#1April 28th, 2009 · 12:48 AM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Lesson 2: Notation
Lesson 2: Music and Notations

Now the following is going to be difficult to do without staves but we're going to discuss how music is written. To start, let's talk about what a note is.

We talked about frequency which is a property of a sound wave being related to the pitch of a note.

How frequency relates to actual pitch is a bit tricky. It works be defining one note and building all others around it. Usually this note is taken to be the A above middle C, A4 (in scientific pitch notation) and 440 Hz in frequency. If you want to learn more about this check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cent_(music).

We can't discuss notes without first talking briefly about intervals. In western music, the smallest interval between two notes in a semitone (100 cents if you want to get technical). A semitone (literally half a tone) is the interval between E and F or B and C. The interval of two semitones is called a whole tone, like the interval between C and D or G and A. Now if you've never seen any of this before let's give a minute to explain.

There are 7 note names. They are: A B C D E F G

In the interval between one frequency and twice that frequency there are 12 notes that can be played. When we notate these we start with a note name (i.e. A, B, C, etc.) and leave it or add a sharp (#) or a flat (b). A sharp means that we want to raise the pitch of the note one semitone. A flat means we want to lower it by a semitone. There's also the double sharp (x) or double flat (bb) which are the same but with two semitones or a whole tone (we'll get to why that's relevant later).

Now we haven't talked about octaves yet. An octave is an interval that is 12 semitones above another note. Once we've gone up or down by an octave we use the same note name but the note sounds with half or double the frequency.

Now back to music.

Music is written on a series of five horizontal lines called a staff with a little symbol at its beginning called a clef. Notes are represented as circles, sometimes filled, sometimes not, sometimes with little lines attached called stems. We also represent rests on the staff in a number of ways. You can see them here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rest_(music)). Notes may be written on the lines of the staff, in the spaces between, above, or under lines, or on lines drawn above or below the five already present (called ledger lines).

There are a number of different clefs, for now we'll just discuss the treble and bass clef. The treble clef looks like: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Treble_clef_with_note.svg), the bass clef: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bass_clef_with_note.svg). Let's start with the treble clef.

On the treble clef, Notes on the lines are read EGBDF (from the bottom up). Notes on spaces are read FACE (from the bottom up). Every line, space and ledger line represents a note name going in order from A to G. We can alter the pitches by a semitone by placing a flat or sharp (called an accidental) before the note to indicate that the pitch is raised or lowered. After we place a flat or sharp on before a note, all notes on that line, space, or ledger are to be played sharp or flat unless we come to the end of that measure (will explain soon) or we place a natural sign to indicate that we want the note name as it sounds without a flat or sharp. A natural sign looks like this: ♮.

For a lot of things here I'll be using the scientific pitch notation. With this notation we write the note name, a flat or sharp if applicable, and then the octave. In this notation, octaves are numbered from 0 upwards and numbers change at every C. Middle C is C4, the C below that is C3, the F# above middle C would be F#4.

To illustrate:

The above example on the treble clef reads E4 D#4 Db5 G5. Notes are read off the staff from left to right and held for different durations depending on if a note is notated as a half, quarter, sixteenth note, etc.

On the bass clef, the lines represent the note names GBDFA and the spaces are ACEG. With that small exception, reading bass and treble clef are identical. The above example in the bass clef would thus read: G2 F#2 Fb3 B3. When both staves are written together we call the combination a grand staff. The two staves overlap on middle C (C4) which is one ledger line above the fifth line on the bass clef and one ledger line below the first line on the treble clef.

After the clef, the key signature and time signature are written.

On the staff, we divide notes into groups called measures (often called bars), separated by single solid black lines. We define the duration of each measure with a time signature, two numbers, one on top of the other. The bottom number indicates a note length (i.e. quarter, half, sixteenth, etc.) and the top number indicates how many of those notes are in one measure. For example the time signature 6/8 means that each measure contains 6 eighth notes. The time signature 4/4 (4 quarter notes per measure) is often notated with a large C which stands for common time.

We often want to write music in keys other than C major and since constantly writing accidentals (sharps or flats) would get tedious, it's convenient to have a system that would be conducive to writing in any key. So in keys that have accidentals (pretty much all of them except C major and A minor) we draw the accidentals that we will use throughout the composition. We write these sharps or flats on the staff before the time signature in a particular order, this order is the circle of fifths.

Let's arrange the major keys in terms of the number of sharps needed to describe their key signature.

