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In LilyPond the syntax to add a sharp to a note is is so that fis is f sharp, and the syntax to add a flat to a note is es so that bes is b flat.

I'm having trouble remembering this; is there a rationale behind this choice of syntax and can it be changed?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

It's because it's using the default setting of Dutch inflection notation:

Alterations are made with different names: add -is for sharp, and -es for flat (these are Dutch note names, other languages are available). LilyPond figures out where to put accidentals.

The -is and -es are for their relative phonological stresses.

If you want to use another suffix you can change the language setting. For example:

\language "english"

This way if you used English you would mark -s and -f for sharps and flats respectively.

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