The Difference Between Sharps and Flats: Which One to Use?

This is a question I’ve been asked many times over the years.

the-difference-between-sharps-and-flatsF# and Gb are the same chord, we play them both in exactly the same way, so when should you call it “F#” and when should you call it “Gb”?

Sadly the answer to this is very complicated – we could quickly get lost in music theory here. (But don’t worry, we won’t!)

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Basically, there’s no simple answer to this question as it’s such a contextual issue. From a music theory perspective it is very difficult to implement a standardized ‘rule’ because of the complexity of the variables in music theory and composition.

  • Some people say you should choose either ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ depending on the key of the piece. In other words, choose ‘sharps’ if you’re playing in a key defined by sharps (such as G Major) or choose ‘flats’ in a key defined by flats (such as F Major).
  • Some people say you should pick based on what ‘direction’ your travelling. Eg, if you’re heading to a higher note you should use ‘sharp’ and if you’re heading to a lower note you should use ‘flat’.
  • Some people say you should pick so that the letter of the note only appears to be used once. (This isn’t always possible of course.) For example, a progression of G#, Gb, G looks more complicated than Ab, F#, G. (Do you agree that the chords seem more clearly ‘defined’ in the second example?)

So what’s the answer?

During your first few months of learning the guitar, just call everything ‘sharps’.

I’m strongly in favour of clarity and simplicity at all times. So I tell my beginner students to call everything ‘sharps’.

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I explain that the notes can also be called ‘flats’, of course, and then we simply call everything ‘sharps’. It works well. It accelerates students’ progress and spares them a lot of confusion and disorientation.

Music theory purists would cringe at that -and they’re entitled to their opinion- but I’ve seen first hand how much faster people learn music theory if you simplify the concepts.

If students progress to a more advanced stage and feel they want to understand the more complex music theory around ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’ context then there’s nothing stopping them and this early simplification won’t have held them back in any way. (Quite the opposite in fact.)

In the beginning just call all sharps and flats, ‘sharps’! 🙂

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