Music Notation (lesson)

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In the first part of this series we looked at tab, and I pleaded with you all to look at the second part of this lesson as well - so for those of you that made it this far, thanks for trusting me on this!

As guitar players we all use tab for fingering but there is a lot more to music than the fingering of the actual notes. Today's Tab is a guitar related medium, whereas the standard music notation we are looking at today was designed to work with many different instruments. Interestingly, Tab actually predates standard music notation and was first used over 1000 years ago predominantly for stringed instruments as you would expect but also for organ and vocal parts. It may give you a sense of history to look at this TAB dating from 1554 - still readable today!


But we digress ... The things that Music Notation does well are convey timing and key information. It also conveys note information, but since the majority of instruments can only play one note at a time it was never developed to handle exact fingerings for the guitar.

If you have a good understanding of music, you can look at it and "hear" the song in your head - that isn't possible with Tab. Even if you aren't that accomplished, you can still gain a lot from reading music. Many tabs come with musical notation attached, and you can , make use of both at once; the Tab will give you the fingering to use, whilst the music will give you the timing info. Only when you take them together do you get a complete picture.

The other things that music are good for (giving you the notes, and the key) are less important if you have tab, since the tab gives you the notes as well, but knowing the key at least can be important if you want to expand on the tab and add your own parts, melody, or solo.

Our First Music Sheet

Lets take a look at a mystery piece of music, and break it down so that we can figure out how to extract some kind of meaning from it:


Well, it looks a little mysterious, and we don't know what tune it is describing yet, so lets look at some of the individual parts.


The stave (or staff) is the name for the series of vertical lines that the music notation is based around. As you can see, there are 5 lines; resist any temptation to compare these to guitar strings as you would with tab - there is really no relation at all. Remember the stave was invented before the guitar even existed and is intended to work with many different instruments.

Treble Cleff

The treble cleff is a marker that tells us what range of notes are being represented on the stave. There are several different types of cleff, the treble is the most common, and is probably used for the widest range of instruments. Some in struments (such as the bass guitar) work with a different range of notes, and have their own cleff, which denotes that the actual pitches of the notes on the stave are read differently. We'll stick with the treble cleff for now - if you see a piece of music in which the treble cleff is missing, and there is another symbol instead, that means you need to study some more theory to learn how to read that notation. The treble cleff is also named the "G" cleff and started life as as the letters G and S (for "So" or "Sol" another name for G, as in Do, Rae, Me Fah, Sol) superimposed, and was stylized over time into the form we know today. As we'll see later, the start of the cleff is drawn from the G line on the stave for this reason.

For 6 string electric guitar we use the treble cleff exclusively, bass guitars use the bass cleff (or F cleff), unsurprisingly. Pianos use both the treble and bass cleff, stacked on top of each other, to encompass the wide range of notes a piano has. Some instruments use the alto cleff (or C cleff) and there are a few other less common ones.


And here is a drawing by Kaneda that illustrates how the G and F cleffs might have evolved to their current shapes:


Key Signature

At its simplest, the key signature tells us the key that the piece is to be played in, although strictly speaking it is really just a notational device to ease the writing of music, and doesn't actually define the key. At beginner level the distinction is a fine one and can be safely ignored.

It is written as a group of symbols at the beginning of the piece of music, listing either a number of sharps (#) or flats (cool.gif. The sharps and flats are always listed in a particular order, which is determined by the Circle of Fifths, although that isn’t important for this lesson.

To fully understand this we need to know how the lines on the stave work, so we will pick this up again a little later.

Time Signature

The time signature tells us how to break up the music time wise. It consists of two numbers one on top of each other.

The top number is the number of beats in a bar or measure.

The Bottom number is the length of a beat.

The most common time signature is 4/4 (pronounced four-four). The top four means there are four beats in a bar. The bottom four means that each of those beats lasts a quarter note. So in fact, imagine that the bottom number has a 1 over the top of it, to understand the length of the note (1/4). Four-four time is also named common time, and sometimes denoted by a "C" instead of the time signature.

Another example would be 12/8 time. This tells us that there are 12 beats to the bar, and each beat is an 8th note (remember the one on top - 1/8). 12/8 is composed of shorter notes so it will sound a lot quicker than 4/4. There are other characteristics of 12/8 time that make it interesting, which we discuss in more detail in the Time 101 lessons, this is just a taster.

