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Music Theory and Notation
The Staff
Rhythm, Notes, and Rests

Music Theory & History

Next: Instruments and Ensembles

Music Theory and Notation

Music theory is the study and analysis of the written and heard elements of
music. It is closely tied to musical notation, the system of recording music in
written form.

Meter and Time Signature


The Staff


Music usually is notated on a five-line staff. The staff includes notes, rests,
and instructions about key, rhythm, and other musical elements.

Key and Key Signature

Harmony and Dissonance

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Expression and Articulation
Themes, Motifs, and
Instruments and Ensembles
Musical Forms and Genres


Eras and Movements in

Western Music

A clef is a notation that assigns specific pitch values to the lines and
spaces on the staff.

Notable Composers in Western


Because the instruments of the orchestra possess widely varying registers

(pitch ranges),composers use different clefs for different instruments to
avoid having to use too many ledger lines (small line segments that
extend the staff above or below the standard five lines).
The treble clef (G clef) is used for higher-pitched instruments like
the flute or violin.
The bass clef (F clef) is used for lower-pitched instruments like
the tuba or cello.
The C clef is movable, and its name depends on where it is
aligned on the staff.
The following staves show where the same pitch (middle C) appears on
different clefs:

Music for instruments with a wide range (such as the piano) is notated on
the grand staff, which combines the treble clef and the bass clef:

Rhythm, Notes, and Rests

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Rhythm refers to the arrangement of beats in a piece of music. Rhythm is

expressed graphically with notes and rests (durations of silence in which
no notes are played).
Notes are named based on their duration. The longest note in conventional
use is the whole note; the shortest in conventional use is the 128th note:

Rests are named in a manner similar to notes:

Adding a dot to a note or rest increases the duration of that note or rest
by one half:

A tie over two or more notes of the same pitch indicates that the notes
under it should be held or sustained:

Sometimes, composers break rhythms into three equal parts called a

triplet. There are also quintuplets, septuplets, and other groupings,
collectively called tuplets.

Meter and Time Signature

Meter is the organization of rhythm into equal groups called measures or
bars. Meter organizes the rhythm of a piece of music in the context of a
regular pulse or beat.
The composer uses two numbers called the time signature to indicate the
meter of a piece of music. The top number tells the number of beats per
measure; the bottom number indicates the time value of each beat in the
measure. For example, in 6/8 time, there are six beats per measure, and
each beat is an eighth note.
The following are some standard time signatures:

Two of the frequently used standard time signatures are abbreviated with

Most time signatures in Western music are duple (the number of beats per
measure are divisible by two) or triple (the number of beats per measure
are divisible by three).
Some time signatures are irregular and cannot be described as duple or
triple. Two common irregular time signatures are 5/4 time and 7/8 time:

Pitch refers to the sound frequency of a note (i.e., whether the note is
high or low). In Western music, there are 12 named pitches, which
together are called the chromatic scale.

Some pitches have two namesfor example, C and D are the same pitch.
Such pitches are called enharmonic equivalents. The name given to an
enharmonic pitch depends on notation and key.
The space between two adjacent pitches in the chromatic scale is called a
half step (also known as a semitone). Two semitones equal one whole
step or whole tone.
Accidentals are symbols used in musical notation to raise or lower the
pitch of specific notes:

A sharp raises a note a half step.

A flat lowers a note a half step.

A double sharp raises a note two half steps.

A double flat lowers a note two half steps.

A natural cancels any of the above accidentals and returns

a note to its natural pitch.

The space between a given pitch and the next pitch with the same letter
name (for example, from C to C or from F to F) is called an octave.

A scale is an ascending or descending series of pitches.
The pitches that make up a scale are called degrees, and each is
assigned a name and number. From lowest to highest, the scale
degrees are called the tonic (I), supertonic (II), mediant (III),
subdominant (IV), dominant (V), submediant (VI), and leading
tone (VII).

The name of a scale is determined by its starting pitch and its key
Most Western scales consist of a series of whole steps and half steps in a
specific order. The two most common Western scales are the major scale
and the minor scale.

There are three types of minor scales:

Natural minor: The basic form of a minor scale (the c minor scale
above is natural minor).
Harmonic minor: A minor scale with the seventh degree elevated
a half step.
Melodic minor: A minor scale with the sixth and seventh degrees
elevated a half step each.

Other types of scales have been used throughout the history of Western
Pentatonic scale: A five-tone scale widely used in indigenous folk
music around the world.
Whole-tone scale: A six-tone scale with a whole step between
adjacent notes. Debussy and other Impressionist composers
explored uses of this scale in the late 1800s.
Octatonic scale: An eight-tone scale composed of alternating
whole steps and half steps between adjacent notes. The octatonic
scale came into widespread use in the 20th century.

Key and Key Signature

In Western music, most pieces are written in a keya specific pitch that
provides a tonal center or point of focus for the piece. A single piece of
music may switch, or modulate, among several keys over its course.
Often, a piece will make several modulations and then finish in the key in
which it started.
The key signature is a visual indication of key, placed on the staff at the
beginning of a piece of music that shows which notes on the staff are
sharp or flat for the duration of the piece. The composer may override the
key signature by placing accidentals in front of individual notes.
Each major key has a relative minor key that shares the same key
signature, just as each minor key has a relative major key that shares the
same key signature. For example, F major has one flat, as does its relative
minor, d minor.
A diagram called the circle of fifths displays these relationships among
the keys in visual form:

An interval is the space between any two pitches. Intervals are described
with a numerical measure that counts the number of semitones that each
interval spans (counting both the top and bottom pitches). Numerically, an
interval may be described as a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh,
eighth (octave), and so on.
Intervals also are described in terms of quality. An interval may be:
Perfect (P): An interval whose constituent pitches appear in both
the major and minor form of a given scale. For example, the
interval between C and G is called a perfect fifth because the
pitches C and G appear in both the C major and c minor scales.
The only intervals that may be perfect are the fourth, fifth, and
eighth (octave).
Major (M): An interval whose constituent pitches appear in the
major form of a given scale. Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths
may be major.
Minor (m): An interval whose constituent pitches appear in the
minor form of a given scale. Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths
may be minor.
Diminished (d or ): A perfect or minor interval that has been
reduced by a semitone.
Augmented (A or +): A perfect or major interval that has been
increased by a semitone.
The same interval may have different names depending on the context in
which it appears. For example, the tritone is a special interval that spans
three whole tones. The tritone maybe described as either an augmented
fourth (A4) or diminished fifth (d5).
The following staves show the intervals from a minor second to a major

Harmony and Dissonance

Intervals are an integral part of harmony, a broad concept that relates to
the use of simultaneous pitches in music and the way such relationships
are organized over time. Whereas melody refers to the horizontal
aspects of music (i.e., notes played in sequence), harmony refers to the
vertical aspects (i.e., notes played together).
Certain intervals, such as the major third, perfect fourth, and perfect fifth,
sound pleasant or stable to the ear. These intervals form the basis of
much traditional Western harmony.
Other intervals, such as the tritone and major seventh, create a harshness
or discordance referred to as dissonance. The use of dissonance in
Western music has become gradually greater over the course of history.

A chord is a group of three or more pitches that sound simultaneously.
The intervals between the notes within a chord determine the chord
quality. Chords, like intervals, may be:





In addition, certain types of chords may be:




A triad is a chord that contains three pitches separated by major or minor

thirds. A chord with four pitches separated by major or minor thirds is called
a seventh chord. Triads and seventh chords form the basis of harmony
for the vast majority of traditional Western music.
The following staff shows several chords built on the note C. The notations
in blue indicate the intervals between the notes within each chord:

The tempo of musical composition is the speed at which it is played.
Tempo and meter are closely connected. Tempo establishes the
relationship between meter and actual time and thus affects how the meter
and time signature of a composition sound to the ear. If a piece in 6/8 time
is played at a slow tempo, the ear tends to perceive six beats per
measure; if played at a fast tempo, the ear tends to perceive only two
beats per measure.
Musicians often use a device called a metronome to keep track of tempo.
A metronome marks time by making a regular ticking or beeping sound a
specified number of beats per minute.
Often, tempo is described in terms of metronome number or
metronome mark (M.M.), i.e., the number of ticks or beats per
minute. Use of metronome marks enables the musician to
determine tempo accurately with a metronome. Alternatively, a
composer may allow more casual interpretation of tempo by using
only suggested ranges of beats per minute.
The composer can use tempo marks to change tempo throughout
the course of a musical composition. These marks often take the
form of descriptive terms from Italian, including:
Largo: very slow (M.M.=4060)
Larghetto: very slow, but faster than largo (M.M.=6066)

Adagio: slow (M.M.=6676)

Andante: somewhat slow; a leisurely walking tempo
Moderato: medium tempo; not particularly fast or slow
Allegro: fast (M.M.=120168)
Presto: very fast (M.M.=168208)
Prestissimo: as fast as possible (M.M.>208)

Dynamics are directions, written in a piece of music, that indicate the
volume at which a note or musical passage should be played. Composers
typically indicate dynamics using abbreviations for a number of Italian

piano-pianissimo: extremely soft

pianissimo: very soft

piano: soft

mezzo piano: moderately soft

mezzo forte: moderately loud

forte: loud

fortissimo: very loud

forte-fortissimo: extremely loud

Expression and Articulation

Expression marks are symbols or words placed in written music to
provide further information about how the composition should be played.
Expressions often are written in Italian, although composers sometimes
use their native languages as well.
Some common expressions include:
Cantabile (cant.): singing, flowing, melodic
Dolce: sweetly or gently
Espressivo (espr.): expressive; play out
Legato (leg.): evenly; notes should be fluid and
continuous, and without accent
Marcato (marc.): notes should be heavily accented and
percussively attacked
Staccato (stacc.): notes should be short and abbreviated
Tenuto (ten.): notes should be sustained and slightly
The above expressions sometimes are modified with additional
terms from Italian:
Molto: very
Moltissimo (moltiss.): extremely
Poco: a little
Pochissimo (pochiss.): a tiny amount
Articulation marks provide information about attack and decay the

beginning and dying away of the sound of a note or a group of notes.

Common articulation marks include:

Themes, Motifs, and Structures

Most compositions are structured around recurring melodic or rhythmic
passages called themes or subjects. A composition may also feature a
number of recurring motifs shorter fragments of melody or rhythm, often
derived from the compositions themes. The composer usually does not
notate themes and motifs explicitly in a piece of written music.
Music scholars analyze the structure of a piece by labeling each distinct
musical passage or theme with a letter. For instance, a piece that begins
with a theme (A); then moves to another, different, theme (B); and then
returns to the initial theme (A) is said to be in ABA form.
Two common structures in Western music are the rondo form and the
sonata form.
Rondo form: A structure that starts with a primary theme that
returns between contrasting sections. A rondo with two contrasting
sections has ABACA form; one with three sections has ABACADA
form. A rondo may have any number of contrasting sections.
Sonata form: A form that became the standard form for the first
movements of pieces in the Classical and Romantic eras. The
sonata form typically includes four sections:
Exposition: An opening section that generally presents
two themes;
Development: A section that expands upon and evolves
the themes of the exposition;
Recapitulation: A section that repeats the themes of the
exposition unaltered; and
Coda: A concluding section that lends resolution or a
sense of finality.
For more information on form and structure, see Musical Forms and

Next: Instruments and Ensembles

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