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The system of music notation allows us to specify two of the main characteristics of music: the note to be played, and its duration.
The following pages will show the basic aspects of music reading. We will begin by learning how to specify durations of sound. For this, let’s take a look at two important concepts: beats (pulsations) and measures.
2. Beats and Measures
We will use several examples to illustrate these two concepts.
Beats – in each example you can hear a series of steady clicks, each one being a beat or a pulsation.
Measures – the beats or pulsations are grouped in numbers of two, three and four. A measure is such a pattern of a group of beats. It is very common to find measures having groups of two, three or four beats.
3. Time Signature
When reading music, one of the first element we will encounter is the time signature. Measures are qualified by two numbers used in the time signature. The number on top indicates the number of beats in each measure (we will later explain the function of the number on the bottom):
2 beats per measure
3 beats per measure
4 beats per measure
It is quite common to use the symbol as a time signature to define the measure of .
4. Note Value
Once we understand the concept of measure and beats, we can start reading music.
The duration of a sound is indicated using several symbols. Let’s start by getting to know the symbols with durations of one, two and four beats:
Name (USA) Name (England) Duration Symbol
Whole Note Semibreve 4 beats
Half Note Minim 2 beats
Quarter Note Crotchet 1 beat
Note the relationship of values between the different symbols:
Each whole note (semibreve):
is divided into two half notes (minim).
And each half note (minim)
is divided into two quarter notes (crotchet)
Thus, each symbol will have half the
value of the preceding shape.
Let’s see a musical example using these symbols. The vertical lines (or bar lines) separate and group the notes into measures in order to facilitate reading (we can see three measures in this particular example). You can hear a percussive sound for each beat, and a clarinet sound playing the written notes. Note how a half note will take the duration of two percussive sounds (two beats), the quarter note will take just one beat, and the whole note will take four beats.
5. Dotted Notes and the Tie
We have already looked at symbols with durations of one, two and four beats, but what symbol can we use for a note having a duration of three beats?
There is no symbol for such duration, but we can create one by adding a dot or a tie.
Attaching a dot to the right side of the note will add half of its value to its total duration. For instance, if we add the dot to a half note (minim) – which normally lasts for two beats – we will then have a note lasting three beats instead of two (half of 2 is 1, and 2 + 1 = 3. Let’s now see the value of the shapes we already know, after adding the dot:
6 beats (4 + 2)
3 beats (2 + 1)
1 beat and a half (1 + 1/2)
The tie allows us to achieve the same goal. Using a tie between two notes will add the value of the second note to the value of the first. For instance, if we tie a quarter note (crotchet) to a half note (minim) , we will get a note lasting three beats (same as a dotted half note).
The following musical example illustrates the use of a dotted half note (minim), and a half note tied to a quarter note (crotchet). You will hear a percussive sound for each beat, and a clarinet sound playing the written notes. Note that the resulting rhythm on the first measure (using the tie) is exactly the same as the rhythm found on the second bar (using the dotted note).
In music, silence is just as important as sound. How do we notate silence? We notate silence by using symbols called rest notes, or simply rests.
There is an equivalent rest symbol for each note value. Below we can see the corresponding rest symbols for the note values we already know:
(USA) Note Name
(England) Symbol Rest
Whole Note Semibreve
Half Note Minim
Quarter Note Crotchet
7. Values Shorter Than a Beat
The smallest value we have seen up to this point is that of the quarter note (crotchet), which lasts for a whole beat. Of course, there are symbols for notes of shorter duration.
Here you can see symbols that take a half (50%) or a fourth (25%) of a beat:
Symbols Name Value
(quaver) Half of a quarter note.
We can have two eighth
notes for each beat.
(semiquaver) One fourth of a quarter note.
We can have four of
these for each beat.
It is common practice to beam together the flags of eighth notes and sixteenth notes that are part of the same beat, in order to facilitate reading.
8. Eighth and Sixteenth Notes (quaver and semiquaver)
There are many possible combinations of eighth notes (quaver) and sixteenth notes (semiquaver) we can use. To make reading easier, it is necessary to learn to identify and comprehend these formulas of combinations. The following table shows some of the most common combinations. The sixteenth notes (semiquaver) below the written notes indicate the subdivision in four equal parts of the beat.
