Standard Music Notation
This page will cover material needed for the rest of this
series. If you actually want to use this as a stepping stone into
reading in the real world, you will also need the next page, which is on
what I am calling "Performance notation"—those aspects of music
notation which are necessary for actual scores, but not so much for
learning music theory. I will talk about some other notation systems,
including tablature, on a later page. Eventually, I plan to add a
section on historical notations, which will doubtless be fascinating to
some and excruciatingly boring (skippable) to others.
How much do you need to know?
People who just learn how to read, and never internalize music, can
never push past the level of mediocrity as musicians. They do not learn
how to read or hear between the musical lines and certainly find
improvisation to be beyond them. If you feel like this may describe you,
you may need to learn how to unlearn some of your dependency on the
page. If you are an adult musician who does not read music this is
probably not an issue for you, but of course, the missing reading skill
is probably holding you back in other areas.
It is not really designed to do this; rather it
was invented in a world where diatonicism was already the rule.
Although it has the tools to represent chromatic music, it was never the
intention of its historically numerous designers to serve that purpose.
I will try to include audio files for many examples throughout, which,
even if you can read passably, will often make things somewhat clearer.
The best way to learn to read music is to
start around three years old. It is possible to start later, say seven,
but the older you get the harder it gets. In that sense it is a lot
like learning to read any language. The younger you can start the
better, but on the other hand, the better you know the language, the
easier it will be to pick up the reading aspects. Still, there is no
getting around that if you are an adult, it is going to be a challenge.
So, the question remains; is it worth it? Will it make you a better
player (on whatever your instrument may happen to be)?
The answers to these questions are a definitive, "Maybe!" It
will open you up to be exposed to new material, and that exposure could
well improve your playing. If you combine it with learning to sight
sing, I can almost guarantee that it will improve your improvisation
skills, and the whole process will make you a better musician. But it
is not necessary, and there are some very fine musicians who never
developed any reading skills. There are also many, many mediocre
musicians who can read quite well.1
Standard Western notation has its limitations. By its nature,
it tries to reduce music to easily quantifiable rhythms and the
standard twelve note chromatic scale. It is actually designed to
encourage diatonic (seven note) scales rather than (twelve note)
chromaticism, and discourages atonal music in particular.2 It
becomes even more useless once we step outside the world of the Western
scale systems. Many examples of world music have different, and often
much more fluid, scales and (less frequently) highly complex rhythmic
patterns. Western notation has been accused of training the mind not to
be able to hear those things. There may be some truth in this, but the
popularity of Blues music in the West, as well as a variety of world
music, (which often steps outside the standard scales) suggest that
this strangle-hold is starting to weaken. Our current state of notation
has developed over a thousand years, at least. It will continue to do
so, and will do an increasingly better job at handling these other
scales and rhythms; but we are not quite there yet.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of pursuing a course in (standard
Western) music theory, however informally, it will be necessary for us
to have a common language with which to talk about music, and standard
Western notation is the method of choice for that.3 You do not
need to sight-read, but you should get to the point where you can make
sense of it.
If you are already reasonably familiar with music notation, you probably
will not find the rest of this page particularly useful. It is going
to seem wordy and boring to some, and unbearably brief to others. If
you are in the first group, I beg your forgiveness and encourage you to
browse quickly through what you already pretty much know. If you are in
the latter group, and are confused by something, I would ask you to
write, not just because I might be able to explain it, but because I may
need to fix some glaring inadequacy on the page.
The first thing you notice when you look at a
piece of written music is a bunch of lines and dots. They look
something like this:
As usual, the staff holds the whole organization
together. I was taught to use the terminology, 'staff' for the singular
(set of five lines) and 'staves' for the plural. Some people prefer the
term 'stave' for the singular. I don't believe I have ever seen the
plural as 'staffs.'
The eleven count comes from five lines plus 6 spaces (counting the space
above and below).
There are actually more clefs, and a third clef-sign that is remotely
based on the letter C: . It covers the middle between the treble and bass clefs and
is used for instruments (like the viola) that play primarily in that
area (eliminating the need for tons of ledger lines). This one, with
middle C on the middle (red) line, is called the alto clef. See
my sidetrack on clefs for more information.
