1. — Lines and Spaces of the Staff
In the following article I will provide you with the fundamentals you need to know to read music.
Music is made up two basic elements, pitch and rhythm. Pitch is the highness or lowness of a note. Rhythm is the pulse of the music and how long each pitch lasts and when it is played. The pitches or notes in music are named using the first seven letters of the alphabet, ABCDEFG. These seven letters will now be referred to as the musical alphabet.
To write the notes down we use a kind of graph called the musical staff. The musical staff is made up of five horizontal lines.
Staves (the plural of staff) are organized into clefs. The most common are the Treble or G clef, and the Bass or F clef.
Pianists read the bass clef in the left hand and treble clef in the right hand. Most wind instruments read the treble clef. Although some like the trombone and tuba read the bass clef.
The treble clef is marked with the G or Treble Clef sign. The circular loop at the base of the symbol circles the note ‘G’ on the treble staff.
The bass clef is marked with the F or Bass Clef sign. The two dots sandwich the note ‘F’ on the bass staff.
In treble clef the lines of the staff read E-G-B-D-F. One of my students has made up a way of remembering this: she says, “Every Good Bird Does Fly”. The spaces of the treble clef staff read F-A-C-E. They are easy to remember! In fact the staff itself is simply alphabetical, first line is E, first space is F, next line is G… Its really very simple!
Figure 1 — The notes of the treble clef:
In the bass clef, the lines are named G-B-D-F-A. The lines can be remembered by saying, “Great Big Dreams For America”. The spaces in the bass clef are named A-C-E-G. Remember the spaces by saying, “All Cows Eat Grass”. Again, it is alphabetical and the lines and spaces follow the alphabet directly, GABCDEFG… Feel free to make up your own sayings to remember the lines and spaces
on the staff!
Figure 2 the notes of the bass clef
Ledger lines are used when the notes go higher or lower than the 5 lines on the staff.
The top line on the treble clef is F, imagine an imaginary space above F – that’s G. Now, an imaginary line above G, that’s A – it keeps going up the musical alphabet just like that.
The bottom line of the treble clef is E, the imaginary space below E is D, the imaginary line is C – it keeps going back the musical alphabet just like that.
2. — Rhythm
Rhythm is the word to describe when the notes happen and how long they last. The unit of time counting in music is called the beat. For now you can think of the beat as when you tap your foot. The musical staff gets divided up into little sections called measures, or bars, separated by vertical lines.
Figure 3 This example has four measures of time:
The 4 over 4 in figure 3 is called the time signature. The top number tells you how many beats each measure gets. In this case, the top number of the time signature tells us all measures have four beats. The bottom number tells us which kind of note to give that beat to. We’ll get to that in the next few paragraphs when we look at whole, half, quarter and eighth notes.
There are several different symbols for notes of different lengths. The first symbol is called the whole note it looks like this.
Figure 4 A whole note:
Look back at Figure Three which shows four measures, each containing one whole note, a B.
The next note symbol is called the half note because it is half as long as a whole note and it looks like this:
Figure 5 the half note:
The next note symbol is called the quarter note because it is one fourth as long as a whole note and it looks like this:
Figure 6 the quarter note:
There is no limit, we can keep dividing the time into shorter and shorter values – eighth notes, sixteenth notes, 32nd notes, and on and on.
Figure 7 An eighth note, sixteenth note, thirty-second note and a sixty-fourth note:
One WHOLE note is the same length as two HALF notes, four QUARTER notes, eight EIGHTH notes, sixteen SIXTEENTH notes, and so on.
Look at the time signature in Figure 3 again. See the bottom number? It is equal to 4. That bottom number tells us what kind of note is the note we are counting – which note gets the beat. The top number tells us how many notes there are in a measure – 4.
If the bottom note equals four, that means we are counting quarter notes.
If the time signature is , there are 4 beats in the measure and the quarter note gets one beat. This time signature means we need to fill each measure with four full beats (the quarter note getting one beat). We count this kind of time signature: “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR” and we are counting each quarter note as it passes. The secret of learning to
read music is understanding how each measure is broken down or SUBDIVIDED.
In 4/4 time (also called common time and abbreviated with the letter, C), the whole note lasts 4 beats (the WHOLE measure), the half note lasts two full beats (HALF the measure), the quarter note lasts one beat (a QUARTER of the measure), the eighth note lasts a half a beat (one EIGHTH of the measure) and the sixteenth note lasts one fourth of one beat (one SIXTEENTH of the measure).
