The Basics

Bellow we will go through the basics of music notation.

Music is a language, and in order to be able to read a new language and also write it, we first need to know its specific alphabet. Instead of words we have to learn 7 letters: A B C D E F G, they look familiar don't they? Of course, they're the first 7 letters of the most common alphabet.

You might ask: well, how come there are so many notes on the piano and only 7 note names? Well that's very simple. If you look closely to a piano keyboard you will start to see a pattern unfolding. The most obvious sign is the 2 and 3 black keys alternation.


So that means that there's some repetition going on and if you start counting from the white key on the left of the 2 black notes you will get 7 keys with the 8th being placed the same as the first note, on the left of the 2 black keys group, being named the same as the first note.

piano_keys numbered.jpg

The next step is to know which key is A, so we know where to start our 7 note sequence from.

piano_keys named.jpg

The next question most people ask is: how come the black notes don't also have letters assigned to them? Well, it has something to do with the use of alterations, stuff that we will go through later, so don't panic. All you need to know for now are these 7 notes.

So what we did so far was to learn the musical alphabet on a piano keyboard, the next obvious step is to learn the representation of the musical alphabet on the stave. To get there, first we need to learn a couple of things.

1.The stave (or staff):

is the graphic system in which notes thrive, without the stave, these bubbles that we call notes wouldn't be assigned any pitch. It consists of 5 lines and 4 in-between spaces that are visible. Actually, the stave has many more ”invisible” lines and spaces that can be used to notate higher or lower notes. We will go through this thoroughly a bit later. For now, here's how the standard representation of the stave actually looks:


2.The clef (from french, meaning ”key”):

is a symbol that dictates the register in which the following notes will be played. There are many types of clefs, fortunately the piano sheet uses only 2 of them: the treble clef (also named the G clef) and the bass clef (also named the F clef).

The treble clef: it is also named the G clef because it tells us where the G note is found on the stave: on the the second line (counting from bottom to top), from which we can figure out the rest of the notes according to the A B C D E F G loop sequence. Bellow you can see the graphic representation of the treble clef:

G clef.jpg

      The bass clef: also named the F clef because it tells us where we can find the F note on the stave: on the 4th line (counting from bottom to top), from which we can figure out the rest of the A B C D E F G loop sequence. Bellow you can see the graphic representation of the bass clef:

Bass clef.jpg

Now, a very inspired question would be: Well, how can we tell where on the stave can we notate a specific note (or sound) from the piano keyboard? This is where the middle C comes in and makes all of this much easier for us.

The middle C is basically the closest C note to the middle of the keyboard. Bellow you will see the middle C on the keyboard and on the stave in both treble and bass clef.

Middle C on the keyboard.jpg


Oh but wait! What is this double stave I see? This adhesion of the upper stave and lower stave is called a grand staff.

We know how to read notes on the piano keyboard, let's try and read notes on a stave now. Notice that we have lines and spaces in a stave. Notes can be placed on both lines and spaces. So, if we have a G (after the treble clef) on the 2nd line, what note will it be on the 4th line?

At first, when practicing note reading we have to look at the stave and pick a reference note. The single reference note we know (and need) while having a treble clef is the G note (while having a bass clef, our reference note becomes the F).  If the note is above our reference note then that means that the A B C D E F G sequence goes forward. If the note is below our reference note than that means that our A B C D E F G sequence goes backward like: G F E D C B A G F  and so on.

Coming back to our question, the answer is D. G(2nd line), after G comes A(2nd space), then B(3rd line), C(3rd space) and finally, D on the 4th line as bellow:

G clef with D note.jpg

Apply the same logic when the note you are trying to read is below the reference note.

3.The time value of notes

So we learned about the pitch of the notes, now we have to know about the duration of notes and how to read them as well. Bellow you can see how these duration symbols came to be.

duration of notes.jpg

...and the subdivisions can go on.

A very important aspect of the time flow is the time signature. The time signature basically tells us how many beats are to be contained in each bar/measure and which note value is to be given one beat.

A bar or measure is a segment of time corresponding to a specific number of beats in which each beat is represented by a particular note value and the boundaries of the bar are indicated by vertical bar lines. Bellow you can see both the most common time signature (4/4) and its boundaries (measure/bar).


Remember when I said that the stave has many more invisible lines and spaces in-between those lines? Well, these lines are called ledger lines and are necessary because the standard stave (5 lines, 4 spaces) isn't enough to notate so many notes (the piano has 88 keys). Even so, these ledger lines can't cover all the notes of the piano so there are several artifices that one can use to notate the lowest and highest notes of the piano, I will get into detail in a more advanced chapter. For now, here's how these ledger lines look like:

Ledger lines.jpg

To be continued in the Advanced theory chapter.