The intent of this page is to help beginning music readers to better recognize and understand the common symbols of written music. The level of complexity to which the aural musical language is notable is potentially limitless. Our present system of notation is pretty ancient, so most of the bugs have been worked out. This page is dedicated to just the basics, to help a learner begin to unlock the secrets of music written out in what is often termed for American music "standard musical notation." Reference texts. Example 1.
|clef||key signature||time signature||pitches||rhythm||dynamics|
Clef. The clef is used to designate a starting point as to how the lines and spaces on the staff are to be lettered. The two most common staffs used are included above.
The top staff uses the "G" or treble clef, so named because it designates where the pitch G is located. What is the first pitch of the melody? Right, "G." The second line from the bottom. So any note written on this line is essentially a "G." Here is a picture depicting the labels for the other lines and spaces. Ledger lines extend the staff as in the following example for the first and last pitches, C and A. Example 2.
The first pitch C of example 2 is also known as "middle C" and is the key found near the middle of a piano fingerboard.
Tab. Tab simply places the notes as to which fret they occur on a stringed instrument. The six string format for this page corresponds to the common six string guitar. Example 3.
The two lower staffs of example 1 above are both using the bass clef. The pitch designated by the two dots of this clef is F, and it is the second line from the top. Example 4.
The last pitch from example 4, the low E, corresponds to the lowest open bass string of the electric and upright basses.
Key signature. The key signature is a handy device that simplifies the notation. It simply designates the key of the music and identifies which pitches within the key are natural, sharp or flat. Thus, when notating the music as in example 1 from above, the key signature tells us that the staff positions for B, E and A are actually Bb, Eb and Ab, eliminating the need to have to clutter up the staff with diatonic accidentals.
Here are the key signatures for the 12 major / relative minor keys of the equal temperament system of tonal organization. Example 5 and 6.
Cool with this? Comments, questions?
Pitches. The letter names of the pitches are created by their placement on the staff. Can we alter these pitches / letter names? Of course we can. We can add a symbol to a notated pitch that changes it. We call these symbols accidentals. Example 7.
|the pitch G||is raised by 1/2 step by adding a sharp ( # )||is raised by two 1/2 steps by adding a double sharp||G# is lowered a half step by using a natural symbol, which negates the sharp symbol|
|the pitch G||is lowered by 1/2 step by adding a flat (b)||is lowered by two 1/2 steps by adding a double flat||Gb is raised a half step by using a natural symbol, which negates the flat symbol|
Pretty straightforward huh? These symbols are used globally.
Time signatures. Time signatures are used to designate what rhythmic symbols get what time value. In example 1 above, the symbol "C" was used. This designates "common" time, numerically represented by the fraction 4 / 4. The top 4 is the number of beats per measure, the bottom four is what note value gets the beat. Here are a few common time signatures and the musical meter's they represent. Example 8.
|4 / 4 time is called common time ( C ) four beats per measure, the quarter note gets the beat, used in all styles of music, counted 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 etc.||2 / 4 is called cut time, two beats per measure, quarter note gets the beat, used in marches and Latin tunes, counted 1,2,1,2 etc.||3 / 4 is "waltz" time, three beats to the measure, the quarter note gets the beat, counted 1,2,3,1,2,3 etc.||6 / 8 is a double up of the 3/4 waltz groove, oftentimes felt as two groups of three, counted 1,2,3,4,5,6 etc.|
Four / four time is the most common, it is used in all kinds of music. Tunes in 3 have a unique rhythmic character and feel, do you ever waltz? Comments, questions?
Rhythm. The notation of rhythm is a rather exacting science of symbols, for the most part based in the movement of time. We call this the tempo of the music, which is at what pace the music goes, i.e., fast or slow etc. Our rhythmic notation simply divides the beat into ever increasingly smaller and smaller nuances. Here is a chart of the subdivision of a whole note into it's smaller components. Example 9.
Look familiar? Learning to read notation is really just a matter of doing it, the musical resource the ability unlocks is awesome and endless. Can we notate silence for any of the above time values? Of course, we can do this by simply using the symbols for "rests." Here are the symbols. Example 9a.
So, not only can we notate sounds and motion through time but silence and it's passage through time also! Amazing yes? Can we suspend musical time? Of course, we do it all here. Using a fermata, bird's eye or hold, we can "freeze" musical time. Example 9b.
Dynamics. The term dynamics in music generally refers to how soft or loud a particular pitch, phrase or idea is played. The most common terms are "piano" for soft and "forte" for loud and of course there are degree as to how soft or how loud. The symbols "p" and "f" are used. If "p" is soft, what's"ppp?" If "f" is loud, what's"fff?"
Transposition. Not all musical instruments are created the same in regards to pitch. Some are said to be "concert" or "C", some in "Bb", others in "Eb." Numerous variations exist. "Transposition" involves rewriting a piece of music so that it sounds at the proper pitch level in relation to concert pitch. Concert pitch is based upon the tone "A", measured at 440 cycles per second, which is located below middle "C" on a well tuned piano. Many of the stringed instruments in common use today are said to be "concert pitch", these would include piano, the violin family, guitar etc. "Concert" instruments are said to be "non-transposing." Wind instruments are so named by their fundamental pitch, which is achieved by depressing all of their keys. The brass and woodwinds families are for the most part "transposing" instruments, (the flute is concert pitch), thus their written parts are "transposed" to compensate for their different fundamental note in relation to concert pitch. "Bb" instruments such as "Bb" trumpet, tenor and soprano saxophones, "Bb" clarinet need to be written up the interval of a whole step, ("Bb" up to "C"), so that their executed pitch levels jive with concert instruments. "Eb" instruments such as alto and bari saxophones are written up or transposed up the interval of a major sixth, ("Eb" up to "C"), to sound at the correct pitch level as concert pitch instruments. The inverse of these transposing intervals also achieves the same desired results, i.e., "Bb" down to "C", a minor seventh and "Eb" down to "C", the interval of a minor third. The ability to of a player to transpose while reading standard musical notation into different keys becomes a long term goal that truly manifests the ability to think and hear the music being performed in terms of the actual intervallic distances of the "art" being created. This transposing ability is a very advanced musical skill, accurate transposing of musical lines in real time situations is a skill worth attaining, potentially affording a certain "relativity" and "global" view in regards to creating your "art" in the Equal Tempered System of Tonal Organization. Explore. There is always more, but hopefully this information will help beginning readers get started.
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