How to Spell Right ... er, Write Correctly -

How to Spell Right ... er, Write Correctly

“A SYNONYM IS A WORD YOU USE WHEN you can’t spell the word you first thought of,” said Burt Bacharach.
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“A SYNONYM IS A WORD YOU USE WHEN you can’t spell the word you first thought of,” said Burt Bacharach. The hugely successful songwriter knows what he is talking about when it comes to music, lyrics, and double meanings, or double entendre as our French friends might say. The musical equivalent of a synonym is called an enharmonic. A tone that is written more than one way is an enharmonic equivalent. For example: C# is the enharmonic equivalent of Db, and Cb is the enharmonic equivalent of B.

This month, we’ll look at enharmonic spellings of notes, and play through some useful arpeggio exercises in the process. First, let’s learn a four-chord progression, and then look at different ways to notate some of the pitches enharmonically. Ready? Hold on to your, uh … instrument.

Example 1 presents a finger-busting trip through several arpeggios. The pleasant- sounding C6 is often used instead of a major triad or a major 7 chord. You will recognize the sound of the major 6 chord from countless blues, rockabilly, and R&B bass lines. It is a good arpeggio to outline if you are not quite sure if the chordal instruments are playing the dominant 7th or major 7th.

After running up and down the C6, one note changes—the 3rd (E) moves to Eb, making the arpeggio a Cm6. In bar 5, another note changes—the G moves to Gb, creating a Cdim7 arpeggio. Diminished chords are volatile; they are tension-filled and demand movement. The cycle continues in bar 7 with the note A moving to Ab. This builds an Ab7 arpeggio, but since we are still starting on C, it is notated Ab7/C. The dominant sound of the Ab7 leads into the Db6 in bar 9, and the cycle repeats itself: Db6, Dbm6, Dbdim7, A7/C#.

If your fingers hold out, you can move through all 12 keys up the neck. Or, you can break the exercise into just a few keys at a time to keep your hands and brain cells from overheating.

Let’s investigate an important theoretical and notational aspect of this exercise. Notice the Fb in bar 5. Why, you ask, would anyone of sound mind use an Fb, when it is exactly the same pitch as E? Why not just use an E, as shown in Ex. 2? We have enough problems just reading music, and now here is an Fb staring up from the page.

Fb is not commonly seen in music notation, but it is the correct spelling of the tone that corresponds with a Db minor scale or chord. The notes E and Fb are the same pitch, and they are enharmonic equivalents. They are the same sound, but they are spelled or notated differently depending on the key of the song or the particular chord that is being played. Arrangers and copyists often use the exact enharmonic tone that corresponds with a key or chord. The note E is not found in a Db minor scale, so the pitch is correctly notated as Fb. There are many exceptions, and you might see the note E written, even when the note Fb would be more theoretically correct.

The same principle applies to the notes Abb and Cbb, which are double flats. Notice in bar 13 of Ex. 1 that the Dbdim7 arpeggio uses Db, Fb, Abb, and Cbb. The note A, when lowered by two half-steps, becomes an Abb. Abb is the enharmonic equivalent of G—they are the same pitch.

The note C, lowered by two half-steps, yields a Cbb, which is the enharmonic equivalent of Bb. In classical music and modern jazz, you’ll often see enharmonic writing— double-sharps and double-flats that correspond precisely to the key signature or chord/scale sound. Sometimes on basic lead sheets, the arranger or composer will use the simplest possible notation, foregoing the theoretically correct enharmonic spelling (as in Ex. 3). You should understand and be able to play both.

In Ex. 1, bar 15, the line uses C# instead of Db (the enharmonic equivalent), because the A7/C# arpeggio is leading into the D6 in bar 17. To get a handle on enharmonic spelling, transpose and write out the next ten key centers, making sure all of your enharmonic spellings correspond to the chord symbols. That’s 160 bars of music, but in the end you will have a masterful command of enharmonic notation!

It is important to understand enharmonic equivalents so you can write music and communicate your musical thoughts. However, how your music sounds is most important. Learn these four arpeggios all over the bass, and you’ll have a useful arsenal of harmonic material always at the ready.

John’s newest release, The Innkeeper’s Gun, is out now. Also check out John’s other recent releases as bandleader, The Visit and Space for the Bass [all on Bass Lion]. He is the author of The Jazz Bass Book [Backbeat Books] and Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist [Aebersold Jazz]. For more info, visit his webpage at



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