Reading Music: Pitch


Western music can be expressed in a written language called notation. The main purpose of notation is to convey as accurately as possible the proper way to perform the musical ideas of the composer. Notation’s first and main goal should be clarity of communication. Notation of our musical system has evolved over time, and the five-line staff that we use today came into wide use in France in the sixteenth century. Earlier versions of the staff with four lines are found in much of the Roman Catholic chant literature of the Middle Ages. The staff—whether four or five lines—allowed for the notation of exact pitch, but didn’t make any provisions for the notation of rhythm. Rhythmic notation will be taken up in the next chapter.

Generally speaking, most music is made up of two aspects: pitches and rhythms. The pitches are arranged in different orders to form melodies, or played simultaneously in different configurations to create harmonies. These unique patterns make one song recognizable from another.

Pitches are notated on something called a staff. It has five lines and four spaces in between those lines:

empty staff.tif

(The plural of staff is staves.)

The notes themselves are usually small ovals, sometimes filled in, and sometimes open. These ovals either appear on a line (with the line going through the middle) or in the space between lines. We identify note names based on where the ovals are placed.

Often, notes have lines extending up or down from the oval called stems. Right now, we’re just concerned with the ovals since they indicate what pitch must be played.

We use seven letters to name our pitches: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. These pitches repeat in a cycle as you ascend or descend. Every eighth note will have the same letter. You can easily see this on a keyboard:

























Notice that C is going to be the pitch just to the left of a set of two black keys. In roughly the center of a piano keyboard, there is a C we call Middle C. This pitch helps orient us when we are trying to find the notes of a melody.

Our system of notation indicates specifically where a note should be played. A note that indicates G on the staff indicates a specific G. The positioning on the staff indicates definite positioning on the keyboard or other instrument. To help us talk about exact positioning on the keyboard, we can assign numbers to the octaves on the piano. The lowest C is called C1, the second C is C2, and so forth. Middle C is C4.


So the D next to C4 is going to be D4, followed by E4, F4, G4, A4, B4, and then the next octave begins with C5.

You might wonder how a staff can notate all of the notes on the piano. Well, because we have so many pitches to notate, we use clefs to help us expand the use of the staff. Instruments that play in higher ranges (violin, trumpet, flute, etc.) use the trebleclef or G clef, as does the right hand of the piano.

G clef.tif

That clef is actually a very fancy-looking G. Look at the evolution of the G clef:


In each case, notice that the lower curve of the G is shaped around a line. The note G is placed on this line. The clef is indicating where the G will be.

Lower instruments (tuba, double bass, etc.) and the left hand of the piano read off the bass clef or F clef:

Bass clef.tif

As its name suggests, this clef used to be just a plain-looking F. Then it got decorative. The dots of the clef (which used to be the short lines of the F) indicate the line where the note F is placed.

Let’s look at the lines. The lines of the treble clef staff are—from the bottom up—E (line 1), G (line 2), B (line 3), D (line 4), F (line 5).

treble clef lines.tif

Sometimes people use the mnemonic device “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to remember the lines of the treble clef.

The spaces spell out a word:

They spell out FACE. F (space 1), A (space 2), C (space 3), E (space 4)

treble clef spaces.tif

Notice that when you work from the bottom of the staff upwards, the letters go forward in alphabetical order. When you work from the top down, the letters go backwards.

The lower a note on the staff, the lower (more to the left) it will be played. The higher on the staff, the higher (more to the right) the note on the keyboard.

The lines for the bass clef staff are, from the bottom up, G (line 1), B (line 2), D (line 3), F (line 4), A (line 5)

bass clef lines.tif

The spaces are A (space 1), C (space 2), E (space 3), G (space 4)

bass clef spaces.tif


So far, we have learned about the notes on the staff, but there is a way to extend the staff and that is through the use of ledger lines. Ledger lines are short lines that occur above and below the staff and extend the range that the staff covers. For instance, in treble clef, the top line is F. If we put a note above the staff—just sit it on top of the staff— get the G, which is 12 white notes above middle C (counting middle C as 1, count twelve white notes up to G). Adding a ledger line, we can notate A. We can put a pitch on top of this ledger line and get B. If we continue to go up and we add another ledger line with a note on it, we get C.

It works the same way below the staff. In treble clef, the note on the bottom line is E. The note that looks stuck to the bottom of the staff is D. Add a ledger line to get middle C. Put a note below this ledger line and you get B. And so on.

ledger lines treble.tif



Here are some ledger lines for the bass clef:

ledger lines bass.tif


Ledger lines can be used with all clefs. A composer might not want to use too many ledger lines because they can be hard to read, especially if there are a lot of them. There are ways around this, of course, but the most important is to make sure you are using the appropriate clef for the instrument and range of the piece.

Some instruments read off of only one clef and one staff. The trumpet, for example, can only produce one note at a time, and with ledger lines, its entire range can be expressed on the treble clef. The piano, by contrast, uses both treble and bass clef staves because a player traditionally uses two hands—the treble clef indicates what the right hand does and the bass clef indicates the notes for the left hand—and because the piano covers such a wide range.

When these two staves are put together for, say, piano music, they are connected by a curly brace. This configuration is called the Grand Staff.

Grand staff blank.tif

Middle C (also known as C4) can be found in between these two staves. Middle C is the first ledger line below the treble clef, and the first ledger line above the bass clef. It’s not actually in the middle of the two staves; when it’s meant to be played by the right hand, it’s closer to the treble staff. When it’s meant to be played by the left hand, it’s closer to the bass clef. The first note in this example is Middle C. If a pianist were to play this example, his or her thumbs would both play the same note on the first beat.

grand staff with notes.tif


Using what you’ve already learned, can you name the notes on the treble and bass clef and find them on a piano?

id notes

       ____________    ___________   __________    __________     __________     ____________


id notes bass clef

       ____________    ___________   __________    __________     __________     ____________


There is a third clef that is used less often, called the C clef. This is a movable clef, which means that it can—unlike the treble and bass clef—can actually move up or down on the staff. Wherever the point of the middle of the clef is, that is where middle C is. 

In this case, the C clef is showing that that middle C will be written on the middle line of this staff. This positioning of the clef, called alto clef, is the most common. It is used for notating viola music, among other things.

C Clef lines.tif

C clef spaces.tif

C clefs in different positions were used originally for vocal parts. Alto clef and tenor clef are still used for the indicated instruments. Here are all of these movable clefs (with middle C indicated in each).

sop clef with note.tif


Soprano clef

ten clef with note.tif


Mezzo soprano clef

Ten clef with note 2.tif

Alto clef (viola, alto trombone)

ten clef 3.tif

Tenor clef (upper ranges of bassoon, cello, double bass, trombone)

Bary clef.tif


Baritone clef


In each case, the point of the clef indicates middle C. The moving clef for the different voice types isn’t as common in vocal music as it once was. These days, sopranos, altos, and tenors often read treble clef (the tenors sing an octave lower than what is written), and the baritones and basses read off the bass clef.

See if you can identify the notes on the C clef:

id notes c clef

      ____________    ___________   __________    __________     __________     ____________



Treble clef covers the range from C4 and above (although some ledger lines can go below C4).

Bass clef covers the range from C4 and below (some ledger lines can go above).

C clef covers the range immediately around C4.

It is very important to know exactly where a notated pitch is played.













Identify all of the note names for the white keys on this keyboard:



Practice drawing the treble or G clef (draw 10 of them):

treble clef empty

Practice drawing bass or F clef (draw 10 of them):

bass clef empty

Practice drawing the C clef (draw 10 of them):

c clef empty













The last chapter dealt with the notation of pitches on the staff. Historically, we’ve had pitch notation for much longer than we’ve had rhythmic notation. One of the first people to suggest rhythmic notation suggested that the shape of the note could tell you its duration. Our system today has numerous indicators of rhythmic notation (although not, strictly speaking, the shape of the note), among them: stems, flags, beams, and dots. But we’ll get to these in a moment.

When you hear many songs, you are able to tap your foot or clap your hands to them. What you are tapping and clapping is the pulse or the beat. On top of that, you have the patterns of durations that are specific to the song. That’s called the rhythm. Each song has a unique rhythm.

Rhythms are made up of durations. Each note in a piece of music will have a specific duration. Some notes are held for a long time, some are held for a short time. But music isn’t constant sound all the time. We also have periods of silence as well. Sometimes silence can last for a few beats, or sometimes it’s just enough time to take a quick breath before the next phrase.

If notes are sounds, then rests are silences. We count the duration of notes or rests in beats. 

Beats are organized through meter. A composer, when writing a song, will decide that he or she wants the pulse to be in groups of 2, 3, or 4 beats. The pulse itself is just a steady beat, so how do we perform these groupings? By accenting certain beats of the pulse. If we emphasize the first beat of every three, as in ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, we will indicate triple meter. (For the time being, we will use the quarter note as our beat.)

counting triple.tif




If we emphasize the first of every four beats, as in ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four, we will be in a quadruple meter.

counting four quarter notes.tif





The groups of beats are shown visually by the use of measure lines. A measure contains the appropriate amount of beats for the meter. A piece of music may be made of thousands of measures, each one containing the same amount of beats. In this example, there are three measures, demarcated by vertical lines. The double bar line after the third measure signifies the end of the section (and many times, the end of a piece.)

measures and stuff.tif




One of the best ways to keep time while performing rhythms is to conduct the beats, which has a distinct advantage over just tapping your foot. In conducting, each beat is represented as a different point in space. You can visually see where all the beats are when you conduct, therefore conducting can help you keep track of the beats going by. We have three basic conducting patterns: patterns for two beats, three beats, and four beats. These patterns will be appropriate for many meters.[2]

This is the pattern for duple meter. The downbeat (the first beat of a measure) occurs as the hand hits the lowest point on the pattern. The second beat is hit on the upswing.

This is the pattern for triple meter. The downbeat is in the center—think of it as lining up with your belly button. The second beat is out the right, and the third beat happens on the upswing.

This is the pattern for quadruple meter. Notice how it makes a kind of cross. Again, the downbeat is in the center. Beat 2 is to the left, beat 3 is over to the right, and beat 4 happens on the upswing. Notice that the beat right before the downbeat is always on the upswing. We call this beat the upbeat.

How do you know which pattern to use? We look at the time signature.

The meter is indicated at the beginning of a piece through a time signature, which consists of two numbers, one on top of the other. (Note: this is not a fraction.) Here is an example:



The top number indicates how many beats will be found in each measure and also tells you what conducting pattern you should use. In this case, you’d use the triple meter pattern.

The bottom number of the time signature indicates what kind of beat is the main unit of measurement. In order to understand what the bottom number means, we need to know about the different note durations that are possible.

Here are the whole note and the whole rest. In the time signature 4/4—a very common time signature—both the whole note and whole rest are held for four beats:

whole note with space.tif

    1  2  3  4                   

Whole rest.tif

             1 2 3 4

The whole note is just an oval note head that is not filled in.

The rest is like a little rectangle stuck to the bottom of the fourth line.

The whole rest also has another important job: when a measure of any time signature has no notes in it, a whole rest is used to denote a full measure of rest. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but it’s used a lot, so you should know about it.

In 4/4, the half note is held for 2 beats, and each half rest is two beats as well:

two half notes.tif

     1    2     1    2

Half rest.tif

              1  2

The half note has a clear note head and a stem. Notice that the half rest is slightly different from the whole rest. It’s now touching the top if the third line.

Note about stems: a stem on a note can point upwards or downwards depending on where the note is on the staff. Notes found above the middle line usually have their stems pointing downward. Notes below the middle line usually have their stems point upwards. Notes on the middle line can have stems that go in either direction. Stems up or down do not change the duration or pitch of the note.

The quarter note has a filled-in note head and a stem. In 4/4, the quarter note is held for 1 beat. Here are four of them and here is the quarter rest:

four quarter notes.tif


Quarter rest.tif

The eighth note is just a half a beat long. Here is a single eighth note and a single eighth rest:

eighth note single.tif

Eighth rest.tif

Notice that it has a flag on the stem to distinguish it from the quarter note.

When we count eighth notes in 4/4, we count them as 1-and-2-and (since there are two of them in a beat):

eighth notes unbeamed.tif

    1   +  2    +

Since two eighth notes make up one quarter note, they are often found in pairs. When two or more eighth notes are next to each other, they are sometimes connected with a beam. The beam does not change the duration, but it makes multiple eighth notes easier to read.

beamed eighth notes.tif

In 4/4, the sixteenth note is one quarter of a beat (.25 of a beat), which makes it twice as fast as the eighth note. The sixteenth note gets its name because sixteen of them can fit into one whole note. In other words, in the time it takes to perform a single whole note, you can perform sixteen sixteenth notes. A single sixteenth note has a filled-in note head and a stem with two flags. Here is a single sixteenth note and a sixteenth rest:

Sixteenth note single.tif

sixteenth rest single.tif

When two or more sixteenth notes are next to each other, they can be connected with two beams. We count them one-ee-and-a, two-ee-and-a:

sixteenth notes many.tif

  1      e      +     a     2     e     +     a

In meters like 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, we often find sixteenth notes in groups of four. It makes sense to use this grouping since four of them can fit into one quarter note. In 4/4, a group of four sixteenth notes takes up one beat.

Eighth notes and sixteenth notes can be beamed together to make them easier to read. If you see them together, note that the eighth notes will always have a single beam, while the sixteenth notes will have a double beam.

Sometimes you will see a dot after a note. The dot increases a note’s duration by half of its original value. For instance, a dotted half note will be worth the original two beats PLUS another beat. The dotted quarter note is worth one and a half beats because it takes the original value (1 beat) and adds half of that (1/2 beat). The dotted eighth note is worth ¾ of a beat because the eighth note is worth half of a beat and the dot adds a quarter of a beat.

Dotted note.tif

dotted quarter note.tif

dotted eighth note.tif

3 beats

1 ½ beats

¾ of a beat


Let’s take another look at that time signature:



We know that the “3” on top means that the composer has chosen a triple meter. It will feel like there’s a slight accent on the first beat of every group of three: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The “3” also means that we will use the three pattern to conduct the beat.

The “4” on the bottom indicates that the quarter note is the main unit of measurement. There will be the equivalent of three quarter notes in each measure. The “4” in this case is standing in for the quarter note:

Quarter note.tif 

In simple terms:

The top number tells you how many beats in each measure.

The bottom number tells you what kind of note is the beat.

Here’s another example:


There are three beats in each measure, and you’ll use the three-beat conducting pattern. But now the “8” on the bottom is telling you that the beat is now represented by an eighth note:

eighth note single.tif

The following is a rhythm written in 3/4. We can use numbers to count the durations:

three-four rhythm.tif

       1   2     +   3          1  +    2      3         1 e  +  a  2   +     3          1       2      3   +


The following is a rhythm written in 3/8. Let’s count the durations using numbers:

three-eight example.tif

        1     2     3       1  2    3      1  +  2     3      1 e + a   2       3

Both 3/4 and 3/8 are triple meters, but the beat unit is different. Said another way, in 3/4, we’re conducting quarter notes; in 3/8, we’re conducting eighth notes.

Because 4/4 is such a commonly used meter, composers sometimes use this symbol instead of 4/4:

common time.tif     Think “C” for Common time.

In each measure in 4/4, there is the equivalent for four quarter notes. Why do we say “the equivalent of four quarter notes?” Because rhythm can be much more interesting than just four quarter notes in each measure. Just as you can make change for a dollar in many ways, you can write different rhythms for a single measure. Here is a rhythm in 4/4. This example represents many different note values:

four four rhythm.tif

Let’s look at the different note values in the most common time signatures:



Note name

  common time.tif

Six eight.tif

Cut time.tif

whole note.tif

Whole rest.tif


4 beats

8 beats (too many beats for 1 measure in this meter)

2 beats

Dotted note.tif

dotted half rest.tif

Dotted half

3 beats

6 beats

(full measure)

1 ½ beats

Half note.tif

Half rest.tif


2 beats

4 beats

1 beat

dotted quarter note.tif

dotted quarter rest.tif

Dotted quarter

1 and ½ beats

3 beats

¾ of a beat

Quarter note.tif

Quarter rest.tif


1 beat

2 beats

½ of a beat

eighth note single.tif

Eighth rest.tif


½ of a beat

1 beat

¼ of a beat

Sixteenth note single.tif

sixteenth rest single.tif


¼ of a beat

½ of a beat

1/8 of a beat



Place measure lines in the following 3/4 rhythm. Put a vertical line after every third beat:

barlines 1


Place measure lines in the following 4/4 rhythm. Put a vertical line after every fourth beat:

barlines 2


Place measure lines in the following 3/8 rhythm. Put a vertical line after every third beat. (In this case, the eighth note is the unit of measurement and it is counted as the beat):

barlines 3


See if you can guess the most likely meters of these examples based on how many beats are in each measure:

probable meter three-four.tif

Possible meter: _______________


probable meter two-four.tif

Possible meter: _______________


probably meter five-eight.tif

Possible meter: _______________ (this one is tricky!)


You have learned how to read pitches on the staff, and you have seen that the pitches you have learned so far make up the white notes on the keyboard. Now we are going to learn about the other notes on the keyboard.

An accidental is a symbol that changes how a note is played. An accidental will appear in front of a note to let you know that the basic pitch must be altered. The three most common accidentals are the sharp, the flat, and the natural.

A sharp::Desktop:sharp-symbol2777940_f260jpg-wtiet4te.jpg is an accidental that raises the original note up a half step. A half step is the smallest distance you can travel on the keyboard.  So when you see this:






You know it means the note a half-step to the right of D. Find D-sharp (D#) just to the right of D. Remember that when we say “up” or “above” we mean to the right on the keyboard.



A flat::Desktop:sharp-symbol2777940_f260jpg-wtiet4te.jpg is an accidental that lowers the original note down a half step. So when you see this:






You know it means the note a half-step to the left than E. Look at E-flat (Eb) on this portion of the keyboard. It is just to the left of E.


