Music Notation – The Basics

Music Theory BasicMusic theory tells us the symbols and rules for music notation – how to write music on paper. Musicians use standard rules so everyone can understand how they want the music to sound. Maybe you are just starting to learn about music and haven’t learned any of these things yet, but someday you will need to learn them. So now you can get a head start! I will help you learn some very basic music symbols today.

Basic Notation – The Musical Staff

Treble clef signThis is a treble (or G) clef sign. The treble clef sign tells us that the notes written after it will have a higher sound. People who play the violin, viola, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, French horn, trumpet, xylophone, marimba, piano, organ read treble clef notes.

Bass Clef SignThis is a bass (or F) clef sign. The bass clef sign tells us that the notes written after it will have a lower sound. People who play the cello, bass, trombone, baritone, tuba, timpani read bass clef notes. People who play piano, organ, marimba also read bass clef notes. (They know how to read bass clef and treble clef!)

Staff LinesWe write music on lines and spaces. We call a group of these lines and spaces a staff. Each staff has 5 lines and 4 spaces between the lines. We write treble and bass clef signs on a staff. When we talk about more than one staff, we use the word “staves”. Usually staves go across an entire piece of paper.

Grand StaffThis is what we call a grand staff. We have taken a staff with a treble clef sign, and a staff with a bass clef sign and connected them together with a brace at the beginning. This is what we use when we want to write treble clef and bass clef music at the same time. If you play the piano, you will read music from a grand staff.

Music Notation – Measures

bar lines and measuresIt would be way too hard to read an entire line or page of music if the music was not broken up into smaller sections. We do that by using vertical (up and down) lines through the music. We call these bar lines. Bar lines are vertical lines that go through the staff to divide the music into smaller segments. We call these segments measures. Only so much music can fit into each segment, or measure.

Time SignaturesSo we learned that bar lines divide the music into smaller segments, called measures, and that each measure can only hold so much music. But how do we know how much music can fit in a measure? Time signatures tell us! Each time signature has two numbers. The top number tells how many “beats” or “pulses” can fit in each measure. The bottom number tells us what kind of note gets one “beat” or “pulse.”

Rhythm Notation – Notes and their Values

The way a note is written on the lines and spaces gives some of the clues we need to know how to play the note. The way a note is drawn (shape, with a line attached, with flags) gives information about how long to play the note.

Whole NoteThis is what a whole note looks like. I used to tell some of my very young students that a whole note looks like a chocolate doughnut. Usually, a whole note gets 4 beats, or pulses. In 4 /4 or 3 /4 music a whole note fills up an entire measure of music.

Half NoteA half note looks like a chocolate doughnut with a straw beside it – a circle with a stem. A half note usually gets 2 beats – half of a whole note.

Quarter NoteA quarter note looks like a half note that has the circle filled in. A quarter note usually gets one beat.

Eighth NoteAn eighth note looks like a quarter note with a flag on its stem. An eighth note is half a quarter note, so it gets half a beat. Or we could say that two eighth notes take up the same musical space as a quarter note.

Rhythm Notation – Rests and their Values

Musical notes tell us when to play our instruments, or when to make sounds. But what does a composer do to tell you not to play? We use rests to show us when to be silent, or not to play. Just like the shape and coloring of a note told us how long to play that note, the shape of a rest tells us how long to be silent.

Whole RestA whole rest is our longest rest. We can say that it is the “heaviest” rest, because when we write it on a line it is too heavy to sit on top of the line – it always flips over and hangs from the line. Just a like a whole note, a whole rest gets 4 beats.

Half RestA half rest looks like a whole rest, except it can sit on top of a line – it isn’t as heavy as a whole rest. A half rest gets 2 beats. I used to tell my students that a half rest looks like a little hat sitting on a line.

Quarter RestA quarter rest looks different. It looks like a 3 with a fancy tail underneath it. A quarter rests tells us to be silent for 1 beat.

Eighth RestThis is an eighth rest. Like an eighth note, it only gets ½ a beat. You need two eighth rests to make one beat.

You now should have a good idea of what many of the things are that you will see on a page of music. Come back next week and we will learn some more about time signatures and rhythm.

Music Theory – What Is It and Why Should I Care?

What is music theory and why should I care?
What is music theory and why should I care?

Music theory is a way to explain how music works.

Some people explain music theory by comparing it to grammar. Just like grammar helps us to learn the rules for writing sentences and paragraphs, music theory is the rules and structure for the language of music. The rules  are not restrictive rules; rather, the rules are the foundation on which the music is built, the structure, or the skeleton, for our music. It is a way of explaining why some sounds work better than others. The ideas that help us understand music and how it is put together is music theory. On its most basic level music theory deals with the notation, structure, rhythm, melody, and harmony of music. Music theory explains how to take the sounds a composer wants and express them on paper.

Why should I care about music theory?

If you are learning to play music, knowing some basics of music theory will be a big help to you! Can you look at a piece of music and understand what all the black stuff on the page means? That is music theory.

Knowing music theory will help you learn your music faster.

At some point you need to learn your music by reading it off the page, not by listening to someone else play it for you. If you know music theory you can read the notes off the page, understand how the notes should be played, and understand why they work together. The better you can do that, the better you can learn new music.

Knowing music theory will help you memorize music more easily.

Sooner or later, if you keep taking music lessons, you will have to memorize some music. The more you understand how the music is put together, the easier you will be able to memorize your music. You can look for patterns in the music, you can understand what the music is doing. Can you tell if a group of notes is just a scale in disguise, or if it is a chord with the notes played one at a time instead of all together? Understanding the logic behind the music will make memorizing your music easier.

Knowing music theory will make you a better sight reader.

Have you ever had anyone place an unknown piece of music in front of you and tell you to play it? Can you do that without panicking? Music theory to the rescue! If you have some understanding of music theory, you know what to look for before you start to play. You know to check the key signature and the time signature. You know to glance through the music and look for patterns. Music theory helps you look for all the clues that make playing the piece a little bit less intimidating.

Music theory helps to improve your improv.

If you want to improvise on your instrument knowing some music theory will help you do a better job! Do you know what key you’re playing in? Is the piece major or minor? What chords are you using? Knowing how to figure out all those things helps you be a better improvise.

Some basic music theory knowledge helps you help your child.

Are you the parent of a music student? Do you know anything about music? If not, learning some basic music theory will help you help your child. You can listen to them play and hear that something is not quite right, but can you help them find what they are missing, what they are getting wrong? Learn some basics along with them, and you can help them find their playing errors.

Learning some basic music theory will help beginners learn music better and faster, it will help more experienced students understand their music better, and it will help parents be able to help their children. Stop by next week, and we will learn some of the basics!