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Reading Music

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Introduction

The first step in this study is to learn the written language by which music is communicated. The system of musical notation we use now has been developed over hundred of years and, like any language, continues to evolve.

Notation

Staff

The staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces.

musical-staff

A clef is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes on the staff. The most used clefs are the "treble" and the "bass" clef.

musical-clefs

Treble Clef

The staff line which the clef wraps around (shown in red) is known as G. Any note placed this line becomes G. The note on the space above G is A. The note in the line above A is B. And so on.

treble-clef

Ledger Lines

But what happens when we run out of room to place notes? Ledger Lines will solve our dilemma. A ledger line is a small line that extends the staff when we run out of room. See the example below. With the ledger line drawn, we can place A.

ledger-line

Bass Clef

Next, let's discuss the Bass Clef (also called the F clef). The staff line in between the dots of the clef is F

bass-clef

Grand Clef

Finally we will discuss the Grand Staff, which is basically two staves joined together. Typically, the upper staff uses a treble clef and the lower staff has a bass clef. In this instance, middle C is centered between the two staves, and it can be written on the first ledger line below the upper staff or the first ledger line above the lower staff.

grand-staff

Notes and Rests Duration

Notes Duration

The length of time that a note is played is called note duration, which is determined by the type of note. The whole note (1) has the longest duration in modern music. The half note (2) has half the duration of a whole note. Quarter note (4) is fourth (or a quarter) of a whole note. And so on. See the table below.

Whole note (1) whole_note
Half note (2) half_note half_note
Quarter note (4) quarter_note quarter_note quarter_note quarter_note
Eighth note (8) eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note eighth_note
Sixteenth note (16) sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note sixteenth_note

Although it is possible to have notes with three or more flags, they are seldom used.

Rests Duration

In order to notate silence we can use symbols called rest notes, or simply rests. Each note value has its equivalent rest value. Below we can see the corresponding rest symbols for the note values we already know:


rests

Measures and Time Signature

The beat is the basic unit of time. Each group of beats is called a measure (bar).

Bar Lines

Vertical lines called bar lines divide the staff into measures. The following staff has been split into two measures

bar-lines

Double Bars

A double bar line (or double bar) can consist of two single bar lines drawn close together, separating two sections within a piece, or a bar line followed by a thicker bar line, indicating the end of a piece or movement.

double-bar-line-end

Time signature

Time Signature define the amount and type of notes that each measure contains. The number on top indicates the number of beats in each measure and the number on bottom indicates the duration of each beat.

Time signature 24.png 2 beats per measure
Time signature 34.png 3 beats per measure
Time signature 44.png 4 beats per measure

Let's see a couple of examples below. First measure (4/4) contains four quarter notes. The second measure (3/4) contains three quarter notes.

time-signature-example

First measure (6/8) contains six eighth notes. The second measure (3/2) contains three half notes.

time-signature-example-2

On-beat and off-beat

Every measure has a certain number of beats. Depending on the type of meter, some of those beats are naturally accented. Beats within a measure can be strong, medium or weak. Strong beats are also known as on-beats and weak beats as off-beats. Below we can see the different accentuations depending on the measure.

4 beats per measure.
Beat Accentuation
1rst strong
2nd weak
3rd medium
4th weak
3 beats per measure.
Beat Accentuation
1rst strong
2nd weak
3rd weak
2 beats per measure.
Beat Accentuation
1rst strong
2nd weak

Dots and ties

We have already looked at symbols with durations of one, two and four beats, but what symbol can we use for a note having a duration of three beats? There is no symbol for such duration, but we can create one by adding a dot or a tie.

Dots

A dot increases the duration of the basic note by half of its original value. For instance, adding a dot to a half note (which normally lasts for two beats) we will then have a note lasting three beats instead of two (half of 2 is 1, and 2 + 1 = 3). Let’s now see the value of the shapes we already know, after adding the dot:


Dotted Note Equivalent Value Equivalent Value
whole-dotted-note whole-note + half-note half-note + half-note + half-note
half-dotted-note half-note + quarter-note quarter-note + quarter-note + quarter-note
quarter-dotted-note quarter-note + eighth-note eighth-note + eighth-note + eighth-note
eighth-dotted-note eighth-note + sixteenth-note sixteenth-note + sixteenth-note + sixteenth-note

Ties

A tie is a curved line connecting the heads of two notes of the same pitch and name, indicating that they are to be played as a single note with a duration equal to the sum of the individual notes values. They are used when a bar line is between two notes. See the example below

tie-bar-line

Simple and Compound Meter

Most used simple meters and its corresponding compund.
Simple Equivalent Compund
2/4 6/8
3/4 9/8
4/4 12/8
2/2 6/4

Accidentals

An accidental is a sign used to raise or lower the pitch of a note. Accidentals not only apply to the following note. It also affect every same note in the measure unless canceled by another accidental sign, or tied into a following measure.

Accidental Name Effect
flat flat Lowers the following note a half step
sharp sharp Raises the following note a half step
double-flat double flat Lowers the following note a whole step
double-sharp double sharp Raises the following note a whole step
natural natural Cancels out any accidental

Enharmonic Spelling

Two notes are called enharmonic when they have the same pitch but "spelled", or named differently.

Triplets

Triplets are identified by a little "three" placed above or below the notes. When notes are not beamed together, a little curve or a bracket is required.

The value of a group of triplets is equal to two of the note value of the triplet. So the duration of a triplet quarter note is 2/3 the duration of a standard quarter note. See the table below:

Triplet Equivalent Value Equivalent Value
half-note-triplet half-note half-note whole-note
quarter-note-triplet quarter-note quarter-note half-note
eighth-note-triplet eighth-note eighth-note quarter-note

The following image shows us a helpful way to understand quarter notes triplets quarter-note-triplets

Tricks

Triplets: You can count triplets by saying One-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let...


References

1. Berklee Music Theory Book 1 by Paul Schmeling

2. teoria.com

3. http://www.musictheory.net

4- Teoría Musical y Armonía Moderna Vol.1 (Enric Herrera)

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clef

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/staff

7. http://www.essential-music-theory.com/grand-staff.html

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tie_(music)

9. Timing And Duration Of Quarter Note Triplets 3 [1]