hearing was. Faffing around at the keyboard in the vague hope that you'll hit on something that sounds okay isn't going to get you very far.

It's like trying to design a bridge. If you've got a good idea for something that looks imposing and decorative, then by all means get out paper and crayons and draw it. But if you want it to do what it's supposed to do, ie bear traffic, then you've got to study construction engineering.  

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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