Why is there no B sharp? Odd as it may seem, B sharp (and E sharp as well) do exist; they’re precisely the same notes as C (and F for E sharp). This means that if you play a B sharp on sheet music, it will sound precisely the same as if you played a C.
You may have come across a musical staff labeled with notes on a chromatic scale.
The scale begins with a C and goes all the way up half-step at a time: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, and C. Looking at the piano keys, you’d notice the black keys sandwiched between two white keys, except between the keys B and C, and E and F.
And then, as you take a closer look, you begin to notice that the notes, if not all, have their corresponding sharps, but wait… where is the B sharp?
Why is it missing? Did it go out looking for E sharp—one that’s also missing?
What in a musical catastrophe is going on?
Tones and Semitones Explained
In the theory of Western music, there are 7 natural notes, which are named with the first 7 letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Each of these notes represents a distinct pitch.
Between these notes lie either a sharp or a flat. A sharp is defined as a halftone that is higher in pitch, while a flat is a halftone that is lower. Thus, in between two natural notes is both a sharp and a flat. For example, in between notes A and B is an A sharp and a B flat, which is halftone higher than A and halftone lower than B, respectively.
Semitones, also referred to as half-steps, are the distance in pitch from one natural note to another that might be either higher or lower in pitch. In fact, in Western Music Theory, the smallest distance between two notes is a semitone.
So, yes, you got it right—the sharps and flats we’ve talked about earlier are indeed fancier terms for specific semitones. Hence, A and A sharp or B and B flat are one semitone away from one another.
As mentioned earlier, there are 7 natural notes, but for these 7 notes there are only 12 semitones, so if you pair each of the semitones with a natural note, you’ll begin to realize that there would be two notes that would end up unpaired (Spoiler Alert: The unpaired notes might be B and E!).
But, Wait a Minute. Where is E Sharp, Too?
We have seen that B sharp along with E sharp are stuck in the same situation. But, oddly, you can see B sharps and E sharps written all over the place from key signatures to music sheets.
How is this possible if they don’t have distinct notes designated to them in the chromatic scale?
The most obvious reason is, both B and E sharps do exist. Unlike the other natural notes where the distance between two consecutive notes is one whole step, the distance between B and C, and E and F is only a half-step.
Western music is majorly diatonic in nature, meaning the smallest interval between two consecutive notes is only a half-step. This leaves no room for semitones between B and C, and E and F.
To visualize the concept further, let us delve at this example. The distance between the natural notes A and B is one whole step. A whole step is made up of two half-steps. So, moving a half-step up the scale, A will become A sharp. Going another half-step, you will produce B.
Now, in the case of natural notes B and C, the distance between their pitches is not that far. B is only a half-step below C. So, adding a half-step from B is B sharp, but we refer to this B sharp as C, instead. The same idea goes with E and F, which is only a half-step away from one another as well, hence E sharp is also F.
The Mystery of the Missing B Sharp
You’re still probably wondering where this music madness came from? Well, it roots all the way to the 7-Note Scale.
When music was just getting discovered and systematized, there were only seven notes, which were referred to a couple of times in this article as the natural notes. Early musicians thought that these 7 notes should be repeated in a progressive manner in order to produce the same notes but higher.
Thus, to get the natural note C with a higher pitch, you have to undergo six additional steps along the chromatic scale. We call these steps intervals.
Intervals of the chromatic scale are very uneven: full step, full step, half step, full step, full step, full step, half step. Yet, despite knowing the unevenness of the existing scale, modern musicians tolerated and kept it up to this day. Forcing the new music discoveries to work with the old music system, might be one of the chief reasons for the missing B sharp and E sharp.
If this is the case, why is it so hard to just get rid of the chromatic scale and create a 14-semitone scale?
One crucial characteristic of the chromatic scale that sets it apart from other scales is the trend that each note has as it progresses to a new octave. The frequency of the same note from one octave to another doubles while maintaining the same amplitude.
Oops… that sounded too technical.
Basically, if an F note from the 1st octave (C1) has a frequency of 174, an F note from the 2nd octave (C2) is expected to have a frequency of 378— twice of the first frequency. This trend applies to any note in the chromatic scale.
Hence, the addition of a 13th or 14th semitone will interrupt this pattern and will put the scale in a peculiar spot since the 1st note will sound similar to the 13th note but with a different note name.
Regardless, let us make it clear that B sharp and E sharp do exist despite not getting a special seat in the chromatic scale. In a piano, all the other sharps land on a black key, except for these two which are enharmonic to the white keys of C and F.
To further understand the underlying concepts regarding this mystery, you can watch this educational and comprehensive video:
The room is divided into two, one simply believes that B sharp and C or E sharp and F are the same notes with just different names, while the other begs to debunk the notion and advocates that these are indeed two different notes.
No matter what you choose to believe between the two, it just comes to show how music is flexible and is, to some extent, up for the individual’s own interpretation. The next time you see a B sharp missing, stop and take a closer look at which side of the room you are standing on.
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.