Beginners Music Theory/Music Notation
It is important to read this text before watching the videos that follow it. It is probably best to read and watch until you are confident you understand it. And, really, once you've gone over it at your own pace, it shouldn't be overly difficult. If you have any difficulty with a particular portion, make certain to write it down and/or say it aloud to yourself.
Modern music notation is used by musicians of many different genres throughout the world. The staff acts as a framework upon which pitches are indicated by placing round notes on the staff lines or between the lines. The pitch of the round musical notes can be modified by accidentals. (Right now, just think of an accidental as the sharp (♯), flat (♭), and natural (♮) symbols.) The duration is shown with different note values, which can be indicated by the note being just a circle (a whole note) or using stems to indicate quarter notes and other subdivisions, and additional symbols such as dots and ties which lengthen the duration of a note. Notation is read from left to right.
A staff, or stave, in written music begins with a clef, which indicates the position of one particular note on the staff. The treble and bass clefs are the most widely used clefs, and for the purposes of this course, are the only ones we will be using. Notes representing a pitch outside the scope of the five line staff can be represented using ledger lines, which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces.
Following the clef, the key signature on a staff indicates the key of the piece or song by specifying that certain notes are flat or sharp throughout the piece, unless otherwise indicated with accidentals added before certain notes. When a sharp is placed before a note, this makes that note one semitone higher. When a flat is placed before a note, this makes that note one semitone lower. Double sharps and double flats are less common, but they are used. A double sharp is placed before a note to make it two semitones higher. A double flat is placed before a note to make it two semitones lower. A natural sign placed before a note renders that note in its "natural" form, which means that any sharps or flats applying to that note from the key signature or from accidentals are cancelled.
Following the key signature is the time signature. The time signature typically consists of two numbers, with one of the most common being "4/4". The top "4" indicates that there are four beats per measure (also called bar). The bottom "4" indicates that each of those beats are quarter notes. Measures divide the piece into groups of beats, and the time signatures specify those groupings. "4/4" is used so often that it is also called "common time", and it may be indicated with a "C" rather than numbers. Other common time signatures are "3/4" (three beats per bar, with each beat being a quarter note); "2/4" (two beats per bar, with each beat being a quarter note); "6/8" (six beats per bar, with each beat being an eighth note) and "12/8" (twelve beats per bar, with each beat being an eighth note; in practice, the eighth notes are typically put into four groups of three eighth notes. "12/8" is a compound time type of time signature). Many other time signatures exist, such as "3/8", "5/8", "5/4", "7/4", "9/8", and so on.
The staff is the fundamental latticework of music notation, on which symbols are placed. The five staff lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale – which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef. In British usage, the word "stave" is often used.
|Ledger or leger lines|
These extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.
These separate measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Also used for changes in time signature. Bar lines are extended to connect multiple staves in certain types of music, such as keyboard, harp, and conductor scores, but are omitted for other types of music, such as vocal scores.
|Double bar line, Double barline|
These separate two sections of music or are placed before a change in key signature.
|Bold double bar line, Bold double barline|
These indicate the conclusion of a movement or an entire composition.
|Dotted bar line, Dotted barline|
Subdivides long measures of complex meter into shorter segments for ease of reading, usually according to natural rhythmic subdivisions.
Connects two or more lines of music that sound simultaneously. In general contemporary usage the bracket usually connects the staves of separate instruments (e.g., flute and clarinet; two trumpets; etc.) or multiple vocal parts in a choir or ensemble, whereas the brace connects multiple parts for a single instrument (e.g., the right-hand and left-hand staves of a piano or harp part).
Connects two or more lines of music that are played simultaneously in piano, keyboard, harp, or some pitched percussion music. Depending on the instruments playing, the brace, (occasionally called an "accolade" in some old texts), varies in design and style.
Main Source: Clef
Clefs define the pitch range, or tessitura, of the staff on which it is placed. A clef is usually the leftmost symbol on a staff. Additional clefs may appear in the middle of a staff to indicate a change in register for instruments with a wide range. In early music, clefs could be placed on any of several lines on a staff.
|G clef (Treble clef)|
The centre of the spiral defines the line on which it rests as the pitch G above middle C. Positioned here, it assigns G above middle C to the second line from the bottom of the staff, and is referred to as the "treble clef". This is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music. Middle C is the first ledger line below the staff here. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-G.
|C clef (Alto, and Tenor clefs)|
These clefs point to the line representing middle C. As illustrated here, it makes the center line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the "alto clef". This clef is used in modern notation for the viola. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a "movable" clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line and called a "tenor clef". This clef is used very often in music written for bassoon, cello, trombone, and double bass; it replaces the bass clef when the number of ledger lines above the bass staff hinders easy reading.
