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 of the Ancients

Music of the Ancients
Music of the Ancients

It’s music history day again, and we are going to look at the music of the ancients. I know some of you think that anything that happened over a week ago is ancient, but we’re looking back a lot further than that! Ancient music history deals with anything we know about music before 400 A.D. And yes, there was music long before that!

Music of Ancient Mesopotamia

The Standard of Ur is an ancient artifact from about 2500 B.C. It shows a picture of a person playing the lyre and a singer, both entertaining the king at a feast. Other artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia show that they had harps, lutes, wooden flutes, reed pipes, drums, and tambourines.

Music of Ancient India

The Vedas, the sacred writings of Hinduism, were written in ancient India about 1500 B.C. Instead of just reciting the Vedas, it seems that people chanted, or sang them. Sometimes instruments accompanied the chanting of the Vedas. The ravanatha, an ancient Indian bowed string instrument, was made from a coconut shell and bamboo.  The veena was a stringed instrument that was plucked. Ancient Indians also had a double-sided drum called a mridangam.

Music of Ancient China

Music was very important to the ancient Chinese. One of their ancient philosophers (great thinkers) said that music reflected the fundamental order of the universe. The ancient Chinese even had a department of the government for music. The Imperial Bureau of Music regulated all the court and military music in ancient China. Chinese opera developed in the 3rd century B.C. And no, Chinese opera is not at all like the opera we know today! The Chinese used zithers, flutes, bells, chime stones, and shengs – like mouth organs, but made from bamboo. Here is a link to what people think ancient Chinese music sounded like:

Music of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians thought music was very important. They used music in their religious ceremonies and rituals. Music was also important for their official government ceremonies. They had music for dancing, music for love, and even music for death. Archaeologists have found pictures of ancient Egyptians playing instruments and dancing. Here is a link to what people think ancient Egyptian music sounded like:

Music of the Ancient Hebrews

The Old Testament of the The Bible tells us much of the history of the Hebrew (Jewish) people. The Bible contains many references to music and musicians in the Old Testament. The worship in the tabernacle and the temple included a set group of musicians and singers. King David was a skilled harp player. The priests blew trumpets when they marched around the city of Jericho. The book of Psalms mentions singers and musicians repeatedly. Psalm 150 lists several of instruments: trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, organs, cymbals. Where did they learn about all these instruments? Abraham came out of Mesopotamia. The Hebrew people spent time in ancient Egypt. They interacted with other cultures around them. Music spreads.

Music of Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks believed that music was very important to all aspects of life. They thought that music was both a science and an art, and they developed themes and systems about music. Remember learning about Pythagoras in math class? Pythagoras established the mathematical foundations of music. He set out the laws of proportion in music and introduced the seven-tone scale. Even Plato (a famous Greek thinker) was a big supporter of music. He believed that rhythm and melody produce a certain mental harmony important to a person’s well-being. The ancient Greeks invented the organ. They used water to pressurize the air to make the organ function. You could even say that the Greeks invented the musical – the ancient Greek dramas were all accompanied by music, choral singing, and even their own version of “rap” (called declaiming). The most important musical innovation of the Greeks was the invention of musical notation. This wasn’t really like the notation we have today, but the ancient Greeks did assign letters (24 of them!) to represent different tones.

Music of Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans were really into the organ – they had the organ accompany the gladiator contests! They improved on the organ as well. Instead of using water pressure for the organ, they moved to a system of leather bellows for the air. In 350 A.D. the church in Rome set up a School of Singing.


Scholars and archaeologists discovered pictures from the ancient times of people performing music. They found written literature from ancient times discussing music. They also found artifacts from ancient times of instruments used to make music. Unfortunately, they have only found a couple fragments of actual music from the ancient times. For that reason, music of the ancient times isn’t really included in music history.


Finding a Music Teacher

How to Find a Music Teacher

So, you decided that your child will take music lessons, and now you must find a music teacher. How do you do that? Obviously, you want to find a teacher who is qualified, who will work well with your child, who will inspire your child to greatness, and will make every lesson as exciting as a favorite video game. Is there such a person? Probably not, but I am sure you can find a music teacher who is just right for your child! I managed to find at least 10 different music teachers for my children, so I am pretty sure you can find one too!

Finding the right music teacher
Finding the right music teacher

How or where to look for a music teacher:

  1. Word of mouth is probably the best way to start looking for a music teacher. Ask your friends if they know anyone qualified. Does your child have any friends at school taking lessons on the same instrument? Ask them who their teacher is. Is there anyone at church who plays that instrument? Ask them if they know anyone who teaches that instrument.
  1. Ask the music teachers at your child’s school. They often know people in the area who teach lessons. See who they recommend.
  1. Also, ask at your local music store. Sometimes a music store has teachers who teach lessons there. Or they might have a list of private music teachers in the area. One of my girls took lessons for a while from a teacher at our store.
  1. Are there any universities, colleges, or community colleges in your area? Check with them. If the school has a good music program, there are probably students who would be happy to earn some extra money giving lessons. Also, some music departments have a “prep” school connected with them. This gives their music students an opportunity to give lessons in a supervised environment. Other colleges may have a community music program that offers lessons by qualified instructors to the general community. Three of my girls taught at their college music prep school. Three of my boys took lessons from the community music school at a local college.
  1. Search the internet – there are professional organizations that list music teachers by area. Sometimes music teachers have their own websites. Do some research.

Okay, so you narrowed your search down to a couple names, now what? How do you proceed? What things do you need to consider before making a final choice?

What to look for in a music teacher:

  1. Does the teacher have openings in her schedule, or would your name go on a waiting list?
  1. Where does the person teach? At school? In your home? At the music store? In his/her own studio? And are you willing to drive to this location every week? (Or clean your house every week before the teacher appears? Been there, done that!)
  1. Does the teacher have good references? Ask for some names you can contact as references.
  1. Do you think this person will be a good fit for your child? Will their personalities work well together?
  1. Can you (or your child) deal with the teacher’s expectations? I took my son to a trial lesson with a music teacher once, and I thought the teacher was just a bit too intense for my son. A few years later we came back to that same teacher, and my son had developed enough so that this teacher was just what he needed. They worked together for several years after that.
  1. Ask for a trial lesson before making a commitment. Sit in on the lesson. See how your child and the teacher interact. See if you are both comfortable with the teacher’s style.
  1. Also, be sure you understand how the teacher expects to be paid.

Don’t settle for the first teacher you find, look for someone who will challenge and inspire your child. Look for someone who will care about their progress and who will motivate them. I hope you find a great music teacher!

What other suggestions do you have? Leave them in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you!