When I was a kid, my school music teacher gave me a card that said, "B#, don't Bb!" Since then I've seen another version that said something about being natural. These are cute little plays on words, but they don't tell us much about the difference between a flat and a sharp.
It's quite simple really:
A sharp looks like a pound sign, or a number sign: # - it means the note goes up one half-step (higher).
A flat looks like a lower-case b, and means that the note goes down one half-step (lower).
A natural looks like a little box with the top left and bottom right corners extending past the edge. It means to reset the note back to it's natural state, without sharps or flats.
Whups!! I Made a Mistake
Yes, music can make a mistake-- sort of... they're called accidentals. This is the term for a sharp, flat, or natural that is applied to a specific note within a measure.
The purpose of the accidental is to say, "Please, I know this note is normally natural (for example) but I want you to play it THIS time as sharp (or flat, as the case may be... something other than what the key signature indicates it should be).
Key Signatures Have Sharps and Flats
Another place you'll see sharps and flats is at the beginning of each line of music (the beginning of the staff). In this instance, there may be one to seven sharps or flats. They tell us which key the music is in. I get into that in more detail here.
Naturals are notes without any sharp or flat. An example of a natural note would be C, D, E, F, G, and A. A note that is not natural would be C#, Eb, Bb, G#, etc.
The natual symbol is used when the key signature indicates it is flat or sharp, but the music requires the natural value of the note to be played.
For example, in F, the B is flatted, making a scale of F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E. If I wanted to hear a non-flatted B in a melody, then I would have to put a natural symbol on the staff line, to the immediate left of the Bb.
How Long Do They Last?
Accidentals last for the duration of the measure in which they occur. After that, the next measure would have the note return to it's key signature value.
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