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Editors!  Love 'em and . . .

Anyway, I'd like to canvass the crowd.  In my upcoming story, which'll probably begin airing in a week or so depending on the tides and trade winds, there is a bit of musical content.  I'm currently in negotiations with an editor who doesn't like how I've written something.  I, of course, am pretty sure I'm right.  He's pretty sure I'm not.

So I'd like to see a show of hands here.  Tell me what's right, or wrong, with the following sentence:

Why is the sound of the note f-sharp so dissonant when it intrudes on the melody of a piece that is written in the key of F-major?

Anyone, please.  What I'm looking for isn't a critique of the musical content.  I'm looking more at the English involved.


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The note name should always be capitalized.  Musicians would write F#, but I guess there's no harm in spelling out sharp.  Normally one does NOT see hyphens as in F-sharp or F-major.

So I would write:

Why is the sound of the note F# so dissonant when it intrudes on the melody of a piece that is written in the key of F major? 

And of course the answer is that F# falls outside the diatonic scale for F major, known as the Ionian mode.

If you're still worried about non-musical types comprehending what's going on, you could add an explanatory parenthetical:

Why is the sound of the note F# (F sharp) so dissonant when it intrudes on the melody of a piece that is written in the key of F major?

A note like F# in an F major piece would be referred to as a "passing tone," which is legal to play on one's way to something else.  It creates tension and wants to resolve to something that relieves the tension (here, most likely, F or G).  

Note that if you cycled between F and F# a few times at the bass end of  the spectrum, you would have the iconic musical theme from "Jaws."


Addendum:  I realized I should provide some actual basis for saying that the F (meaning the note or key) should always be capitalized.  The reason is that a lower-case f refers to the dynamic marking "forte" which means "strong" (loud).  Those markings (such as "p" for "piano," or soft, :"mf" for "mezzo forte" medium loud, etc.) are always lower case, generally in a bold italic font.

No doubt way more than you ever wanted to know.


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No, actually it was a bit amusing.   Especially the reason you have for us to capitalize the f in f-sharp: so no one would confuse it with a forte marking.  That is real imagination there.  I love that.  You'll note the f is stated as a note, not a dynamics marking.  But you get full marks for the explanation.  Marvelous in it's conception!

Now, as for your opening statement:  The note name should always be capitalized.  That's what I'd like to see an explanation for.  An authoritative one.



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Capitalization is simply the musical standard for the name of any given note.  It probably falls under the same category as "Why is there Air?". It's just the common form.

Chords, on the other hand, can be represented via UPPER CASE LETTERS or ROMAN NUMERALS (a MAJOR chord) and lower case (a minor chord). ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Manual_of_Style/Music#Capitalization )

As for your "sharp" notation, btw, the 'pound' sign is oft used but technically incorrect. The musical sharp is character U+266F and is basically the 'pound' sign tilted back into the vertical position. On the Character Map for Times New Roman it's about 80% down the list, alongside the playing card suit markings.

Rutabaga does a great job with passing tones, so for simplification purposes, I might suggest swapping out "Why is the sound of the note F# (F sharp) so dissonant..." for "Why does the F-sharp sound so dissonant when it intrudes on an F-major chord?"

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That link to Wikipedia is great!  Thanks.  I didn't  know that page existed.

I reread how I answered Rutabaga above, and what I meant to be humorous seems a bit snarky on review, so I apologize if it came across that way.

And, to clarify, the sentence I gave in my original question was not a sentence I was using in my story.  It was a test sentence to check conventions.  I would hope I wouldn't include such an awkward combination of words in a posted story!

Thanks for your help, guys.




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I have done some research and have further information, but let me preface it all by saying that I have been reading and playing music since I began piano lessons at age 5, and 60 years later I'm still going strong, playing bass semi-professionally (which means it is not my sole means of support, but the work is at pro level).  In all this time, I have never seen the note or key names presented in lower case.  I have worked from at least hundreds and probably thousands of scores and charts in this time.

Researching the question, I found a number of sources that are guides for academics writing about music, or people preparing Symphony concert programs, or students submitting research papers on music.  These in turn cite published books which I do not have nor have I access to them. 

The consensus for formal music writing seems to be as follows:

1.  The names of notes and the names of keys are always upper case.

2.  If a key is minor, it is written as <  C minor  > with no hyphen.

3.  If a note is altered by an accidental (sharp or flat), it is written with a hyphen.and with "sharp" or "flat spelled out -- e.g., B-flat or C-sharp.