Until the classical era, the C clef was also frequently seen pointing to other lines, mostly in vocal music, but today this has been supplanted by the universal use of the treble and bass clefs. Modern editions of music from such periods generally transpose the original C clef parts to either treble (female voices), octave treble (tenors), or bass clef (tenors and basses). It can be occasionally seen in modern music on the third space (between the third and fourth lines), in which case it has the same function as an octave treble clef. This unusual practice runs the risk of misreading, however, because the traditional function of all clefs is to identify staff lines, not spaces.
|F clef (Bass clef)|
The line between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C. Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a "bass clef". This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef, especially in choral music, where it represents the bass and baritone voices. Middle C is the first ledger line above the staff here. In old music, particularly vocal scores, this clef is sometimes encountered centered on the third staff line, in which position it is referred to as a baritone clef; this usage has essentially become obsolete. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-F (which used to be written the reverse of the modern F)
Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. A treble clef with an eight below is the most commonly used, typically used for guitar and similar instruments, as well as for tenor parts in choral music.
For stringed instruments it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard 6-stringed guitars, six lines would be used). Numbers on the lines show which fret to play the string on. This TAB sign, like the percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef. Similarly, the horizontal lines do not constitute a staff in the usual sense, because the spaces between the lines in a tablature are never used.
Notes and rests
Main Source: Note value Musical note and rest values are not absolutely defined, but are proportional in duration to all other note and rest values. The whole note is the reference value, and the other notes are named (in American usage) in comparison; i.e., a quarter note is a quarter of the length of a whole note.
For notes of this length and shorter, the note
has the same number of flags (or hooks) as the rest has branches.
Beams connect eighth notes (quavers) and notes of shorter value and are equivalent in value to flags. In metered music, beams reflect the rhythmic grouping of notes.
Placing a dot to the right of a notehead lengthens the note's duration by one-half.
Indicates the number of measures in a resting part without a change in meter to conserve space and to simplify notation. Also called gathered rest or multi-bar rest.
Accidentals and key signatures
Accidentals modify the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same staff position within a measure, unless cancelled by an additional accidental.
Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).
Key signatures define the prevailing key of the music that follows, thus avoiding the use of accidentals for many notes. If no key signature appears, the key is assumed to be C major/A minor, but can also signify a neutral key, employing individual accidentals as required for each note. The key signature examples shown here are described as they would appear on a treble staff.
|Flat key signature|
Lowers by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of flats in the key signature, starting with the leftmost, i.e., B
, and proceeding to the right; for example, if only the first two flats are used, the key is B
major/G minor, and all B's and E's are "flatted" (US) or "flattened" (UK), i.e., lowered to B flat
and E flat.
|Sharp key signature|
Raises by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of sharps in the key signature, also proceeding from left to right; for example, if only the first four sharps are used, the key is E major/C
minor, and the corresponding pitches are raised.
Main Source: Time Signature
Time signatures define the meter of the music. Music is "marked off" in uniform sections called bars or measures, and time signatures establish the number of beats in each. This does not necessarily indicate which beats to emphasize, however, so a time signature that conveys information about the way the piece actually sounds is thus chosen. Time signatures tend to suggest prevailing groupings of beats or pulses.
|Specific time – simple time signatures|
The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the crotchet or quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes). For example,
is pronounced as "three-four time" or "three-quarter time".
|Specific time – compound time signatures|
The bottom number represents the note value of the subdivisions of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 8 represents the quaver or eighth-note). The top number indicates how many of these subdivisions appear in each measure. Usually each beat is composed of three subdivisions. To derive the unit of the basic pulse in compound meters, double this value and add a dot, and divide the top number by 3 to determine how many of these pulses there are each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of two dotted crotchets (dotted quarter-notes). You would pronounce this as "Six-Eight Time".
This symbol represents
time. It derives from the broken circle that represented "imperfect" duple meter in fourteenth-century mensural time signatures.
Written at the start of a score, and at any significant change of tempo, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 quarter notes, fit into one minute of time.
Indicates that the two (or more) notes joined together are to be played as one note with the time values added together. To be a tie, the notes must be identical – that is, they must be on the same line or the same space. Otherwise, it is a slur (see below).
Indicates to play two or more notes in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath. In certain contexts, a slur may only indicate to play the notes legato. In this case, rearticulation is permitted.
Slurs and ties are similar in appearance. A tie is distinguishable because it always joins two immediately adjacent notes of the same pitch, whereas a slur may join any number of notes of varying pitches. In vocal music a slur normally indicates that notes grouped together by the slur should be sung to a single syllable.
A phrase mark (or less commonly, ligature) is a mark that is visually identical to a slur, but connects a passage of music over several measures. A phrase mark indicates a musical phrase and may not necessarily require that the music be slurred.
|Glissando or Portamento|
A continuous, unbroken glide from one note to the next that includes the pitches between. Some instruments, such as the trombone, timpani, non-fretted string instruments, electronic instruments, and the human voice can make this glide continuously (portamento), while other instruments such as the piano or mallet instruments blur the discrete pitches between the start and end notes to mimic a continuous slide (glissando).
A number of notes of irregular duration are performed within the duration of a given number of notes of regular time value; e.g., five notes played in the normal duration of four notes; seven notes played in the normal duration of two; three notes played in the normal duration of four. Tuplets are named according to the number of irregular notes; e.g., duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc.
