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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?

1 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.

2 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.

3 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 staff

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:

J. S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in Dm (Arabella Steinbacher & Akiko Suwanai)
labeled sheet music fragment
If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
4 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.'

5 The eleven count comes from five lines plus 6 spaces (counting the space above and below).

6 There are actually more clefs, and a third clef-sign that is remotely based on the letter C: C clef-sign. 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 along.

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: G clef-sign the G clef-sign, and F clef-sign the F clef-sign. These are used to indicate the treble and bass clefs, respectively.6

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 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 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).

7 Sometimes it helps to notice that the lines on the bass are just shifted down one from the treble.

Piano range bracked staves

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 anyway.

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.

Note duration

8 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:

Name Duration Note Rest
Whole note Four beats
Half note Two beats
Quarter note One beat
Eighth note One-half beat
Sixteenth note One-quarter beat
Thirty-second note One-eight beat

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
Eight beats
Quad whole note
Sixteen beats
Multi-measure rest 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.

Eighth Sixteenth Mixed With Rest
9 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, dot in next meas. = tie to next meas.. 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 unnecessary.

Dotted quarters Tie Triplet

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.

10 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.

11 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 Chords font useful.

12 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.

13 The fact that there are more keys than notes is explained by the fact that there is some overlap (D♭ = C♯, G♭ = F♯, & C♭ = B).

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 like that.

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 , respectively.11

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:

Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in A major, K208 (Scott Ross, harpsichord) Scarlatti, Sonata in A
If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

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♯).

Time Signatures

14 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 , 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. , , ⅛, etc. Theoretically you could use the whole note: , 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, , ⁵, ⁶, ⁴, 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 -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 still divide the beat in half, and are therefore still technically 'simple.' ⁵ is a complex rhythm that is usually counted as a followed by a 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 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 the former).

More Notation

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.

2013 Alan Humm