Accidentals needn’t be difficult if they are approached in a simple and child friendly way.
When introducing sharps and flats I start by asking the child if they’d like to know the secret of the black notes and why they are so useful. This normally pricks their curiosity and gets them onside. This also demonstrates how black notes are needed when you play different scales. It also introduces the idea of playing in different key signatures. Don’t try to teach both sharps and flats in one lesson, as it can be a bit overwhelming. It’s best to introduce them one at a time or as they appear in the different pieces that they are learning.
Understanding Accidentals: Sharps
A sharp raises a note by one step or half tone higher.
Sharpen Up! How to Introduce Sharps
- Start with the scale of C major and point out that this is the only scale that is made up of entirely white notes.
- Demonstrate this by asking the child to choose a different white note to start on and to continue to play up a scale of the next consecutive eight white notes, and see how it doesn’t sound right.
- Explain that this is because it doesn’t have the same sized steps between the notes. Make sure they know that one step up or down to the next note is a half tone or semitone and that a whole tone is made of two half tones or next to each other and so it’s a hop over the white or black note in between.
- Point out that the correct pattern of tones and semitones for a major scale is T T S T T T S where T stands for tone and S stands for semitone. Stress that this pattern holds the answer to all major scales.
- At this point children are often fascinated that the black keys have become so useful, so let them experiment by ear and see if they can make a scale by listening and working out each note as they go.
- Explain that one step or semitone up is expressed in music with a sharp sign. Point out that that this is written in front of the note it belongs to. So an F with a sharp in front of it becomes F sharp (they will recognise the sign as a hashtag!).
- Sharps which appear in front of a note are called accidentals. When they are written at the beginning of the music after the clef, they become the key signature.
- Play a little guessing game by asking them to play lots of different sharp notes at random.
- Let them practice writing some sharps on some manuscript paper. Stress that it is really important the sharp sign is placed exactly in front of the note it belongs to.
Understanding Accidentals: Flats
A flat lowers the note by one step or half tone.
Flatten down! How to Introduce Flats
- You should approach the introduction of flats in exactly the same way as sharps. Just be sure to allow enough time for the child to absorb the new information and time to be able to make practical sense of it on the piano or keyboard.
- This time demonstrate with the key of F major. Ask the child to try to play the F major scale without any black notes, to hear how it would sound. Now demonstrate playing the scale including the B flat instead of a B natural.
- Explain that a flat does the same job as a sharp only in the other direction. So instead of raising the note it lowers the note by one semitone.
- Flats which appear in front of a note are called accidentals, when they are written at the beginning of the music after the clef, they become the key signature.
- Play a little guessing game this time by finding all the different flat notes.
- Let them practice writing some flats on some manuscript paper. Stress that it is really important the flat sign is placed exactly in front of the note it belongs to.
- F major would be a good scale to put this into practice.
Understanding Accidentals: Naturals
A Natural cancels the sharp or flat.
Naturals cancel! How to Introduce Naturals
The natural sign cancels out the sharp or flat, restoring the note to it’s original state again.