Another way to look at this is to treat it as a fraction (some non English speaking countries actually translate it this way) - 4/4 means you get one whole note to a bar, 12/8 means you get one and a half whole notes to a bar. In either case, the bottom number is telling you the units or size of note that is in use.

What does it mean? Well, it is of most relevance to how you would set your metronome, but it also gives you a very concise way of understanding the feel of a piece - 4/4 feels very different to 12/8, 3/4 or 5/4. They all have very distinct rythmic feels to them. Of course, you can figure this out by looking at the lengths of the individual notes, and how the number of notes in a bar or measure adds up - the key signature is giving you a head start in understanding how the piece works.

In all music, the beat is the basic unit of currency, and is of utmost importance when setting your metronome. Fortunately, most music we as guitarists are exposed to is in 4/4 time, which means that a simple rule of setting your metronome beat to be a quarter note works in most cases, but that will not always be the case, so be careful.

The Notes

Ok, now we have looked at the stuff around the edges, lets focus on the core of musical notation - the notes themselves.

Each note is a dot, sometimes with a tail and sometimes without - the tail is the vertical line moving upward or downward from the dot. Sometimes the dots are filled, sometimes they are empty. Presence or absence of a tail, and whether or not the note is filled in denotes the length or duration of the note (of which more later), and the position of the note up and down the stave denotes the pitch that it represents.

The stave consists of lines and spaces, and we can place the note on a line or in a space. Starting with the bottom line, which denotes an E, each step up from line to space, or from space to line is one step of the scale higher:


This can be a little confusing, so think about it. If we are in the scale of C, the notes would be C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C, and are denoted by lines and spaces on the stave, don't be tempted to see each step as a whole note, it isn't, it is a step of a scale instead. For instance, look at E/F - there is only a semitone difference between them, the same for B/C, however in each case, we move the same distance up the stave as we would for any of the other notes that really are separated by a whole tone. Its as if the stave has the notion of scales built into it - remember that a scale is defined by its formula of tones and semitones (2 2 1 2 2 2 1 for major), music notation is a product of this also.

On a guitar, the bottom E is the pitch that is played on the 2nd fret of the D string, and the top F is the F that is played on the 1st fret of the E string.

Some music teachers split the stave into lines and spaces and make you memorise them separately with mnemonics - I have never been a fan of this, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. In any case, the goal is that ultimately you just know the note by its position, and that comes through practice, it doesn't matter how you get there.

Just for fun, I'll give you the traditional way of remembering the lines and space:

First the lines - they are remembered starting from the bottom up with the phrase "Eat Good Bread Dear Father", to get E,G,B,D,F.

The Spaces are traditionally remembered using the mnemonic "FACE", for F,A,C,E.

I prefer to remember that the bottom line is E, and work up from there. Eventually, you will be able to memorise it whatever method you use.

Now you may have noticed that the lines and spaces only give us just over an octave - a pretty poor number of notes for a guitar player, we are used to many more than that. Fortunately the guys that invented this stuff thought of that. What we do is we add additional lines (called ledger lines) above and below the stave, as many of them as we need to get to where we are going. That way, we can represent all of the notes on a guitar:


The squiggle in the middle is called a rest - I'll explain that in the timing section later. If necessary for drop tunings, the ledger line idea can be expanded to give even lower notes, although by that stage you are well into the bass cleff.

Note that the tails can go up or down from the note - it makes no difference to the timing or pitch which way the tail is drawn, it's just a space saving mechanism. The convention is that if the note is above the middle of the stave the tail goes down, otherwise it goes up.

Heres a tab contributed by Kaneda that shows all notes in the range of the guitar, and where you can play them - this gives a good feel for the fact that music notation gives you the note but tab tells you exactly where to play it! The red notes correspond to open strings. (As we have been discussing in the forums, in parts of Europe, the note "B" is notated as "H", and that is the case here.


