The five-line staff is used to indicate pitch. Each line or space indicates the pitch belonging to a note with a letter name:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
Ledger or leger lines
These additional lines (and the spaces they form) indicate pitches above or below the staff.
Bold double bar line
These indicate the conclusion of a movement or of a composition.
Dotted bar line
These can be used to subdivide measures of complex meter into shorter segments for ease of reading.
A bracket is used to connect two or more lines of music that sound simultaneously or staves of individual instruments or vocal part.
A brace (accolade) is used to connect two or more lines of music that are played simultaneously, generally when using a grand staff. The grand staff is used for piano, harp, and some pitched percussion instruments.
RHYTHMIC VALUES OF NOTES AND RESTS
Semibreve /Whole rest
Crotchet/ Quarter rest
Quaver / Eighth rest
Semiquaver / sixteenth rest
Demisemiquaver /Thirty-second note
Demisemiquaver / Thirty-second rest
Hemi-demisemiquaver/ Sixty-fourth rest
Semi-hemi-demi-semiquaver / Quasi-hemi-demi-semiquaver/ Hundred twenty-eighth note
Semi-hemi-demi-semiquaver/ Quasi-hemi-demi-semiquaver Hundred twenty-eighth rest
Demi-semi-hemi-demi- semiquaver note/Two hundred fifty-six note
Eighth notes are connected by a single line.
Sixteenth notes are connected by two lines.
Thirty-second notes are connected by three lines.
Grouping: The Rules
Do not beam across a bar line.
Do not beam across the center of a measure.
Sixteenth Notes are grouped by beat.
Thirty-Second Notes are grouped by beat.
We’re going to start with 4/4 time since it’s the most common time signature.
Every time signature has “strong” and “weak” beats. In 4/4 time, beat one is the strongest beat in the measure. Beats two and four are weak, while beat three is the secondary strong beat, meaning that it’s strong, but not as strong as beat one.
Now that you’ve seen where the “strong” beats lie, you can see why it’s important not to beam over the middle of the measure. In 4/4 time, beats two and three should always be separated. However, beats one and two can be grouped together, as well as beats three and four. Observe how to beam eighth notes in the example below.
Remember that both sixteenth and thirty-second notes should be grouped by beat. In 4/4 time, this means that there will be a maximum of four sixteenth notes in a beat, and a maximum of eight thirty-second notes in a beat. Recall the single line that connects two groups of thirty-second notes.
Now, let’s look at some examples of correct and incorrect beaming in 4/4 time. Remember the rules!
Are you starting to see how the correct examples are much easier to read than the incorrect examples?
In 3/4 time, beat one is the strongest, while beats two and three are both considered weak.
Because there is an odd number of beats per measure, the “center” of 3/4 time is in the middle of beat two. However, as both beats two and three are weak, there is no need to separate them. Though most choose to group eighth notes by beat in 3/4 time, both of the following groupings are correct:
It’s important to note that eighth notes in 3/4 time should not be grouped like this:
Remember that 3/4 is a simple time signature, meaning that the beat is divisible by two, not three. This grouping is actually the correct grouping for 6/8 time, which we will come back to later.
Sixteenth and thirty-second notes are the same in 3/4 time as they are in 4/4 time since the quarter note is still the equivalent to one beat.
In 2/4 time, beat one is strong and beat two is weak.
The center of the measure in 2/4 time is between beats one and two, so remember: don’t beam over it! Again, the quarter note is equivalent to one beat, so we can have a maximum of four sixteenth notes per beat, and eighth thirty-second notes per beat.
Grouping: 6/8 Time
We’re moving onto a compound time signature, which means, everything changes! Yay! 6/8 will be the only compound time signature we cover, as it’s by far the most common, and once you get the hang of it, 9/8 and 12/8 will be pretty self-explanatory.
It’s important to remember that in compound time signatures, the beat is divided into three equal parts, while in simple time signatures, the beat is divided into two equal parts. Because of this, in 6/8 time, there are six eighth notes per measure, but it often feels like there are only two beats. If this isn’t ringing any bells, take a moment to review compound time signatures here.
