Fundamentals of Music

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Welcome to Wikiversity’s courses on Music Theory!

Welcome to Music Theory! Music theory is the reasoning behind music – what makes songs work, and rules to either follow or break when composing.

Before getting into any complications at all, you need to have a very, very solid foundation in the basics of written music: rhythm and pitch.

Basics of rhythm

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It’s easy to overlook the study of rhythm, but rhythm is what makes music interesting. You can have a gorgeous melody and accompaniment, but without the knowledge of how to actually write that song of yours in standard musical notation, it’s useless – or at least not living up to its full potential.

Reading rhythm in sheet music is like reading punctuation – it’s very, very easy to simply scan over and recognize, but it shapes the feel, flow, and emphasis of music.

Note values and modifiers

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Students may want to refer to a table of relative note values in conventional Western notation.

Note values

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Note values are relatively simple to learn. Note values simply represent the duration of notes.

IMPORTANT: In 4/4 time:

A whole note represents 4 quarter notes: four fourths, which lasts as long as a measure.

A half note represents 2 quarter notes: two fourths, half of a measure.

A quarter note is one of the most common note values; it represents 1/4 of a measure, or one beat.

An eighth note is the second most common note value; it represents half of a quarter note. Count “one – and – two – and – three – and – four – and” aloud; these are eighth notes, both the numbers and the “ands.”

A sixteenth note is half of an eighth note. Count "one - e - and - a - two - e - and - a - three - e - and - a - four - e - and - a" aloud; these are sixteenth notes, each number, 'e', 'and' , and 'a' (pronounced 'ah').

A thirty-second note is half of a sixteenth note.

A sixty-fourth note is half of a thirty-second note.

And so on, and so on. Notes smaller than sixteenth notes are not very common. As a self-test, and in four-four time: 1. How many quarter notes are in a measure? 2. How many eighth notes are in a measure? 3. How many half notes are in a whole note? 4. How many eighth notes are in a quarter note? 5. How many eighth notes are in a half note? 6. How many sixty-fourth notes are in a quarter note? 7. How many thirty-second notes are in a whole note?

(Answers: 1. Four 2. Eight 3. Two 4. Two 5. Four 6. Sixteen 7. Thirty-two)

Sound samples and notation

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Listen to these two samples until you can tell, which one is in 4/4 time (like a march), and which is in 3/4 time (like a waltz).

In written form, these two samples look like this:

(For these examples a quarter note (or crotchet) lasts for one beat, but the time signature could be written differently to indicate that i.e. a half note (or minim) would last for one beat)

Sample no.1 is in 3/4 time, three beats to the bar, with the first beat of the bar emphasized.

Sample no.2 is in 4/4 time, four beats to the bar, with the first beat of the bar emphasized.


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A dot extends a note’s duration by one-half of that note’s value. For example, a dotted whole note equals the whole note plus half of the whole note, a half note. This is equal to six quarter notes. As another example, a dotted quarter note is equal to a quarter note and an eighth note combined, or three eighth notes. A double-dotted note takes the dotted note as one entity and adds half of the entire value of the dotted note; therefore, a double-dotted quarter note is equal to a quarter note ‘’plus’’ an eighth note ‘’plus’’ a sixteenth note; this is also equal to seven sixteen notes. Double-dotted notes are uncommon, but dotted notes are relatively very common. 1. How many quarter notes are in a dotted half note? 2. How many half notes are in a dotted whole note? 3. How many sixteenth notes are in a dotted whole note? 4. How many thirty-second notes are in a double-dotted eighth note? 5. How many sixteenth notes are in a double-dotted eighth note?

(Answers: 1. Three 2. Three 3. Twenty Four 4. Seven 5. Three and a half)

A tie is used for holding a single pitch for a long period of time, usually, or sometimes to make the division of the measure clearer. A tie connects the two notes, making their duration as long as the combination of the two notes.

Time signatures

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A time signature is the part of the music that tells us the rhythmic feel of a song. The most common time signature in Western music is 4/4, written out as one four over another (without a dividing line like that of a fraction), or occasionally simply as “C” (for “common time”). Other relatively common time signatures are 3/4, 2/4, and 6/8.

The number on the bottom of a time signature is the note value that gets a beat, and the number on top is the number of beats in a measure. So, a time signature that has a 9 as its top number gets nine beats per measure, and a time signature with a 4 as its bottom number tells us that a quarter note equals one beat.

If you find that confusing, think of it this way: In three-four time (3/4), there are three quarter notes in a measure: three "fourth" notes. In six-eight time (6/8), six eighth notes make up a measure: six eighths. In two-four time (2/4), two quarter notes make up a measure. As a self-test, what will constitute a complete measure in 9/8 time? (Answer: nine eighth notes.)

Time signatures can also be divided into several types: Simple time signatures, Compound time signatures, and Complex time signatures.

Simple time signatures

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Simple time signatures consist of note groupings that are divided into twos. For example, 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 are all examples of simple time signatures, because the note patterns are divided into twos. Many marches, such as National Emblem, The Stars And Stripes Forever, and Barnum & Bailey's Favorite are all written in a simple time signature, usually 2/2, sometimes referred to as cut time by musicians because of the symbol used to indicate it (a letter C with a vertical slash dividing it in half, similar to the cent (¢) sign).