The horizontal lines (five of them) are called the staff.4
Scattered throughout the lines you notice a group of what look like
golf clubs, often (usually, in this case) connected by horizontal bars.
These are the notes. Where the club-heads fall vertically among the
staff lines tells you what pitches they represent. Where they come
horizontally, as with words on the page, they tells you the proper order
in time (left to right like all Western writing systems—this is Western
music after all). The golf-club handles are the stems; the periodic
vertical lines (one in the middle here) are bar lines used to separate
measures. We will unpack these and various other symbols as we go
Unfortunately, in order to decipher exactly what pitches the notes refer
to, we need a little more information. There are 88 keys on a keyboard,
and only 11 lines and spaces.5 Using accidentals we expand that
to cover 18 distinct notes, but obviously we are going to need a lot
more. In order to accomplish this, we start by using two staves, one for
notes above middle C and the other for notes below. The staves are
marked with a couple of symbols (that used to be letters before some
fancy calligraphers got to them). They are: the G clef-sign, and the F clef-sign.
These are used to indicate the treble and bass clefs,
If you use your imagination, you can see the G and the F
hidden in the symbols. The red lines show where the eponymous notes are
located (G with the G clef-sign, F with the F clef-sign). So if you see
something like this:
Notes on the treble clef
You can find the G (marked in red here) and count out lines
and spaces to see what notes are there. Similarly with the bass clef:
Notes on the bass clef
You can find the F and work outward (We'll get to the
⁴ symbol after the clef-sign later).
Sometimes it helps to notice that the lines on the bass are just shifted
down one from the treble.
Of course, this is going to get pretty old, pretty fast! So
ages ago, someone invented a few mnemonics to help us remember the
letters associated with the lines and spaces. On the treble clef,
"Every Good Boy Does Fine,"7 for the lines (bottom to top), and
just "FACE" for the spaces (same order). The bass clef is pretty
similar for the lines: "Good Boys Do Fine Always." The bass spaces
require a different mnemonic, which is traditionally given as, "All Cows
Eat Grass." If these don't work for you, make up your own. By the
time you are done creating them, you will pretty much know the notes
Notice that middle C falls outside either of the staves, and gets its
own little private line (called a ledger line). Notes above and
below the staves pile up in this way. The range of the piano, for
example, looks like this:
When the staves are connected by a brace, as they are in the first image to the right, it
means they are all part of the same instrument score. When they are
bracketed together, as in the next image, they are individual
instruments in a connected group (e.g. strings, woodwinds, etc.).
Sometimes notes from the bass clef are written as part of the
treble clef, and visa versa. In a piano score, which includes both
clefs, this can indicate which hand to use, or that those notes are
somehow connected. If the instrument is written in only one clef (most
instruments), that is simply the normal way of indicating those notes.
Not all bars have four beats, but they are the most common, and the ones
that provide names values for the notes. If 4-beat bars were an ethnic
group, this would probably be a problem. I suggest we call this
despicable situation quatrocrotchetcentrism (a crotchet is a beat).
The notes in the last two figures are quarter
notes. They have filled-in heads and just stems with no bars or flags
hanging off them and no little dots following them. In the note names
example, there are four per measure (bar), so each one takes up a
quarter of a measure-hence the name.8
In real music, you may have noticed that not all notes are the
same length. Since the most frequent divisions are divisions of the
measure by some exponent of two, that is how they are represented in
standard notation. Then rules are provided for the relatively frequent
exceptions. You have to have symbols for analogous periods of rest
(silence), too. So here are the most frequent notes and rests:
From there, you just keep on adding flags. I have seen 128th
notes (five flags). Very infrequently you will see double whole notes
(next table). The quad notes are archaic; you will only occasionally see
them in a modern score, particularly as they require very long measures
(e.g. ). However, you will often see the last approach to rests longer than a measure.
|Double Whole note
|Quad whole note
||The umber of bars is indicated by the number
Much more frequently (as in the Bach example at the top of the
page), you will see flagged notes (eighth and smaller) grouped together
with a bar across the top, rather than individually flagged. Normally,
this means that those notes are supposed to be treated as a phrase,
although modern software will sometimes make that decision without
consulting the composer.
Johannes Brahms sometimes put the dot at the beginning of a measure,
indicating that the last note from the previous measure is extended by
the normal dot value into this measure. In this way, =
Unless your name is Johannes Brahms, you should not do this.
There are three more note-duration variations worth mentioning
at this point. First, when there is a little dot after the note, that
means the note's duration is extended by one half. So a dotted half
lasts for three beats (rather than the expected two); a dotted quarter
lasts for one and a half beats, rather than the normal one. Double
dotted notes (two dots after the note) extend the beat by three quarters
of the beat (another half past the first added half).9
Second, if a note is expected to continue to sound across a measure bar,
it is written as two notes, one before and one after the bar. Then
these two notes are connected with what is called a tie (looks
sort of like a sideways parenthesis). Finally, sometimes notes are
expected to divide the beat of a measure differently. The most common
of these is called a triplet, in which three notes are crammed
into the space of two, usually dividing the space evenly. Triplets are
the most frequent example of a tuplet; but other tuplets are
possible—three beats divided into two, for example (although that would
generally be represented as two dotted notes). Commonly these are
written with a little sideways bracket above or below the notes
indicating how many notes are in the new division, but if they are
clustered, as in the previous illustration, there may simply be a number
above or below the cluster with the bracket being regarded as
The dotted notes should be carefully distinguished from
staccato, which will be discussed in the next section. Staccato is
indicated with dots above or below the note heads, rather than after.
Some people teaching music theory will insist
that students have access to a piano (or keyboard instrument of some
variety). The reason for that is that the instrument graphically
illustrates some of the things that are not so obvious on most other
instruments. It also allows students to work easily on writing
polyphonic exercises. Although I recommended that on the intro page, this course has
no such requirement (how could it?), but let's look at a keyboard
now for its illustrative qualities.
Actually, all notes can be known by more than one name. A
'B' can also be a 'C♭' or an
'A' (double-sharp), for example. The proper
name is determined by context, but is often ignored in favor of
whichever name is easiest to read. One of the things we will be learning
in this course is how to decide what notes are supposed to be
called. After that, you can go back to calling them whatever you want.
When they appear in ASCII format texts (most commonly on the internet)
the sharp is represented as a hash sign ('#') and the flat as a lower
case 'b'. There are actually Unicode characters for these at U+266F and
U+266D, which is what I try to use, since the '#' and 'b' don't actually
look exactly like ♯ and ♭, not to
mention the ambiguity of the latter. There is no commonly used ASCII
substitute for natural (Unicode U+266E), and certainly not for the
doubles (the Unicode versions are also not supported by most systems:
U+1D12A & U+1D12B). If you want to represent these, you may find my
Pieces can, and do, change keys mid way through, sometimes more than
once. A brief change will probably just be marked with accidentals;
significantly longer changes call for a new key signature.
The fact that there are more keys than notes is explained by the fact
that there is some overlap (D♭ = C♯,
G♭ = F♯, & C♭ =
The types of notes we have been talking about so far are on
the white keys. The black keys are used for the sharps and flats. If
you are reading this site, chances are that you already play some
instrument, and have probably come in contact with notes like these
already. People who play other instruments have actually to learn what
notes are sharp and flat, not having it nicely and graphically laid out
Sharps and flats all have two names because they are referenced relative
to the note above or below them. They are the flat of whatever note is
above (which means they sound a little lower), and the sharp of whatever
note is below (where they sound a little higher).10 The
symbols, as you can see from the keyboard are ♯ for
sharp, and ♭ for flat. ♮ is used for
natural (neither sharp nor flat), which may seem unnecessary, but you
use it if a sharpened or flattened version of that note has just
occurred in the same measure, or (more frequently) if the key signature
(to be discussed next) has set sharp or flat as the default for that
note in this piece. When you are writing their names you do it as I did
above with the symbol after the letter. In written music, the symbol
comes just before the affected note. Have a look at the first figure
(Bach) on this page for several examples of accidentals in use.