In 6/8 time, we will refer to the eighth notes as “divisions” rather than beats. Divisions one and four act as the two beats, with one being the strongest out of the two. Divisions two, three, five, and six are all weak.
The center of the measure in 6/8 time is between divisions three and four, so we keep them separated, as indicated in the image above.
Now that we’re in compound time, the beat has changed from a quarter note to a dotted quarter note. So instead of four sixteenth notes per beat, we now get six, and instead of eight thirty-second notes per beat, we now get twelve. Thirty-second notes, however, will still be in subgroups of four, connected by a single line.
Now, let’s observe some examples of correct and incorrect groupings in 6/8 time. Remember the rules!
ACCIDENTALS AND KEY SIGNATURES
There are five different accidentals:
♯ A sharp raises a note by a half step.
X A double-sharp raises a note by two half steps.
♭♭ A double-flat lowers a note by two half steps.
♮ A natural cancels the effect of another accidental.
A note with a flat (♭) is played a half step below the original note. The seven flat notes are C♭ (pronounced "C-flat"), D♭, E♭, F♭, G♭, A♭, and B♭:
The black keys on the piano have several names. For example, the black key between C and D can be called C♯ and D♭. On the piano below, you will find the most common names for the black keys. Click on the piano to listen to the notes:
Notes with an identical pitch (i.e., notes that fall on the same key on the piano) that have different names and notation are called enharmonic notes. For example, the note C♯ is enharmonic with D♭, and the note D♯ is enharmonic with E♭.
The white keys on the piano have several names too. For example, the key for the note C is also called B♯. On the piano below, you will find the most common names for the white keys. Click on the piano to listen to the notes:
Notes with double accidentals (and ♭♭) are very rarely used and therefore not included on the two pianos above. For example, the key for the note G is also called F x and A♭♭, and the black key for the note G♭ is also called E x.
It is the musical context that determines the name of the note and its notation. In some cases a black key must be notated with a sharp and, in others, a flat. If necessary, read more about this in the texts intervals, chords, scales and keys.
Accidentals are written in front of the notes. An accidental applies:
to the note immediately following the accidental
to subsequent notes on the same line or in the same space
until a bar line or a new accidental for the same note.
In the example below, the sharp in the first bar is canceled by the flat for the following note. The flat is canceled by the bar line. The sharp in the second bar does not apply to the note at the top of the staff and is canceled by the natural for the last note:
An accidental for a note with a tie applies until the end of the tie if the tie passes a bar line. In other words, the accidental applies to both of the tied notes, but not to subsequent notes in the new bar:
If a note requires an accidental throughout a piece, the accidental is written in a key signature rather than every time the note occurs. A key signature is a group of sharps or flats at the beginning of the staff immediately after the clef:
An accidental in a key signature applies:
to all notes with the same note name regardless of their location
until the end of the piece of music or a new key signature.
In the example below, the two sharps in the key signature apply to all versions of the notes F and C. In the first bar, the sharp for F is canceled temporarily by a natural and in the second bar the sharp for C is canceled temporarily by a flat:
A key signature may be replaced with another key signature during a piece of music. In the first example below, the three sharps are removed by three naturals, and in the second example the four flats are replaced by two sharps:
Courtesy accidentals are accidentals that are not strictly necessary, but are written to clarify the correct pitch, thus avoiding misunderstandings. Courtesy accidentals are written as normal accidentals, sometimes enclosed by brackets.
Courtesy accidentals are primarily used in two cases:
When a note with an accidental is repeated in the following bar. The courtesy accidental signifies that the accidental does not apply in the following bar.
When a tie extends an accidental to a new bar where the note is repeated. The courtesy accidental signifies that the accidental does not apply after the tie.
In the example below, the first courtesy accidental (♯) signifies that the natural does not apply in the subsequent bar, while the other courtesy accidental (♮) signifies that the flat does not apply after the end of the tie:
Scales are collections of the eight notes that make up a key. The word scale comes from the Latin word "Scala," which means ladder. If you look at a scale, it looks like a ladder where each rung is a note that fits in the key signature.
