Why Write B-Sharp Instead of C?

by Brian
(Durham, NC, USA)

I'm a retired pilot who took up the piano a few months ago. I have always loved piano music and it has always been a dream to learn to play but my work schedule was prohibitive. I want to play just for my own relaxation and to keep my mind actively challenged and learning to play has provided ample challenge.

I want to play the slower, simpler versions of some of the easier classical pieces and just started on Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Here is my question. When a B sharp is indicated is that really a C? When I do that is seems to sound okay. If so, why would he indicate a B sharp instead of a C natural(since all other C's are sharp).

Thanks for your time.


Maria’s Answer:

I am so happy to hear about your new hobby! The “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven should provide you with plenty of challenge and pleasure as well!

To quickly answer your first question; Yes, B sharp is the same key as C. (These notes are called enharmonic because they are written differently but sound the same.) To answer your second question we need to look in to some music theory!

The “Moonlight Sonata” is originally in C sharp minor. This tonality has 4 sharp signs as its “Key Signature” and those are written in the beginning of each staff.

Now, the minor scale has three variants, the Natural, the Harmonic and the Melodic minor scale. The Moonlight Sonata’s first and last movements are written in C sharp minor and use the “Harmonic” minor scale pattern.

In the Harmonic minor, the 7th step in the scale is raised as well, but this change is never written in the “key signature” but is written in the score whenever it is needed.

So, the raised seventh step counting up the Harmonic scale of C# minor is: 1.C#, 2.D#, 3.E, 4.F#, 5.G#, 6.A, 7.B# and back home to C#. See? The 7th step was B# (alias regular C).

So in this case Beethoven could not write the B# as a C natural, because that is not the 7th step!

I hope this helped!

Good Luck with your playing, and if you like to learn more about the theory behind the scale patterns, you could always check out some of my pages about scales here:

The Piano Scale

Printable Piano Scales

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Wondered myself...
by: Nikki

Thank you for your explanation. I've just recently undertaken learning this piece and I was wondering why a B note was noted in the sheet music but other tutorials showed a natural C being played. Thanks again; I understand it better now.

Thanks Maria
by: Brian

Obviously I have not gotten too deep into the scales yet but your answer confirms my suspicions. I have mastered all the major scales and I'm just beginning to work on the minor scales. There are so many it's a bit overwhelming, especially when you include blues scales. However, this is just another technical situation and, if taken in small pieces, eventually, it becomes second nature.

I find the similarities between learning to fly airplanes and learning to play piano to be quite interesting. Both are a combination of learning motor skills to the point where they are automatic responses and extensive technical data that has to be incorporated into the actual hands on part. I guess this is why I was so attracted to this pursuit as a replacement for flying.

This is a great thing you are doing for us beginners who are studying on their own. Eventually, I would like to engage a local teacher but I want to get my technical skills established first.

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