9. Eighth-Note (quaver) and Sixteenth-Note (semiquaver) Rests
There are also symbols to represent silence with the value of eighth notes (quaver) and sixteenth notes (semiquaver):
Following we can see a few examples using rests. sixteenth notes (semiquaver) below the written notes indicate the subdivision in four equal parts of the beat.
To this point, we have only subdivided each beat in two or four equal parts. However, it is also possible to divide a beat in three equal parts, with the use of triplets. Triplets are notated by writing the number 3 above the group of notes that will form the triplet. Note how, as in the second example, we can join two of the eighth notes that are part of the triplet, forming a quarter note inside the triplet.
11. Beat Unit
Until now, we have used the quarter note (crotchet) to represent the value of a beat. Nevertheless, we can indeed use any note value to serve as the beat unit. In time signatures the lower number indicates the kind of note that gets one beat, i.e., quarter note/crotchet (4), half note/minim (2), eighth note/quaver) (8), sixteenth/semiquaver note (16), etc. (see Time or Meter Signatures for more information).
If we use 2 for the bottom number, the half note (minim) will then become the beat unit. We will now illustrate a series of rhythmic formulas written using the time signature of 2/2. Note that the half note (minim) now represents one beat, the quarter note (crotchet) is a half beat and the eighth note (quaver) is a fourth of a beat.
12. Simple and Compound Meters
The kinds of measures we have studied so far use what is known as simple meter. With simple meters, each beat is subdivided in equal halves. In the case of a 4/4 meter, each beat is divided into two eighth notes, as we saw earlier.
With compound meters, each beat is subdivided into three equal parts. We can tell a compound meter because it uses 6, 9 or 12 for the top number of the time signature. Let’s take a look at several examples of the compound meter of 6 over 8 (6/8). This meter actually has two beats; the note value that has the value of a beat is the dotted quarter note (crotchet), which can be subdivided into three eighth notes (quaver).
13. Reading Musical Notes
Now that we know how to read rhythms, how do we then read musical notes?
Notes are written on a staff:
The clef assigns names to the notes. In the following example we show a staff with a treble clef. The treble clef is commonly used for high pitched instruments like the flute and the violin. This clef assigns the note G to the second line. Note how the treble clef shape seems to curl around the second line. All notes written on that line are a G:
The note written on the space above the G is an A and the one on the following line is a B. As you can see, the notes continue in order (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) alternating lines and spaces:
Using ledger lines we can write notes higher than the G and lower than the D:
To help the memorization of notes on the staff it is useful to memorize the names of the notes over the lines and spaces:
The notes over the spaces make the word FACE. The notes over the lines can be memorized using the following phrase: Every Good Boy Does Fine.
Practice note reading with our Clef Reading exercise.
All the notes we have seen so far correspond to the white keys of the piano keyboard. We will now see how to write notes that correspond to the black keys of the piano.
Here we show how the white keys of the piano are written on the staff:
How do we write the black keys?
Let’s take an example. The black key located between the C and D keys can be notated by preceding the C with the symbol of the sharp accidental , or by preceding the D with the symbol of the flat accidental . The other keys can be written in a similar way:
The distance between any key and the following one is called a half-step. The sharp symbol raises a note by a half-step, while the flat symbol lowers the note by a half-step.
15. Key Signatures
When a piece is not in the key of C Major or A Minor, it requires the use of regular accidentals. In order to avoid having to keep writing those accidentals, we can place them at the beginning of the piece using what is known as a key signature.
For instance, a piece in the key of D Major makes regular use of the notes of F-sharp and C-sharp. The key signature of D Major will then utilize those two accidentals; meaning that when this key signature is present, all F and C notes are automatically raised and become sharp notes, unless they are preceded by the symbol of the natural accidental.
Following we have a fragment from Beethoven’s famous Ode to Joy, in the key of D Major. Note how all the F and C notes are played sharp: