Learning how to read music is useful for many reasons:
but probably the most important is so other people can read and play your musical ideas.
This tutorial is a guide to the very basics of music notation – ie stripped back to the absolute minimum you need to know – so you can learn to read it as quickly as possible!
Speaking of which…
What are the 2 things we absolutively, posilutely have to write down?
- Pitch: We need to be able to write down the pitch of any note.
- Rhythm: We need to be able to describe the length and position in time of any note.
There are other parameters – but everything else can wait – these are the indispensable ones.
Pitch and rhythm are written on what is called a “staff” – a group of five horizontal lines that can be used to represent any notes and rhythms we want!
But how do we find out which notes go on which lines?
The symbols at the left of each set of lines below are called “clefs”.
The word clef means “key” – in the same way a map has a key that explains the symbols it uses.
They tell us what range of notes are represented on and between the lines – the symbol on the top staff is called a treble clef, the bottom one the bass clef.
How do we add in the notes?
We add in the pitches by drawing oval shaped “dots” (known as a notehead) on or between the horizontal lines.
The length of the note is shown by adding a tail to the notehead – and sometimes by changing how the notehead looks.
We’ll go into that in a bit – let’s do the pitch bit first.
Writing down Pitch:
So – each line and each space represent a note – known by the letter names: A,B,C,D,E,F and G.
If we write these notes in, we can see how this works:
Notice how we can add in extra “mini lines” and spaces above and below each staff if we need to write down notes that are above or below that range.
These mini lines are called ledger lines.
This is already quite a smart system – but the really fancy bit is yet to come.
The notes we’ve written down here are only part of the story. They represent the white notes on the piano keyboard.
The black notes don’t have their own lines or spaces – we write them down by altering the lettered notes either up (called making the note sharp) or down (called making the note flat).
Notes that are not sharp or flat can also be called natural.
There are symbols for each of these terms:
These symbols are put in front (to the left) of noteheads to alter the note. Naturals are only generally used in a note has been altered before and it needs to be set back to natural again.
We’ll see how this works shortly.
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Getting into Rhythm:
As for the rhythm side of things, here are the notehead shapes and the tails that denote different lengths of time.
The way this works is not by giving a note an exact length – instead we use relative note values.
Yeah sounds horrific doesn’t it?
But it’s ok – it just means we describe a notes length by its relationship to other notes around it.
For example we can take one note, and describe the next one as twice as long, half as long or three times as long – or any other relative term.
The names you see in the diagram below reflect this.
The symbol on the left is what we write on the stave – then it’s name, and then the number of “beats” the note is considered to be – remember this is in relation to the other note lengths only.
None of these symbols have a “real” length you could measure in seconds until they are played…and then the actual duration would depend on how fast or slow the tempo of the music is.
For each note on this list there is an equivalent symbol that means to not play anything – known as a “rest”.
Time signatures consist of two numbers, written on top of each other, like a fraction, but without that horizontal line between them.
The are usually stated at the start of a pice of music to give us useful information about the repeating pattern that is going to be in the bars, or measures.
Let’s find out what these two numbers mean…
Just one number on top of another.
Like fractions the top number is called the numerator and the bottom number is called the denominator.
I know, you’re probably thinking…hold on you said these were easy…well we are past the hardest bit so don’t worry!
- The Numerator describes – “how many of something”
- The Denominator describes – “the something we are talking about”
So what is the something in music?
We use the same notes as we were talking about above – whole, half, quarter, eighth etc. The numbers we use to represent them are the same as we’d use in fractions: whole would be 1,
Half = 2,
Quarter = 4,
Eighth = 8
Sixteenth = 16
and so on.
I did you a nice little diagram to explain further…
Time signatures tell us how much room there is inside a bar(measure).
That space can be filled with any kinds of notes we choose – as long as the notes and rests add up to the correct amount of time to fill the bar – too much or too little will mean your music makes no sense and is unplayable.
Another important function of time signatures is to tell us something about the underlying rhythm of the music.
For example, bars of 3/4 and 6/8 contain the same amount of note space in theory, but traditionally 3/4 will be counted as a slow “one-two-three” to a bar – and 6/8 will be counted as a faster “one-two-three, one-two-three” pattern.
It’s just a subtle difference – but it is important to know.
4/4 these days tends to be a generic “one-size-fits-all” time sig that you can throw anything into – apart from being your standard four beats to the bar, it does not represent any particular rhythmic pattern.
To make things a bit clearer here, I’ve got a diagram showing how the different notes fit into this system:
Remember, you are free to fill up the space inside the bar with whatever notes and rests you like.
It just has to all add up to the correct length when all the notes are combined or else your music will be unplayable.
You may have noticed the “dotted half note” in the above example.
I had kept this till now to avoid overloading you, but it’s a vitally important part of notation.
Adding a dot to the right of the note (the oval-shaped head of the note if it has a stem attached to it) increases its duration by an extra 50%.
So if we take a quarter note – in its original state it’s worth 4 sixteenth notes (or 2 eighth notes) – right?
Adding a dot will increase the length of the note to 6 sixteenths or 3 eighth notes. 50% extra.
This applies to any note.
You can add another dot too, so there are two dots. This adds another 25% of the original note lengths onto the duration.
So in our above case, a double-dotted quarter note would become 7 sixteenth notes long – and it would not be possible to notate in eighth notes.
It would need to be 3.5 and you can’t divide notes up in decimals like – you’d have to write it as sixteenth notes.
Up to here we have covered all the basics of how to read music – there is a lot of extra detail and advanced stuff, but it is not necessary for our purposes.
This tutorial is about getting you up to speed on how pitch and duration are notated – all the other stuff, like accents, playing techniques, volume (dynamics) are the rest are kind of surplus to requirements just now.