When reading scales, you'll notice that the key is set in the key signature, not by accidentals on each note.
Each key also has character traits. Some seem angry and could be used when writing pieces about war, others sad, and some joyous.
The C-Major scale is made of the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. If you were to play this scale on the piano, it would contain only white keys.
Since there are no sharps or flats in C-Major, it is considered to have a "pure" character. It conveys a sense of innocence and simplicity.
The D-Major scale is made up of the notes: D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B, C-sharp, and D.
The key of D is representative of triumph and victory. For this reason, many marches, religious, and holiday songs are written in D-Major.
E-Major contains four sharps. The scale is comprised of: E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, and E.
The key of E-Major is a joyous key, even sometimes described as "joyous laughter."
The key of F-Major has one flat, B-flat. It is made up of: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D, E, F.
The key of F-Major is described as complacent and calm.
The key of G-Major has just one sharp: F-sharp. It's comprised of the notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp, G.The key of G-Major is rustic and idyllic. It evokes feelings of tenderness and friendship.
A-Major has three sharps (F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp). The scale is made up by: A, B, C-Sharp, D, E, F-Sharp, G-Sharp, A.
The key of A Major elicits feelings of innocent love and trust.
B-Major has five sharps in the key signature. They are F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, and A-sharp. The scale is made up of: B, C-sharp, D-sharp, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B.
The key of B-Major is one of wild passion. It can represent emotions of intense love, anger, jealousy, and rage. It is one of the few major keys that symbolizes negative emotions.
The next two scales, D-Flat Major and C-Sharp major are enharmonic equivalents.
This means that while they look different, they will sound the same. C-sharp and D-flat are the same pitch. That said, some people have an easier time reading sharp or flats, and one of these keys might make more sense when looking at related keys or chord progressions.
The D-Flat Major scale has five flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, and G-flat. It is a key described as being moderate but capable of expressing a range of emotions. It can be happy, but not joyous, or it can be sad, but not in agonizing pain.
Now that you know the D-Flat major scale, you also know the C-Sharp major scale. Go note by note through these two scales and you will see that they are the same, but expressed differently.
The C-Sharp major scale has seven sharps: F, C, G, D, A, E, B. So yes, every single note in this scale is sharp. Since this scale sounds, to the ear, the same as the D-Flat Major scale, it has similar musical character traits. That said, in compositions, these two keys might be approached differently, which will have a dramatic impact on the feelings they convey.
E-flat Major has three flats: B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat.
E-flat is the key of love and devotion and is made up of the notes: E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, D, and E-flat.
G-Flat major has six flats, meaning every note in this scale is flat except for F. (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, C-flat, D-flat, E-flat).
Now that you know G-flat, you also know F-sharp. Go through slowly and you'll see that you use the same fingerings and the pitches are the same.
F-Sharp Major has six sharps: F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp, and E-sharp.
The F-sharp major scale is made up of the notes: F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, and F-sharp. Its character is described as proclaiming triumph over difficulty (which is certainly true if you try to play through it). This key tells the story of a difficult struggle and ultimate triumph.
The key of A-Flat Major has four flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat. The A-flat major scale is made up of the notes: A-flat, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat, F, G, and A-flat. This key is a somber one, often associated with death and judgment.
B-flat Major has two flats in the key signature: B-flat and E-flat.
The B-flat Major scale is made of the notes: B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, and B-flat. This key is described as cheerful and optimistic.
Scales are the building blocks of music. Learning scales will allow you to more quickly read notes within a key signature and to feel more comfortable playing these combinations of fingerings.
Here is a simple process for learning a new scale:
Print out two copies of the scale.
On one copy, write out the fingering for each note underneath the note.
Going very slowly, and not playing, say the note name and press the fingering for the note.
When you feel comfortable with the fingerings, play through the scale very slowly.
Repeat this process until you have done it perfectly ten times.
Now that you feel confident with the fingerings, close your eyes and see if you can play the scale perfectly.