It is also possible to stack notes on top of each other just as we do in tab, to get chords, like this:


Keys, Sharps & Flats

Ok, now we understand the notes, lets take another look at key signatures. First, lets just list out 3 of the possible pitch modifiers so that you will recognize them:


Since music notation has the notion of keys built in - it deals with notes and relates them to the key you are in - one goal of music notation is to avoid explicitly mentioning every sharp and flat - that can become very tiring since if you know the key you are in, you also know that most instances of a specific note will always be sharpened or flattened. For instance in the key of G, you will mostly be playing F# instead of F. Look at this scale in the key of B:


Very messy, with all the sharps, as these are all standard notes in the scale. Instead, why don't we just mark at the beginning of the piece which notes will be sharpened (or flattened) and that will save us showing them every time. If we do that, that same scale will look like this:


There are a couple of things to notice here. Firstly, we have dispensed with those annoying sharps, and the notation is a lot clearer and easier to read. Secondly, we added a bunch of sharp signs at the beginning. This is our notice that from this point on, each of these notes will be played as a sharp, not as a regular note. The sharp signs actually occupy the line or space of the notes we are to sharpen, but they apply to all instances of that note, so a flat or sharp sign on the A space would mean that any instance of A would be sharpened or flattened, regardless of the octave.

In the music above, we can see that the sharps are located on F,C,G,D and A. From our study of major scales, we know that the scale of B has the notes B,C#,D#,E,F#,G#,A#, and as you can see, the notes we have marked as being sharpened in the key signature are also sharpened in the scale, so it all works out.

Determining the Key from the Key Signature

Now that we understand the sharp signs on the stave above we can very quickly determine the key using the following simple rules.

1. If there are no sharps or flats the key is C.

2. If there are sharps, look at the stave line that the last sharp symbol is placed on, and go up 1 degree of the scale. In the example above, we have 5 sharps, F#, C#, G#, D# and A# (again, these are derived using the circle of fifths). The last sharp is A# - one degree up from that is B. Another way to put this is that this sharp sign gives you the 7th of the scale. One up from that is the 8th, or root, giving you your key. So the example above is in the key of B just as we thought.

3.If there are flats, look at the stave line that the last symbol is on and go down 4 degrees in the scale, or to put it another way, the last flat sign gives you the 4th of the scale. This rule isn’t particularly helpful if you are struggling to work out the key, and there is actually also an easier trick for flats that I prefer. This comes out of the circle of fifths and the fact that we are going backwards (I really need to write that circle of fifths lesson!), Don’t worry about the details for now but believe me when I say that each flat in a key signature is separated by 4 degrees, so you can look at the flat immediately before the last one which will give you the exact key signature. This doesn’t work for one flat, so you just need to remember that one flat is the key of F. If for instance you have 4 flats, they will be Bb, Eb, Ab and Db. The last but one is Ab, making the key Ab.

So, using the rules above and a sheet of music you can immediately deduce the key … apart from one subtlety. If you have read my lesson on relative minors, you will know that each major key has a related minor key. They are related by virtue of the fact that they share the same key signature. So you can narrow it down to 2 possibilities using the key signature, after that, you need to decide if it is major or minor. And this subtlety is itself a special case of Modes - all the modes of a particular key will also share the same key signatire since they share the motes. For instance, C# Dorian has the same key signature as B Major - music writers would probably write the mode at the top to help you with this though.


Once we are working in a particular key signature, what do we do if we want to use a note that isn't in that key? We use an accidental. An Accidental is exactly that - a note that falls outside our key signature. To represent it we just put a sharp, flat or natural sign in front of the note we want to affect. (You can see what a natural sign looks like above).

The rule is that if we place a sharp or flat in front of a note that is not specifically sharpened or flattened in the key signature, then that note is sharpened or flattened for the rest of that bar. If the note is sharpened or flattened in the key signature, and we want it to revert to its unsharpened or unflattened pitch, we use a natural sign to cancel out the action of the key signature for the rest of the bar.

If you want to undo the action of an accidental sharp or flat within the same bar, you can use a natural to cancel it. If you want to undo the action of a natural within the same bar you can use a sharp or flat to cancel it. Lets see an example:


Here we have a scale of E - the notes are E,F#,G#,A,B,C#,D#. In the last bar, we want to play an F. With the key signature shown, the default action is to play an F# whenever a note appears in that first space, but since we precede it with a natural sign we play an F instead. The second note is an A#. Again, the key signature doesn't specifically sharpen A notes, so we would normally play it as an A, but we put a sharp in front of it to denote it as an accidental and we play A#.

Lets look at another example:


This time we are in the key of Ab, the notes would be Ab,Bb,C,Db,Eb,F,G. The last bar is interesting. First, we decide that we want to play an A. From the key signature, we know that A should be flattened, but we use a natural sign to denote that we want an A. But, the next note we want to be played as an Ab. Since we have used a natural sign, from that point to the end of the bar, the effect of the key signature has been cancelled, so we need to use a flat sign to reinstate it. Finally, we want to play a second Ab. Since we reinstated the meaning of the key signature for A the note before, we don't need to do anything special. The final note is a Gb - the flat sign is required since there is no Gb in the key signature.

