What’s All This Extra Stuff on my Music?

Accidentals and Key SignaturesSo, you’ve been working on your note reading skills and your rhythm, and then your teacher hands you a piece of music with all sorts of strange marks on it. What’s up with that? What’s all that extra stuff on your music? Today I’m going to tell you about some of that extra stuff.

Whole Steps and Half Steps

Before we can get to some of that extra stuff you have to know about whole steps and half steps. A half step is the distance from one note to the very next closest note, either up or down. If you look at a piano keyboard, a half step often  goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to the next white key. But sometimes two white keys are right next to each other. Then they are a half step apart. Look at the graphic below. I marked some half steps in purple. See how they go from one note to the very next note? Now, look at the green markings. Those represent whole steps. See how whole steps are two half steps put together? Often a whole step goes from one white key to the next white key, or from one black key to the next black key. But sometimes a whole step goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to a white key. That is where accidentals come in.

Whole Steps and Half Steps


Some of the extra things on your music are accidentals. Sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs are accidentals. In music we write  these signs  before the note they apply to. (You see the sign before you see the note.) A sharp sign raises a note by a half step. A flat sign lowers a note by a half step. And a natural sign will cancel out earlier sharp and flat signs. Important thing to remember: when one of these signs is written in front of your note, the sign applies to every note that of that same name in the measure, but ONLY in that measure. So, if you have the note F with a sharp sign in front of it, instead of playing a regular F you play the note that is one half step higher than F – F sharp.

Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs

Key Signatures

If a composer wrote every sharp and flat sign in front of the notes in the music, your music would be very sloppy and cluttered! Someone came up with a better system. What if a composer wanted every F in his music to be played as an F sharp? He could write a sharp sign at the beginning of the music that would tell all the musicians to play every F as an F sharp. This is called a key signature.You find a key signature at the beginning of your music – right after the treble or bass clef sign. Key signatures always follow specific orders and patterns. This letter sequence you will tell you the order of all the sharps and flats in a key signature:

B – E – A – D – G – C – F

That is the order of flats in key signatures. Now, if you turn that sequence around you get the order of sharps:

F – C – G – D – A – E – B

The next graphic shows you what all the key signatures look like. Don’t worry – it will probably be a while before you play music with 5 or 6 sharps or flats in the key signature!

Key Signatures

Be sure to come back next week when we learn about intervals!



Baroque Music

Baroque MusicHave you ever enjoyed listening to some of Handel’s Messiah, or perhaps his Water Music? How about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? Or Pachelbel’s Canon? If so, you have enjoyed some great Baroque music. The era of Baroque music lasted from about 1600 – 1750 A.D.

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Many scholars have called Baroque music ordered, ornate, and increasingly emotional. Baroque music also had a certain grandeur and elegance. Baroque composers believed that music was a powerful tool of communication and expression. Many consider this era of music the richest and most diverse of music history. The music of the Baroque era emphasized a single melody and a bass line. An entire piece of music reflected a single mood. Composers became more interested in the sounds of individual instruments.

Musical Changes in the Era of Baroque Music

One thing that changed considerably during the Baroque Era was the orchestra. Wind instruments were added to the orchestra, the size of the orchestra increased, and the overall sound of the orchestra changed as well.

The idea of figured bass, or basso continuo, changed the way musicians wrote and understood music. Basically, figured bass was a way of musical shorthand for composers. The composer wrote the bass notes (the lowest notes), and possibly a melody. The bass notes had additional number markings that indicated what chords to play along with the bass note. The bass players and the melody line were fairly easy to follow – the rest of the players had to do a lot of improvising. You might think of figured bass as an early form of a lead sheet. This changed the way composers and keyboard players worked with chords. It allowed composers to put down a minimum amount of information on their scores. It also helped composers write music faster. This also gave performers more artistic freedom.

Another important change during the Baroque Era was the development of major and minor keys, or the concept of Equal Temperament. Prior to this each octave was divided into 19 separate tones. This included specific different tones for things like F# and G♭. (If you find those two notes on a keyboard today, they are played by the same key.) Music and science came together and divided the notes of an octave into 12 equal divisions. Today we call these divisions half-steps. This allowed instruments to play in many different keys and still be in tune with themselves. Bach promoted this new concept by writing his Well-Tempered Clavier (or Keyboard). The book consisted of sets of two pieces for each of the 24 major and minor keys now available.

Baroque music also gave us the concept of counterpoint – the ultimate set of rules for music composition, Counterpoint has to do with how the different lines of music in a piece relate to each other, both melodically and rhythmically. The Baroque idea of counterpoint blended a mathematical manipulation of a melody with great artistry. And Johann Sebastian Bach was definitely the Baroque master of the art of counterpoint.

Instrument Changes in Baroque Music

One of the major instrumental changes related to the harpsichord. Harpsichords were keyboard instruments, but they had major limitations. Plucked strings produced the sound of a harpsichord. They went out of tune easily. Also, they could not vary their dynamics much. You could play them loud, or soft, but not both. So, in 1700 Bartolomeo Cristoforo invented the piano-forte, the precursor to our modern piano. The piano-forte (which meant soft-loud) could play both loud and soft. Instead of being plucked, little hammers hit the strings of the new piano-forte. So if you changed how hard the hammers hit the strings, you could change the volume.

