Music Notation

Before you are ready to start learning music, you must get a sense for the basic information that virtually everyone who reads music needs to know. The horizontal lines on a piece of music make up the staff. This is the most basic of all musical symbols and the foundation for everything that is to follow.

The staff is an arrangement of five parallel lines, and the spaces between them. Both lines and spaces are numbered for reference purposes, and are always counted from lowest (bottom of the staff) to highest (top of the staff).

When we run out of room on the staff we add ledger (or leger) lines. These very short lines extend the 5 line, 4 space staff, allowing us to add extra notes. They can be added above or below the treble and bass staff. Those below the staff are the lower notes, while those above are higher notes.

As a beginner, the first leger line you should learn is middle C. On the grand staff, middle C is located between the treble and bass staff, as shown in the diagram on the right.

One of the first things you'll encounter when reading music is the clef. This sign, which looks like a big, fancy cursive symbol at the left end of the staff, is the legend that tells you approximately what range your instrument will play in. All instruments and voices in the higher ranges use the treble clef, and for this intro to reading music, we'll focus primarily on this clef for our examples.

The Treble Clef, or G Clef, is derived from an ornamental Latin letter G. One good way to remember this is that the line at the center of the clef's "swirl" represents the note G. When notes are added to the staff in the treble clef, they will have the following values:

  • The five lines, from the bottom up, represent the following notes: E G B D F.
  • The four spaces, from the bottom up, represent these notes: F A C E.

  • This may seem like a lot to remember, but you can use mnemonics—or word cues—that may help you remember them. For the lines, "Every Good Boy Deserves football" is one popular mnemonic, and the spaces spell out the word "FACE."

    The bass clef, also known as the F clef, is used for instruments in the lower registers, including the left hand of the piano, bass guitar, trombone, and so on.

  • The name "F clef" derives from its origins as the Gothic letter F. The two dots on the clef lie above and below the "F" line on the staff. The staff of the bass clef represents different notes than that of the treble clef.
  • The five lines, bottom to top, represent these notes: G B D F A (Great Big Dogs Fight Angrily).
  • The four spaces, bottom to top, represent these notes: A C E G (All Cows Eat Grass).

  • In western music, there are 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B.

    The ‘#’ sign means that a note has been raised; whereas the ‘b’ means a note has been lowered. So, C# is effectively the same as Db.

    A tone is a distance of two sharps # (or two flats, b).

    A semitone is the distance of one sharp (or one flat).

    EG. The distance between C and D is a tone, because between C and D there is a distance of two sharps (from C to C# and from C# to D)


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