Unlike the key signature, accidentals apply only to the note they preced, not all versions in each octave.


Next we will look at timing. Music would be pretty boring if every note was exactly the same length, even if the pitch did vary - music notation has conventions to allow us to express the different lenght of notes by changing the way we write the note (rather than where on the stave we put it). Timing can get complex, so we'll start with a few basics, and then look at the more complex stuff in another lesson - Time 101, which you can find here.

So far in the music we have seen, I have used quarter notes - they are denoted by a filled in black blob with a single tail. These notes are also called crotchets - that's a more classical usage, amd although each type of note has a classical name we tend to use names like "quarter", "16th" as they are easier to understand.

So what is a quarter note a quarter of ? Not surprisingly, its a quarter of a "Whole Note". A Whole Note is pretty long, so we break notes down into smaller units like quarters, 8ths, 16ths, for all of those fast notes we want to play on the guitar. Here's a list of some of the different note types:


Sometimes we want the musician to not play anything at all, so instead of showing a note, we show what is called a "rest". For every type of note there is a rest of the same duration, and they just denote silence for that length of time. Here's the list:


Another thing you might see is a series of notes joined together - there is nothing mysterious here, think of it as the difference between printing and joined up writing - there was an example of this in our mystery tune, and we can now see that the first 4 notes in bar 2 ar joined up into 2 units. What exactly is this showing us? Well by convention, it is common to join up faster notes into units that last a quarter note. The notes are joined together by "beams" (just a line between them). In each of the 2 cases in our mystery tune, we have joined 2 8th notes together. They are still played separately, but grouping them together makes it easier to pick out the timing by eye. To figure out what each note is just count the number of beams between them - they match up to the number of ticks in the table above. An 8th note would normally have 1 tick - when joined up there is 1 beam.

For a more detailed explanation of timing have a look at my Time 101 series of lessons, here.


As well as giving the basic timing and pitch information, music also has a wide range of symbols to convey dynamics, articulation, ornaments (like trills) and the physical structure of the music for instance repeats, and endings. Some of these don't apply to guitar very well, and they are not common in the type of music we usually see but can be worth learning. I'll cover these in a later lesson.

Back to our Mystery Tune


Now we should know enough to figure out what is going on on our tune!

Ok, firstly its in treble cleff - a good thing really as we don't know any other (but do check, at the very least you don't want to learn a song with all the wrong notes, and it could prompt you to do some research and learn one of the other cleffs).

Next, the key signature is one sharp, that means the key of G. The key signature shows us that all notes are played as naturals, except that there is an F# in the scale. We know that anyway from our study of scales, but this is a quick way of checking.

The time signature is 4/4 - that means there are Four quarter notes to a bar or measure.

The tempo is set at 120 for a quarter note, meaning 120bpm.

The notes for the tune are:

G,G,D,D (Quarter notes, one per beat)
E,F#,G,E (Eighth notes, 2 per beat)
D (Half note, one per 2 beats)
C,C,B,B,A,A (Quarter notes again, 1 per beat)
G (Half note, one per 2 beats).

Now, if you get out your metronome, set it to 120bpm and play the notes above with those durations, you should be able to figure out what the tune is. (No, I'm not going to tell you - work it out for yourself!)


That's it for this lesson. I hope you will find the extra effort to learn standard music notation is worth it. Even if you just pick up a few concepts around timing it will make reading of tabs very much easier!

And a final word - the music we play is a very personal and dynamic thing. Everyone plays the same tune differently, and any type of music notation is really an attempt to nail music down sufficiently that someone else can learn it and interpret it in their own way. The music isn't in the notation, its actually in what you do with it and how you play it! The notation just pins it down for a while, so don't try and slavishly reproduce every nuance, because in a lot of places the music doesn't even capture the subtleties of what the composer intended - this is especially true when as guitarists we learn solos from our guitar heroes - the music when played in a program like Guitar Pro sounds very different to how it is played by the composer, so treat it as a guide and inject your own feel and individuality into it!

Thanks go to Kaneda for proofreading and the contribution of some interesting facts and images!