Several notes sounded simultaneously ("solid" or "block"), or in succession ("broken"). Two-note chords are called dyad; three-note chords are called triads. A chord may contain any number of notes.
Articulations (or accents) specify how to perform individual notes within a phrase or passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note. They may also appear in conjunction with phrasing marks listed above.
This indicates the musician should play the note shorter than notated, usually half the value; the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.
|Staccatissimo or Spiccato|
Indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making the note very short. Usually applied to quarter notes or shorter. (In the past, this marking’s meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent and not staccato. These usages are now almost defunct, but still appear in some scores.) In string instruments this indicates a bowing technique in which the bow bounces lightly upon the string.
Play the note louder, or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.
This symbol indicates play the note at its full value, or slightly longer. It can also indicate a slight dynamic emphasis or be combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (portato or mezzo staccato).
Play the note somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge). In organ notation, this means play a pedal note with the toe. Above the note, use the right foot; below the note, use the left foot.
A note, chord, or rest sustained longer than its customary value. Usually appears over all parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo. It can be placed above or below the note. The fermata is held for as long as the performer or conductor desires.
Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes.
A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher note (according to key signature) within its duration, also called a "shake". When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill. In modern music the trill begins on the main note and ends with the lower auxiliary note then the main note, which requires a triplet immediately before the turn. In music up to the time of Haydn or Mozart the trill begins on the upper auxiliary note and there is no triplet. In percussion notation, a trill is sometimes used to indicate a tremolo (q.v.).
Rapidly play the principal note, the next higher note (according to key signature) then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In most music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended. In handbells, this symbol is a "shake" and indicates the rapid shaking of the bells for the duration of the note.
|Lower mordent (inverted)|
Rapidly play the principal note, the note below it, then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In much music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.
When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. Placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates an inverted turn, in which the order of the auxiliary notes is reversed.
The first half of the principal note's duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).
The acciaccatura is of very brief duration, as though brushed on the way to the principal note, which receives virtually all of its notated duration. In percussion notation, the acciaccatura symbol denotes the flam rudiment, the miniature note still positioned behind the main note but on the same line or space of the staff. The flam note is usually played just before the natural durational subdivision the main note is played on, with the timing and duration of the main note remaining unchanged. Also known by the English translation of the Italian term, crushed note, and in German as Zusammenschlag (simultaneous stroke).
The 8va (pronounced ottava alta) sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to tell the musician to play the passage one octave higher.
The 15ma sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to mean play the passage two octaves higher. A 15ma sign below the staff indicates play the passage two octaves lower.
8va and 15ma are sometimes abbreviated further to 8 and 15. When they appear below the staff, the word bassa is sometimes added.
Repetition and codas
A rapidly repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency to repeat (or alternate) the note. As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate, but it is a common convention for three slashes to be interpreted as "as fast as possible", or at any rate at a speed to be left to the player's judgment.
In percussion notation, tremolos indicate rolls, diddles, and drags. Typically, a single tremolo line on a sufficiently short note (such as a sixteenth) is played as a drag, and a combination of three stem and tremolo lines indicates a double-stroke roll (or a single-stroke roll, in the case of timpani, mallet percussions and some untuned percussion instrument such as triangle and bass drum) for a period equivalent to the duration of the note. In other cases, the interpretation of tremolos is highly variable, and should be examined by the director and performers.
The tremolo symbol also represents flutter-tonguing.
Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.
Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. In the examples here, the first usually means to repeat the previous measure, and the second usually means to repeat the previous two measures.
|Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings, or 1st- and 2nd-time bars)|
A repeated passage is to be played with different endings on different playings; it is possible to have more than two endings (1st, 2nd, 3rd ...).
(lit. "From top") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music from its beginning. This is usually followed by al fine (lit. "to the end"), which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda (lit. "to the coda (sign)"), which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.
(lit. "From the sign") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.
Mark used with dal segno.
Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).
- U+007B left curly bracket Archived 2008-12-02 at the Wayback Machine. at decodeunicode.org; retrieved on May 3, 2009
- Gerou, Tom; Lusk, Linda (1996). Essential Dictionary of Music Notation. USA: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. p. 49. ISBN 0-88284-768-6.
- Examples of the older form are found in the work of English music publishers up to the 20th century, e.g., W. A. Mozart Requiem Mass, vocal score ed. W. T. Best, pub. London: Novello & Co. Ltd. 1879.
- Rudiments and Theory of Music Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London 1958. I,33 and III,25. The former shows both forms without distinction, the latter the "old" form only. The book was the standard theory manual in the UK up until at least 1975. The "old" form was taught as a manuscript variant of the printed form.
- Rudiments and Theory of Music Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London 1958. I,24 "at least one note has to be sharpened or flattened"
- Rudiments and Theory of Music Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London 1958. V,29
- George Heussenstamm, The Norton Manual of Music Notation (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company), p.16
- Anthony Donato, Preparing Music Manuscript (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.), pp. 42-43