Music 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
This 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.
This 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!)
We 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.
This 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
It 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.
So 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.
This 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.
A 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.
A quarter note looks like a half note that has the circle filled in. A quarter note usually gets one beat.
An 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.
A 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.
A 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.
A 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.
This 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.