Figure 8 Each measure has four beats total:
The next example, Figure 9, is incorrect – measures two and four do not have four full beats:
Music has moments of silence called rests. We have the following symbols for rests.
Figure 10 A whole note rest
Figure 11 A half note rest
Figure 12 A quarter note rest
Figure 13 An eighth note rest
The whole note rest gets 4 beats, just like the whole note. The same is true for the other rests as well; a quarter note rest is equal to one beat of silence.
The tie is used to connect two notes together to make a longer. For example: If we wanted to hold a C note for 5 beats in 4 / 4 time, when we can only have 4 beats in one measure, we would have to use a tie like this:
Figure 14, The tie (Notice the use of the dot to extend the length of the 2 beat half note rest to three beats (see below))
The dot can be used next to a note to extend its value by one half. The dot equals one half of the note before it.
Figure 15 The dotted quarter note
This is a dotted quarter note. The dot equals half of the note before it (the quarter note). Therefore One quarter note plus half of a quarter note is equal to one and a half beats.
Figure 16 A dotted quarter is equal to a quarter note tied to an eighth note.
Is the same as
A dotted half note would equal three beats, since a half note equals two, and the dot equals another half of the two for a total of three beats.
Figure 16a the dotted half note is equal to a half note and a quarter tied together for 3 beats.
Is the same as
Other Time Signatures
So far, we have only talked about 4/4 or common time. We can also have other time signatures, which divide the measures up differently. 3 / 4 is a common time signature also known as “Waltz Time” because it is counted ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three? just the way people dance a waltz. In waltz time, there are only three quarter notes per measure.
Figure 17 An example of 3 / 4 time (note that the piece starts with two eighth notes – when eighth notes are written side by side they are frequently written connected like this. The line connecting the two eight notes is called a beam).
Also interesting in this example is the two eighth notes start before the first measure. This is called a pickup. The moderato quarter=116 refers to the tempo, or how fast the music is. Tempo means time in Italian. Most words and phrases in music are in Italian. 116 tells us we should be counting 116 beats per minute, which can be set on a metronome (a device for counting time). The mf is a dynamic marking (how soft or loud) means Mezzo Forte, which is Italian for “medium loud”.
Another common time signature is called 6 / 8 time. Looking back you will see 6 over 8 means there are six beats per measure and we are counting the 8th notes. Each measure is counted: “ONE – two – three – FOUR – five – six” we usually emphasize the first and fourth beat. Each beat counted is one eight note. An eighth note is still half as long as a quarter note, none of the relationships to any of the other notes has changed. Our emphasis of the BEAT is what has changed.
Figure 18 An example of 6/8 time
Cut Time (Alla Breve)
Cut time is the same as regular time, except we “cut” the measure in half and only count each half of a measure. This is useful when the music is too fast to allow counting every beat. In 4 / 4 cut time you actually count “ONE – TWO, ONE – TWO” but you are really counting the first and third beat of each measure.
Cut time is often abbreviated with the
Figure 19 Cut Time
3. — The Piano Keyboard
Notice that all the white keys correspond to the musical alphabet. Notice how the black keys alternate a group of two and a group of three. They alternate groups of two and three through all 88 keys of the piano. The white key immediately below any group of two black keys is known as C. Middle C, which is the C on the first ledger line below the treble staff, is always the C located beneath the centermost group of two black keys.
Note: the note called middle c is almost right in the middle of the keyboard
Our musical system has twelve notes. We learned seven of them in chapter one, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. These are the white keys on the piano. The other five notes are the black keys, which are known as the sharps and flats.
The space from any key on the piano to the very next key is called a half step. Two half steps equal one whole step.
Whenever we move up a half step, it is called sharping the note the sharp sign looks like this: #. Whenever we move DOWN a half step, it is called flatting the note the flat sign looks like this: b.
So the black key a half step up from C is called C#. It could also be called Db because it is also the key a half step below D! Yes, it’s the same note with two different names! In future articles you will see why it can be helpful to have two different names for one note. For now, just remember that they are the same note.
Look at the other notes on the keyboard. Have you noticed that between E and F, and B and C that there are no black keys? Since one note to the very next is a half step, the distance between E and F and B and C are also half steps, even though they are all white keys. Therefore F can also be known as E# and E can also be known as Fb! C can also be known as B# and B can also be known as Cb! These relationships between notes are called Enharmonic Tones.
The following are some suggested books on learning to read music and music theory. Please check them out. I’ll be adding a basic theory tutorial to this site very soon.