Compound time signatures

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Compound time signatures consist of note groupings that divide into three parts, as compared to the simple time signatures above. 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are all good examples of compound time signatures. Well-known musical works that use compound time signatures include: The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's opera Die Walküre (uses 9/8); The Washington Post march, by John Philip Sousa (uses 6/8); and Blues In The Night, a blues song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen (uses 12/8).

Complex time signatures

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Complex time signatures consist of combinations of twos and threes, and are characterized by the unequal or awkward feeling they can sometimes impart to a piece of music. Time signatures such as 5/4, 7/8, and 11/8 are all examples of complex time signatures. Well-known musical works that include complex time signatures include Mars from The Planets by Gustav Holst (uses 5/2 and 5/4), the theme from Mission: Impossible by Lalo Schifrin (uses 5/4), and the theme for the forces of Mordor from the Lord Of The Rings movies by Howard Shore (uses 5/4).

Similar to simple and compound time signatures, there is a general difference between complex time signatures in 4 (5/4) and complex time signatures in 8 (5/8). In 4, typically the beat that the beat unit stays constant but is grouped in various ways (the "constant beat" is the quarter note, but it's grouped in groups of 3 and 2). If you were to clap along to Mars from The Planets, each clap would be the same length (5 claps, since the piece is in 5/4). In 8 however, the beat unit changes throughout the measure (there is no "constant beat," the beat the musicians feel is constantly changing in length). If you were to clap along to the beginning of Blue Rondo à la Turk by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (9/8) the 4th clap in the first measure would be longer than the first 3 claps. In 8 the subdivision stays constant and is grouped into beats of different lengths, for example the first measure of Blue Rondo à la Turk the has 3 beats that are groupings of 2 eighth notes, and a 4th beat that is a grouping of 3 eighth notes (this would be notated as 2+2+2+3).

Fundamentals of music

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Before beginning the following courses offered in Music Theory, it's crucial to have a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of music. Let's start with the staff.

Musical staff

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The staff is the set of parallel, horizontal lines upon which notes are drawn. The staff has 5 lines and 4 spaces, numbered from the bottom up. Extra, shorter lines can be added above and below the regular staff, and are called ledger lines. Each line, and space represents a different pitch. Before notes can be placed on a staff, you must first show three other things: the clef, the key signature, and the time signature. w:Musical_staff


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Clefs tell you which pitches are assigned to which lines / spaces. There are two common clefs that we will discuss first and those are the bass clef, and the treble clef. w:Clef

Treble Clef

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Treble clef

The treble clef is the most widely-used clef, followed by the bass clef. It uses the G clef symbol to assign the note G above middle C to the 2nd line from the bottom of the staff. Most woodwind instruments read treble clef, as well as high brass, violins, Mallet percussion, and other instruments of acute tone; violas and cellos occasionally use the treble clef to avoid excessive ledger lines in extended high passages. On the piano, the upper clef is usually written in the treble clef, while the lower clef is usually written in bass clef.

The order of the notes on the lines and spaces in ascending order on the Treble Clef is E,F,G,A,B,C,D,E,F. Several mnemonics are commonly used to remember the five notes corresponding to the five lines of the treble clef (E, G, B, D, F), including:

Eternal God Brings Destiny Forever
Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Every Good Boy Does Fine
Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips
Elvis' Guitar Broke Down Friday

The acronym FACE is used to remember the notes corresponding to the four spaces in between the lines.

Forever Angels Call Eternity

Bass Clef

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Bass clef

The Bass Clef is less common than the Treble clef among instruments. Instruments that use it include bassoons, some saxophones, tubas and other low brass, bass and other low strings, and timpani. The order of the notes on the lines and spaces in ascending order on the Bass Clef is G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A. The notes in the spaces of the staff, from bottom to top, are (A, C, E, G). Some acronyms that may help you remember this are:

          Angels Call Eternity God
          All Cows Eat Grass
          All Cars Eat Gas
          Ace Good

The notes on the lines of the staff, from bottom to top, are (G, B, D, F, A). Several acronyms that may help you remember this are:

          God Brings Destiny For Angels
          Good Babies Do Fine Always
          Good Boys Do Fine Always
          Great Big Dogs Fight Animals
          Good Boys Don't Frighten Animals
          Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always

Grand Staff

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Many instruments play with two staffs at a single time, such as keyboard instruments like the piano or harpsichord, and certain mallet percussion instruments like marimba also use the grand staff for solo repertoire. When both the treble and bass clef are used at the same time to write music, it is referred to as the grand staff. This allows composers to notate music that spans the full range of a keyboard or an ensemble. When used for piano or keyboard music, it's common for each clef to represent music written for the write hand (treble) or the left hand (bass). In 4-part harmony writing, the top 2 voices will be placed in the treble clef, and the bottom two voices will be placed in the bass clef.

C Clef

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The C clef

The last clef in common use is the C clef (also called Alto Clef) often used for vocal music, viola players, and in limited use for other instruments such as bassoon and trombone. This clef is movable, meaning that it may appear anywhere on the staff, indicating the note C at its center. A common example of this is the Tenor clef, read by cello, bass, and trombone. In Tenor Clef middle C is on the second line down. In the example shown to the right, the middle line is C.

For more information, see the Wikipedia article: Clef