4.  Things only get fuzzy when we talk about the names of chords, which is not something your example touched on.  Clearly the majority rule is to use capital letters for all chord names, and to modify those letters if necessary to denote (for example) minor chords.  Thus, G major is simply shown as "G" whereas G minor is shown as Gm or G- (minus sign).  But there is a minority, apparently, that believes minor chord names should be shown as lower case letters (i.e., D minor = d).  I cannot imagine anything more confusing to a working musician, and as I say, I have never seen it in the field.  In any case, this issue is separate from your inquiry.

Based on my research, your specimen sentence would read:

Why is the sound of the note F-sharp so dissonant when it intrudes on the melody of a piece that is written in the key of F major?

My computer is starting to act up.  I'll come back later and add a link or two to the sources I looked at.


P.S. -- I participate in several online discussion groups for musicians, and those groups always use the pound sign for sharp and a lower case b for flat, even though those are not strictly speaking the "official" characters.  Immense amounts of discussions among pro musicians take place with these substitutes, and no one has a second thought about it.

UPDATE:  Some links:




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I too have been around music all my life, and for me that's over 70 years!  Way too long.  But, in all that time, playing professionally in shows and concerts and as an amateur in chamber groups and all sorts of ensembles, the way musical notation is written in proper usage just isn't something I've have much involvement it.  In scores, yes.  In fiction, no.  We learn how to play the instrument, and then how to play it musically, and then we participate.  What most of us don't do is write about it.  So this was entering a new realm for me.

What I've seen in the restricted reading I've done is pitches and note designations written in lower case, chords and key signatures written in caps.  Evidently, that isn't the formal way of doing it.  But most musicians aren't writers, and so if they do write about it, they don't necessarily do so correctly.  I like to be correct when I write, which is why I brought this up in the first place.

Like James, I love learning new stuff, and I've learned something here.  How much I'll ever use it, who knows?  But it's great finding it out.  I greatly appreciate the input here.  






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  • 1 month later...

As a scientist (a physicist) I greatly enjoyed this thread too, partly because the subject matter was interesting and partly because for most scientists things start and end with notation... If you get the notation wrong then your work becomes totally incomprehensible to other scientists. Quantum mechanics in Dirac notation is a thing of simplistic beauty... so there!


My own musical education started at 6yo and ended at six and a half when I moved away from a city school to one up in the mountains. At six we were being taught stave notations and how to get rhythm from the length of notes... does tiffatuffee ring any bells? The Christmas carol we were learning that year was "In the deep mid-winter"... at six.


I missed that school. When I left I promised the headmistress that I would let the school know how I got on... It took me sixty five years to keep the promise.


My religious years (9-13) have left me with a love of the liturgy and choral music of the Anglican church combined with no interest at all in religion :-)


Nothing at secondary school? For some reason our music master managed to combine being a significant composer (who had eight pages in Groves last time I looked) with an almost total inability to connect (with me at least).

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  • 1 month later...
On 3/4/2017 at 7:55 PM, Rutabaga said:

 ... always use the pound sign for sharp and ...

[Snark mode ON]
I dispute that the octothorpe is a proper "pound sign." (And I'm not even British. Is it really true, as I have heard, that the British celebrate Thanksgiving on July 4?)

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2 hours ago, PeterSJC said:

I dispute that the octothorpe is a proper "pound sign." (And I'm not even British. Is it really true, as I have heard, that the British celebrate Thanksgiving on July 4?)

From a Google search resulting in a link to the Oxford Living Dictionaries:

"...In North American English, the # symbol is sometimes called the pound sign and used as a symbol for pounds weight: this can be confusing for British people for whom a pound sign is £. It's also known as the number sign in North American English, in contexts such as go to question #2. ..."

Colin  :icon_geek:


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While I love the idea that the Brits would set our Independence Day for their Thanksgiving celebration, it is far more likely they would commemorate the surrender at Yorktown (October 19, 1781) as the day of their relief.

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Here are a few facts to sort a few things out:

Thanksgiving is called Harvest Festival in Britain and is celebrated on the Sunday closest to the full (harvest) moon of the Autumn (Fall) Equinox, 22 September - it originates as a pagan festival.

The # has come into being to represent - number - as in #3 meaning number 3, but it is much more common in Britain that this would be written as No. 3. Obviously as an abbreviation of the word - number - this is odd, but traces it origins back to the original French - nombre - meaning number, and hence No. as an abbreviation.

80% of English originates from French, but in Britain, unlike in America, when the pronunciation changed the spelling did not follow, hence in Britain and America we say - center, but in British English it is still spelt as in French - centre.

Pounds - interesting: the £ symbol everyone knows means pounds sterling, like the $ and the €. When it comes to weight, then one pound is 1lb, but don't tell a British person you weigh 140 lbs, because they will look at you with a blank expression and understand nothing. In Britain 14lbs equal 1 stone, so you weigh 10 stones. For the rest of Europe you will need to convert that to kilos!


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