Sometimes a note will be made double-sharp or double-flat, for reasons
to be explained later. The symbols for those are and
When you use a note that is not normally part of whatever key
you are in, it is called an accidental. As implied above, if you
accidentalize a note, all subsequent versions of that note that follow
it in the same measure (even if it is in a different octave) are
flattened or sharpened as well, without repeating the sign. If you do
not mean for this to happen, you need to use a natural (or sharp, or
flat) sign to set it back. Some people will, out of kindness—not
requirement—parenthetically indicate a return to whatever is the
default for the key signature at the beginning of the next measure (e.g.
"(♮)"). If you want a note to stay flat, you need to mark
it explicitly in each measure (unless it is tied over from the previous
one; even so you will need to explicitly mark the next note).
If the whole idea of a 'key' is a little foreign to you, fret not, we
will return to that topic in the section on "Pitch and Melody." For now,
let it suffice that sometimes a composer wants all the notes of a
particular type to be sharp or flat throughout the piece. She doesn't
want to write ♯ in front of every F in the
whole piece, so tradition allows her to specify at the beginning which
notes are to be sharp or flat throughout the entire work. She must then
repeat that information at the start of each line.12 There are
15 recognized keys, each with their own standard set of sharps or
flats.13 Once a note is set to flat or sharp by one of these
key signatures, it remains so throughout, unless altered by an
accidental within the piece, or by an explicit change of key signature.
Here is an example:
The player knows that any time he sees an F, a C, or a G
it will be sharp unless specifically marked otherwise. The rest are
natural with the same caveat (note how Scarlatti has changed the D in the third measure to a D♯).
With a slash through it () this is called 'cut time'
(or 'alla breve' if you are of the opinion that all musical
terms should be in Italian). It means ², which is the
same as ⁴, but faster.
Do you remember the ⁴ we saw
in one of the earlier figures? Did you notice the at
the beginning of the Scarlatti piece we just looked at? (These two
actually mean the same thing.) These are called time
signatures. The 4 on the bottom means that the quarter note
represents one beat. The 4 on top tells you that there are four of them
in a measure. I alluded earlier (note eight) to the fact that this is
not always the case, although it is so frequently used that it is
sometimes simply invoked with the , which is short of
'common time.'14 But if you have ever paid
attention to a waltz, you will remember that it has three beats per
measure (and hence, three steps in the dance). That is written as
Numerous combinations are possible, except that the lower number will
always be a multiple of 2, since all the note types are of the stream of
2n (where n is negative—e.g. ½, ¼, ⅛,
etc. Theoretically you could use the whole note:
², but I have never seen it). The top number is wide
open, but the bigger it gets, the harder it becomes for the performer,
as a rule. However, ², ⁵,
⁶, ⁹, and
are all quite common.
⁶ and ⁶ have a
swinging feel, and are usually counted as two sets of three per measure,
although they can slide into a ³-ish sound as needed.
⁹ will be three threes;
= four threes. Time signatures like these
that subdivide the perceived beat into three are called 'compound'
meters. Simple meters are those where the beat subdivides into two.
Triple meters like ³ still divide the beat in half,
and are therefore still technically 'simple.' ⁵
is a complex rhythm that is usually counted as a ³
followed by a ² in each measure (there are others, of
course, especially in jazz).
Standard notation does not repeat the time signature at the beginning of
each line as it does with the key signature. So, if you are looking at
the middle of a piece, you may have to look for some usage clues to
determine whether, for example, something is in ³ or
⁶ (if the beat tends to divide in the middle of
the measure, it is probably the latter, if in thirds, it is more likely
If you did not look at the page on clefs earlier, you should at least glance through it
at this point.
As I mentioned in the first section of this
page, the next page
will be dedicated to more stuff on standard music notation. However, the
kinds of things that I will be writing about are useful for performance
(accents, repeats, larger structure marks, etc.). For the purposes of
music theory, these are not hugely important, although they are
essential for reading a score. If I need something later on, I will
describe it in that context. I will not be offended (I will not know) if
you are not really interested in reading music and so skip the next part.