Why Is There No B Sharp Or E Sharp?

When we first start learning an instrument or music theory, one of the questions that come to our mind is why we jump from a ‘B’ note to a C and not a B sharp or a C flat instead. The same is also applicable when going from an E to an F.

So why does this happen? Let us take a look:

Notes In Western Music Theory

No matter what instrument or genre of music you play, there are 7 natural notes in music. These are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. These represent different pitches and have individual and unique sounds.

In between these natural notes, there are 5 additional notes. These are called flats or sharps.

A sharp is a halftone that is higher in pitch. A flat is a halftone that is lower in pitch. So, in between A and B, there is an A-sharp, also known as a B-flat. 

Thus, in music, the twelve notes are A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, G, and G#.

Why Are Some Of The Notes Different?

In a standard musical scale of 7 notes, the notes do not divide equally between the 12 semi-tones or half-steps. 

While ‘A’ and ‘B’ are one whole step apart, ‘B’ and ‘C’ have only a half-step between them. The same applies to ‘E’ and ‘F’ as well. 

An easy way to understand this is by looking at the notes on a piano. Unlike other natural notes, there are no black keys between B and C; E and F. So while ‘A’ to ‘B’ is 2 semi-tones, ‘B’ to ‘C’ or ‘E’ to ‘F’ is just one. 

What Is A Semitone?

A semitone is the distance in pitch between a note and the next note, that is higher or lower in pitch. These are also called half-steps. 

In Western music theory, a semitone is the smallest interval between two notes.

One of the simplest scales, the Chromatic scale, uses all 12 semi-tones. The notes are A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, and G#.

Why Is There No B# and E# On Instruments?

The simplest answer is because these instruments were designed keeping in mind the theories of Western music, where there isn’t much room for these notes. 

There are 12 notes in each octave which occupy different frequencies. These are evenly distributed. 

  • A- 440Hz
  • A#- 466Hz
  • B- 496Hz
  • C- 523Hz
  • C#- 554Hz
  • D- 587Hz
  • D#- 622Hz
  • E- 659 Hz
  • F- 698 Hz
  • F#- 740 Hz
  • G- 784 Hz
  • G#- 831Hz
  • A- 880 Hz

Here, the second ‘A’ represents a higher octave.

Incorporating B# and E# in standard instruments would thus disrupt this equal spacing of the notes.

Can We Play A B# and E#?

While changing the way musical instruments such as guitars and pianos are designed is a mammoth task, you could, in theory, play a B# and E# when playing certain scales. It depends on what you use as the tonic.

Is There A B# and E#?

B# and E# do exist, but these would sound out of tune to us. When we tune our instruments, they are usually at a standard A440 Hz tuning. This means that all the 12 semi-tones are pleasant to the ears. If we were to generate a sound at B# or E#, to put it simply, it would not sound all that great. 

Since are ears are attuned to a standard tuning, incorporating a B# or E# would make the note sound out of tune, even if it wasn’t.

Summary

There are two schools of thought. One believes that a B# is simply a C and an E# is an F. The other is of the opinion that these two are not the same things.

While there is not a room for addition in Western music, musicians have found themselves drawn to other music theory, such as Indian Classical music, which focusses on microtones and their relationship with time cycles. 

If you too are interested in exploring these intricate semitones and time signatures, then you can start by listening to a record by sitar-legend Ravi Shankar. Here is an example below:

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