How to Read Music Notation

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How to Read Music Notation

Notation is a set of symbols used for writing music. The symbols are placed on a set of lines called the staff to provide a means of representing:

  • Which notes are to be played
  • The order of the notes
  • The pitch of each note
  • The dynamics of each note
  • The length of time each note is to be played
  • The length of time of silence (if any)
  • The key of the composition
  • Additional playing techniques

The following image highlights the most common symbols used in music notation. Each is discussed in greater detail below.

The music notation staff for guitar

The Music Staff

The staff consists of five horizontal parallel lines. Each line and space between lines represents a musical note of a specific pitch. Starting from the bottom the lines are E - G - B - D - F. Starting from the bottom the spaces are F - A - C - E. Listing the lines and spaces together gives E(L) - F(S) - G(L) - A(S) - B(L) - C(S) - D(L) - E(S) - F(L). See the image below.

Notes of the music staff

The classic mnemonic for memorizing the lines of the staff is Every Good Boy Does Fine (starting from the bottom). The spaces obviously spell the word FACE.

Notice the top space and the bottom line both represent an E note. The top space represents an E note that is higher in pitch than the E note represented by the bottom line.

Note symbols are not limited to being placed within the staff. Notes can also be placed above and below the staff as in examples (1) and (2) in the image below. Since the bottom line of the staff represents an E note, the space below this line represents a D note since D comes before E. Therefore, example (1) in the image below represents a D note. Since the top line of the staff represents an F note, example (2) represents a G note since G comes after F. Examples (3) and (4) represents the use of leger lines to temporarily extend the range of the staff.

Leger lines

To represent a C note whose pitch is lower than that of the D note in example (1) another line must be added. Rather than adding a line to the entire staff, a leger line is added instead. Example (3) shows a C note on a leger line below the staff. Example (4) shows an A note on a leger line above the staff. Any number of leger lines can be added to achieve the desired note at the desired pitch.

The staff is read from left to right.

The Clef

At the beginning of the staff is the clef. The clef fixes the position of one note on the staff, thereby determining the location of all notes on the staff. Music notation written for the guitar uses the G-clef pictured in the diagram above. For that reason this tutorial only discusses the G-clef. Notice in the diagram above how the clef circles around the second line from the bottom. The staff with a G-clef indicates the second line from the bottom represents a G note. Since the second line is G we can determine the notes for the other lines and the spaces.

Measures

The staff is divided into sections called measures or bars. Measures are separated by bar lines. Each measure contains a certain number of beats which are determined by the time signature.

Measures of the music notation staff

Time Signatures

Following the clef is the time signature. The time signature sets the time of the song. The time is represented by two numbers, one stacked on top of the other. The top number is the number of beats per measure. The bottom number is which note symbol receives one beat. The image below shows some examples of common time signatures.

Time signature examples

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