Placement of accidentals in chords

Introduction

Most of us are quite comfortable writing accidentals next to a single note – you just place it to the left of the note, right? But what happens when we have not one but two, three, or more notes with accidentals, like in a chord? What is the correct way to line up the accidentals here? If this is what you’re wondering, you are in the right place. Let’s dig in!

Accidentals review

Just as a refresher, when we talk about accidentals, we are talking about one or more of these:
list of accidentals in music

1. Placement of accidentals in two-note chords (dyads)

RULE #1:

For intervals of a 2nd to a 6th, the upper accidental is placed closest to its note while the lower accidental is placed farther away from its note.

Example 1.1 Accidentals for intervals 2nd to 6th.

Notice that on the last interval, the 6th, the accidentals look almost perfectly aligned vertically. This is because the notes are now enough of a distance apart so that the accidentals do not interfere with one another. In fact, you will sometimes see accidentals written vertically for 6th intervals.

RULE #2:

For intervals larger than a 6th, accidentals are written right next to their notes and aligned vertically with each other.

Example 1.2 Accidentals for intervals greater than a 6th.

2. Placement of accidentals in three-note chords (triads)

RULE #3:

If the outer notes are apart by an interval of a 6th or less, the upper accidental is placed the closest, lower accidental farther, and middle accidental the farthest from their respective notes.
Example 2.1 Accidentals in 3-note chords, interval of a 6th or lower.
examples of accidentals with 3-note chords

RULE #4:

If the outer notes are apart by an interval larger than a 6th, the accidentals of the upper and lower notes are placed closest to their notes and aligned vertically, while the accidental of the middle note is placed farther from its note.

Exception:
When the two lowest notes form an interval of a 2nd, the accidentals should conform to the shape of a 2nd (see Example 2.3).

Example 2.2 Accidentals with triads of intervals greater than 6th.

*Example 2.3

Because the two bottom notes form an interval of a 2nd, it is preferred that their accidentals maintain the shape of a 2nd. Notice that this breaks Rule #4, which states that for triads larger than a 6th, the accidentals of the highest and lowest notes are aligned vertically while the accidental of the middle note is placed farther away. Keep in mind that this is not an absolute rule and you will find these written the other way as well in music.

3. Placement of accidentals in chords with more than three notes

For more complex chords there are no explicit or exact rules such as the ones we saw above. Instead, you should use these general guidelines when deciding where to place your accidentals.

GUIDELINES:

  • aim to make your accidentals as easy to read as possible
  • keep your accidentals as compact as possible
  • align the highest and lowest accidentals vertically where possible
  • align accidentals for octaves where possible
  • inner accidentals are usually arranged diagonally
  • when the outer notes are greater than a 6th, accidentals for intervals of a 2nd should generally be arranged in the shape of a 2nd (see exception to Rule #4 above).

Example 3.1 Accidentals with more complex chords.

Conclusion

As you probably know and appreciate, accidentals are a huge part of written music! If you are a musician, you probably spend most of your time reading music rather than writing it, so this type of article might be of limited use to you (unless you are just curious about the topic). However, if you are someone who enjoys writing or composing your own music, I hope you learned a lot here! Keep in mind that these days a lot of different software is available for music writing, which takes care of the placement of accidentals for you according to the rules outline here. Good luck!

If you found this article useful, you might also enjoy these:

Just fill out our quick trial lesson form and wait to hear from us within 1-2 business days. If you like your trial lesson, you can sign up for regular lessons with us! Our lessons are available online (Zoom or Skype) as well as in-person if you live close to our location. Start learning your favorite instrument with one of our amazing teachers today!