D-sharp and E-flat are two different names for the same pitch on the keyboard. When there are more than two names for a single pitch, we call those pitches enharmonic. D-sharp and E-flat are enharmonic.

Why would we use one name versus the other? This will become clear when we are building scales and intervals. Right now, it’s just important for us to know that different names exist for each pitch.

There’s one more very common accidental, and it’s called the natural. When you want to cancel out an accidental, you place a natural in front of the note.

Natural sign.tif          This symbol means play the note as written or cancel out a previous accidental.







The half step is the smallest distance you can travel on the keyboard. If you travel two half steps, you have gone a distance we call a whole step. Look again at this portion of the keyboard. The distance from C to D is a whole step (because it’s made up of two half steps). The distance from D to E is a whole step. The distance from C-sharp to D-sharp is also a whole step.


Now look at the note E on the keyboard. Notice that E and the note immediately to its right (F) do not share a black note between them. The distance between E and F is a half step. There is another place on the keyboard where this happens again. Do you see it?



The pitches B and C are only a half step apart.

Naming the accidentals around E and F or B and C follows the same procedure.

Using what we’ve learned, label this keyboard with all of the note names you know so far:


Can you use your labeled keyboard to identify whether the indicated distance is a whole step (WS) or a half step (HS)? (The first one has been done for you.)

F to G-flat ____HS_____                        D-sharp to E ___________                      F to G ___________

B to C ___________                                 B-flat to C ___________                          A-flat to B-flat ___________

E to F-sharp ___________                      G to A ___________                                 E to F ___________

A to B ___________                                 C-sharp to D-sharp___________           D to E ___________


Let’s focus on the half step for a moment. If you move a half step either above or below a note, you have a few choices of how to name the note on which you have arrived.

A chromatic half step uses the same letter name as the original pitch.

D-sharp is a chromatic half step above D.

Going in the other direction, D-flat is a chromatic half step below D.


A diatonic half step must use a letter name that is different from the original note.

E-flat is a diatonic half step above D.

C-sharp is a diatonic half step below D.


Look at the pitch A on the keyboard. The black note a half step above (to the right) can be called A–sharp or B-flat.


The distance from A to A-sharp or from A to B-flat in both cases is a half step. chromatic half step.tif

When we call the black note A-sharp, it’s a chromatic half step.

diatonic half step.tif

If we go from A to B-flat, we still cover the same distance, but we call the half step a diatonic half step.

When we’re dealing with the places on the keyboard where there are two white notes next to each other with no black key in between them (B to C and E to F), we must be extra careful. If we want a chromatic half step above B, for example, we find ourselves at the pitch we normally call C. But we can’t call this pitch C since we want a chromatic half step. We want to use the same letter name for this note.

In this case, we would call this note (the one we would usually call C), B-sharp, because it is the note a half step above B. That means C and B-sharp are enharmonic.

If we wanted a diatonic half step above B, we’d just call the pitch C.





We’re not done with accidentals yet. There are such things as double flats and double sharps. They’re certainly not as common as sharps, flats, and naturals, but they do exist and they are important in some contexts.

The double flat indicates that the original note is to be lowered by two half steps. The double flat is indicated by two flats in front of the affected note.

double flat.tif

 The double sharp looks like an “X” and it indicates that the original note is to be raised by two half steps.

double sharp.tif

Find G on the keyboard. If we ask for a G-double sharp, where do we end up? Start with your finger on G and move up two half steps. You should have your finger on A, which can also be called G-double sharp.

Go back to G. If we want a G double flat, where do we end up? Move down two half steps from G and you end up on F. So F can also be called G-double flat.

Here is the keyboard with all possible note names labeled. Notice that every single note (except one) has three possible enharmonic names.


keyboard all names.tiff



















Write a chromatic and a diatonic half step above the following notes. For each given note, you should be writing in two different notes for the answer: one with the same letter name (chromatic) and one with a different letter name (diatonic).

second practice shorter


For each of these pairs, indicate whether the notes are a whole step apart (WS), a half step apart (HS), or enharmonic (E).

whole half enh.tif

         _______________          ______________         ________________      ______________      _______________     ______________


For each given pitch, notate two enharmonic notes on the staff.

300 intervals 1.tif


treble clef notes chromatic.tif


Without looking, try to draw and label a keyboard with all the possible note names. Keep trying until you get it right!




[1]Picture source: Wiechowicz Stanis?aw: ?wiczenia w starych kluczach. Cz??? pierwsza. 3-g?osowe utwory dawnych mistrzów (XIII-XVIII w.). Cracow, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1953. Wikimedia Commons.

[2] accessed 8 March 2014.