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Understanding Music Notation

Understanding Music Notation


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Published by Voog
A basic guide explaining the symbols, etc. of music notation.
A basic guide explaining the symbols, etc. of music notation.

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Published by: Voog on Mar 21, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Understanding Music Notation #

Play the note 1/2 step up (Sharp) Play the note 1/2 step down (Flat) Play the note normally: pay no attention to the key signature.
The above three symbols can also appear at the beginning of each line of music affecting the whole line. Moreover, if they are included in an individual measure, they override each other and carry through ties or slurs.

Compressed rests. The number on top specifies how many measures of rest.

Fermata. Hold the note until cut off.
Repeat. Play through normally until second symbol, then go back to first symbol and play again, this time ignoring the second symbol. Begin and end: marks the beginning and ending of a piece.

Tie. Make each note flow into the next. (Do not break them up.) Common time, same as 4/4 time.

Cut time, same as 4/4 but everything is cut in half. Example: a half note = 1 quarter note, a whole note = 1 half note.
f ff fff p mp mf pp cresc.

Loud Loud loud As loud as possible Quiet Medium quiet Medium loud Quiet quiet Louder


Treble clef (or G-clef)

Bass clef (or F-clef)

Natural signs cancel a flat or a sharp.

A bar line or measure line

The top number normally determines how many beats are in a measure or bar (a measure is defined by vertical lines, or bar lines, that run perpendicular to the staff). For instance, if the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats in a measure.

The bottom number in the time signature normally determines what kind of note gets one beat. This number is commonly 4, which means that a quarter note gets one beat. It may also be 2, which means that a half note gets one beat, or 8, which means that eighth notes are used to determine

the length of the measure. The bottom number can be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. 3/4 is 3-quarter notes per measure. 5/2 is 5 half notes per measure. 6/8 is 6 eighth notes per measure.

A whole note or semibreve appears as a ‘circle’ on the staff in a measure and is worth 4 beats in common time. A whole note is the base unit to which all the other notes are related.

Whole rests look like dark rectangles hanging down off the second line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as whole notes. However, there are some occasions where a whole rest can indicate an entire measure, even when a whole note does not. For example, in 3/4 time, a whole note simply cannot be used, as it is too long for a measure; however, a whole rest is sometimes still used to indicate silence for the entire measure.

Half notes (minim) are worth 1/2 the duration of whole notes. They appear as an empty circle with a straight line (known as the staff) dropping down off the left side or going up off the right side. In 4/4 time, a half note receives two beats.

Half rests look like dark rectangles sitting on top of the third line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as half notes.

Quarter notes or crotchet are worth 1/4 the duration of whole notes. They look like solid circles with a straight line coming off them (as in the half notes). In 4/4 time, quarter notes are worth 1 beat. Quarter rests are identified by a unique symbol. They are worth the same amount as quarter notes. Sometimes they are represented by a symbol that is the mirror image of an eighth rest.

Eighth notes or quaver are worth 1/8 the duration of whole notes. In 4/4 time, they are worth half a beat, so two eighth notes equal 1 beat, the equivalent of a quarter note. A single eighth note looks like the quarter note, but has a single ‘tail’ (known as a flag) that curves back along the staff towards the solid circle.

Two or more eighth notes together are connected by a single horizontal bar at the bottom or top (instead of having flags). This bar is known as a beam.

Eighth rests look a little like a number 7 . They are worth the same duration as an eighth note. The one shown here is a sixteenth rest, having two flags on the top.

Sixteenth notes or semiquaver are worth 1/16 the duration of whole notes. In 4/4 time, they are worth a quarter of a beat (four of them together make a single beat). A single sixteenth note looks like the eighth note, but with two flags instead of one.

When they are connected, it is with two beams, not one.

A dot next to the note or rest means that it should be lengthened by half of the note's normal duration. A dot next to a half note means that the note should be held for the duration of 3/2 of a half note. In common time, it would be three beats.

Frequently you will see two or more notes ‘stacked’ on top of each other on the staff. This is a chord, and indicates that all the notes should be played at the same time.

If there is an arc connecting one note's circle to another note's circle, this is a tie, a slur, or a phrase mark. A tie occurs between two notes of the same pitch, and means that the notes are connected and should be held for the total duration of the tied notes. A slur occurs between two different notes, and means that the notes should be voiced or articulated as little as possible. In the case of vocal music, it means that the pitch will change while still singing the same syllable. A phrase mark generally is used over a series of notes, and means that you should play them continuously without a break in the musical thought.

If you see notes with dots over or under them (not next to them), play or sing them in a shortened fashion, leaving some silence between the notes so that they are detached from one another. This is referred to as staccato.

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