Starting with C (no sharps or flats) it looks like this:

0 C
1 G (F#)
2 D (F#, C#)
3 A (F#, C# G#)
4 E (F#, C#, G#, D#)
5 B (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)
6 F# (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#)
7 C# (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#)

Doing a similar thing for the flat keys:

0 C
1 F (Bb)
2 Bb (Bb, Eb)
3 Eb (Bb, Eb, Ab)
4 Ab (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)
5 Db (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb)
6 Gb (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb)
7 Cb (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb)

Notice that in the sharp keys, each key is a perfect fifth (7 semitones) above the previous one. In the flat keys each is a perfect fifth below the previous. We call this series of keys the circle of fifths. Key signatures are written with sharps or flats at the lines or spaces that pertain to the notes that need to be raised or lowered. We write these accidentals after the clef and before the time signature in the order they come on the circle of fifths (i.e. Bb before Eb and not the other way around). Key signatures never mix sharps and flats.

This may be a lot to take in so if you have questions post 'em. Some of these links may be helpful as well:




#2February 3rd, 2011 · 06:15 PM
2 posts
United States of America
hey i am relatively new to music. i don't have a problem understanding the key signature but the shape notes seem to be a little difficult to understand. is there any other way to explain it to understand it more easily?
#3February 3rd, 2011 · 07:25 PM
4 posts
United States of America
mpreston, I'm not sure where the question is, whether you mean sharps/flats as a whole, and what they do, or how they relate to a key signature. On a basic sense a sharp note will raise a note, such as G, up one semitone (I prefer to call them half-steps as well). Therefore if you see the note G on a staff with a sharp symbol before the note it's a G sharp, one half-step higher than a G natural (natural means no sharp/flat). Flat symbols do the opposite, they lower it a semitone/half-step. Therefore, a G flat, would be one half step/semitone lower in pitch than a G natural.
If you're familiar to the notes on a piano, by making a note sharp it will move the natural note up in pitch to the next available key. Say you have a C sharp. The note C(natural) is a white key right behind the two grouped black keys on the piano, to find C sharp you go up to the next available key, which is the black key right in front of it. If you're familiar with guitar, to make a note sharp, you move up one fret, because each fret on the guitar is equal to one half step/semitone. In order to make things flat, you do the complete opposite.
To make more sense for what's next a few things need to be explained. Enharmonics, is a term for two different note names for the same exact note. For example, C#=Db. Eb=D# - E#=F. Might I also mention, that between the notes E and F is only a single half step. This is also true between B and C. Therefore, Fb = E   Cb=B   B# = C. Etc. Rarely are the flatted notes for these intervals used in music, it just depends on the key. Also, two half steps or two semitones  = a whole step.

In regards to a key signature it's a little bit different. I'm not sure if you've gotten too far in the lessons yet, and understanding them, but key signatures and their sharps are all based on the major, and relative minor scales for the key that they are in. We'll stick with the major scale stuff now. This is why scales are so important! If you're playing in the key of C, you will be playing in the scale C major, or atleast some form of C major. At least for now, the C major scale is what's utilized in the key of C. This is true about any other key you play in whether it's A, B, Bb, and so on and so forth.
So if we dig down to the basics of the major scale, the major scale follows a pattern of WWHWWWH. W standing for whole-tone/whole step, and H standing for half-step(or semi-tone). Let's begin with the C scale. The notes of the C scale are as follows, C D E F G A B C. As you can see, the  key of C contains no notes with a sharp or flat in its note name. This is why if you play only white keys on a piano starting from C, you have the C major scale. Evidently though, there a key signatures that have sharps and flats in them, and not all composers want to write in the key of C. So if we take a look at the next scale, G we'll see why. The notes of the G scale are as follows: G A B C D E F# G.  The key of G happens to have a sharped note in it. F#! So for any other scale, besides C, you'll find it has sharps or flats.
This is why there is a key signature marking in pieces of music. They'll put a sharp on the staff on the F line, so that they don't have to write in tons of accidentals for every single note that needs it. It also makes it a little bit easier on musicians so that we know what scale to expect in the music, and what fingerings, and things we'll need to learn. The first thing I'd do in order to understand this a little bit better is to learn scales, and what they are I guess. There's not much else. And I hope this helped some.
#4February 3rd, 2011 · 11:04 PM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Hey, thanks for your comments. mpreston89, I'm not sure exactly what you're curious about but I get the feeling you're more concerned with rhythms than with pitches. On a staff, notes are decorated according to their duration, what fraction of a measure they will sound for: 1/8, 1/2, 1/4, 1, etc. Durations are always come as powers of 2 (2^0 = 1, 2^-1=1/2, 2^-2=1/4, 2^-4=1/16 etc). There are other features that we add to notes to adjust their duration or to mark exactly they should be played. But if you want to learn this stuff you can't do it without actually seeing a staff. If you're interested, get yourself a basic music elements workbook and do it. By the time you finish everything will be clear. The two most common are The Complete Elementary Music Rudiments by Mark Sarneki or Elementary Rudiments of Music by Barbara Wharram. If you have any specific questions feel free to post them. Good luck.
#5February 9th, 2011 · 07:22 PM
2 posts
United States of America
thanks for explaining. it has helped and im checking out those books right now
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