Another big change in instruments came in the string family. The modern violin took precedence over the viol (viola da gamba). The modern violins produced a bigger sound and had better projection than the viols. This was also the time period of the three most famous violin makers: Giuseppe Guarneri, Nicolo Amati, and Antonio Stradivari.

Key Composers of Baroque Music

Many famous composers came from the Baroque Era. You ought to be familiar with many of them. Here is a list of some of the best-known composers from the Baroque.

Pachelbel – Music of Pachelbel

Vivaldi – Music of Vivaldi

Monteverdi – Music of Monteverdi

Corelli – Music of Corelli

Johann S. Bach – Music of Bach

Handel – Music of Handel

Frescobaldi – Music of Frescobaldi

Domenico Scarlatti – Music of Scarlatti

Couperin – Music of Couperin

Lully – Music of Lully

Rameau – Music of Rameau

Telemann – Music of Telemann

Purcell – Music of Purcell

Quantz – Music of Quantz

Buxtehude – Music of Buxtehude

Take some time to listen to some music from the Baroque Era. Let me know what you think – do you like it? This era gives a great foundation for all the music that comes after it.

Did you miss our looks at earlier music eras? Check them out here: Renaissance MusicMusic of the Middle AgesMusic of the Ancients


Music Lesson Etiquette

Etiquette refers to conduct and behavior that is proper for a given situation. Music lesson etiquette is correct behavior or conduct relating to the music lesson. Usually, proper etiquette is a show of respect for other people, their time, and their property. Let’s see how this relates to your music lessons.

Music Lesson Etiquette

Be prompt.

Be on time, even a bit early, for your child’s lesson. You are paying for a certain amount of your teacher’s time – be there so your child can get the most out of every lesson. Do not expect the teacher to teach five or ten minutes later just because you got the five or ten minutes late. Most likely the teacher has another student waiting right after your child is finished. I understand that sometimes traffic is horrible, or something happens that is completely out of your control. In that case, give your teacher a call or text and let her know the situation.

Be sure your child has all his materials with him (music and instrument).

Please have your child come prepared to his lesson. The teacher’s job is more difficult if your child shows up for lessons without his music or instrument. A good teacher will be able to adjust, but you should not put that pressure on the teacher, especially if the forgotten music is habitual. It is not fair to either the teacher or the child.

Don’t monopolize the music teacher’s time.

Sure, you want to have a conversation with the teacher, but if you talk to her for fifteen minutes, then your child only gets half a lesson. The child is cheated out of half her lesson, and the teacher will be frustrated because she is unable to accomplish her goals for the lesson time. Instead, ask her when she is available to talk, or if she has time to talk before or after the lesson. Respect the teaching time.

Don’t expect the teacher to adjust her schedule to yours.

You chose a particular time for your child’s music lesson. Don’t expect the teacher to keep rearranging his schedule to fit all your other activities. Most teachers will understand emergencies, or illness, but they are not required to change their schedule to fit around soccer practice or last-minute school projects.

Respect the teacher’s space.

Whether your music teacher teaches in a studio or in her own home, you are entering her space for a lesson. The teacher has a designated area for waiting parents and students, designated restrooms for your use. Stay in the designated areas! Respect the space – keep it clean, leave muddy shoes by the door, keep feet off the furniture. Show common courtesy!

If you must bring other children with you, keep them under control and quiet.

I understand that you may have no choice but to bring your other children to music lessons with you. Maybe they are waiting for the next lesson, maybe no one is at home to stay with them. Fine – but keep them quiet and content. Make sure they have some quiet activities to do. Keep them in the designated waiting area. If they just cannot sit still or keep relatively quiet, take them outside. Maybe there will be days when you will just have to wait in the car. Or go to the park, or the play place at McDonald’s. Your music teacher cannot concentrate on your child’s lesson when he is wondering if his studio will be in one piece when your child’s lesson is finished.

Respect others who are waiting.

Be courteous to others. If someone is waiting for their lesson, don’t expect the teacher to spend time holding a lengthy conversation with you. Make space for others to sit down while they are waiting – consolidate your other kids and all your stuff. Be kind – don’t talk disrespectfully about other students or the teacher.

Pick your student up on time after the lesson.

Your music teacher is not your babysitter. When the allotted lesson time is over, be there to pick up your child. The music teacher is not responsible for watching your child after the lesson is over – she is supposed to be concentrating on teaching her next student.

Don’t bring your student to lessons when he is obviously sick.

This should be obvious, but I will mention it anyhow. Why bring your child’s germs to infect the teacher and anyone else who is there? How does that show respect to anyone? If you know your child is not feeling well, don’t bring him to music lessons!

Pay your teacher promptly.

We addressed this in a previous post (see here: Pay Your Music Teacher!), but be prompt in your payments. Your teacher is depending on that payment to pay his bills. This is part of his income. Your prompt payments help relieve stress for the teacher. If there is an emergency or unexpected problem, talk to the teacher and see what the two of you can work out.

Music lesson etiquette just boils down to common courtesy and respect for others. Although respect and courtesy are often lacking in today’s world, let’s make an effort and show proper kindness to others in the music lesson setting.

Music teachers, what other things would you add to our list? Post your suggestions in our comments section.