Music Notation

A Primer on Using Sheet Music

Download this: Sheet Music Notation Sample, then read below:

In the interest of increasing comfort levels for those who sing in a choir and say “But I don’t read music,” I’m going to go over some basics for you… in itty bitty bites. Yes, I’m trying to summarize several semesters worth of music theory into one short article. OK, it’s not that short anymore. But bear with me and I think you’ll get something out of it!

Music notation evolved back in a time when it was the only way to preserve that combination of sounds because there were no recordings. When we sing as a group, following the sheet music is how we stay together, how we agree musically, so we can do it the same way every time. It’s also darn difficult to pick out just your part from a recording.

So how do you read music? When the notes go up on the page, you sing higher. When the notes go down, you sing lower. Really, most of it is that simple. Most of the time people who “read music” don’t actually think about the letter name of each note, they just go up and down, following the contours of the music.

The notes climb up and down on a Staff – five parallel lines, with spaces in between each line. Both the lines and the spaces are important! If you go up or down a scale, you go: line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space (where all the lines and spaces are next to each other). Moving by adjacent “steps” this way is called “scale-wise” or “step-wise” motion.

If you go: line, line – then you have skipped a note in between! We call that a “skip.” (Creative, isn’t it?!) Anytime you move to a note that NOT right next to it, it’s a Skip. For example, line 2 to the next space up or down is a Step. And line 2 to the next line 3 or 1 (up or down) – or to anywhere else – is a Skip. For a big skip, your voice jumps a lot higher or lower.

Sheet music tells us the “Pitch” (how high or low) by its placement on the staff lines. Each line and space is assigned to a certain letter name. On the left side of each staff, there is a Clef symbol, and that Clef assigns all the lines and spaces to certain pitches. Women’s voices use Treble Clef (or G Clef – a strange thing with loops and twists) – and bottom line of a treble staff is an E (the one that is closest to middle C on the piano). So from bottom to top, the lines are E, G, B, D, F and the spaces are F, A, C, E. Yeah, the musical alphabet only goes from A thru G, and then it just repeats.

BTW, it’s called a G Clef because the last inner loop surrounds the line for G. Low voices and instruments use a Bass Clef (or F Clef – looks like a backwards capital C with two dots that surround the F below middle C). When they run out of lines and spaces above or below the staff, they use a little horizontal line just a little wider than the note; these are called Ledger Lines. Middle C on the piano is one extra line below the staff in Treble Clef (or one extra line above the staff in Bass Clef.) Sopranos: high C is two lines above the staff – can you hit it?!

(Interesting but not especially relevant: in physics the pitch is measured by the frequency, how fast the air is vibrating. Shorter strings sound higher and vibrate faster than longer strings. Ditto for shorter columns of air, like inside a flute or clarinet. When they press down the keys, they are changing the length of the column of air. When an orchestra tunes, they all tune to a standardized frequency – A=440 cycles per second.)

  • Unison means “one sound” – everybody on the same pitch
  • Octave is an interval that is 8 notes above or below; it has the same letter name and double the frequency, and is abbreviated 8va. Not to be confused with Octet (group of 8 players) or Octopus (sea creature with 8 tentacles)
  • Half step – the smallest interval in western music, the very next key on the piano. C to C# is a half step. B to Bb (B flat) is a half step.
  • Whole step – two half steps, usually from one letter name to the next. C up to D is a whole step. B down to A is a whole step. (BUT, there are natural half steps, where the black key is missing on the piano, from E to F and from B to C. Usually this won’t bother you. I just couldn’t leave it out.)

  • Sharp # raises the pitch by a half step. C# (black key) is higher than C (white key).
  • Flat b lowers the pitch by a half step. Gb is lower than G.
  • Natural sign cancels out the pre-existing Sharp or Flat

  • Key Signature is written at the beginning of each line, and its Sharps or Flats carry all through the piece. So one sharp in the key signature (the first sharp is always placed on F) automatically turns every F in the piece into an F#.

Music happens in Time. Unlike a painting which is fixed in time, music changes from moment to moment. So sheet music also tells us how to make these sounds flow through time: how long or short to make each note (“Duration“), as well as how fast or slow (“Tempo“) to play the whole piece. The pattern created by long and short notes is called the “Rhythm” – and the underlying pulse that you feel when you tap your foot is the “Beat.”

Each written note tells us the Duration (how long to hold it) as well as the relationship to the note that came before it (Intervals – steps and how big to make the skips.) The round part is the Notehead. The stick attached to it is the Stem, and the stem might have some Flags (which may or may not be connected to each other as bars). Each of these things tells us something about the timing. The longest note is just an empty circle and called a whole note. Next add a stem – now it’s called a half note and it’s worth half as much. (Those are the only two notes that are empty circles) Next fill in the circle and keep the stem and it’s a quarter note, again worth half as much as its predecessor. Now add one flag to the stem and it’s an eighth note, yup, half as much again. Two flags and it’s a sixteenth; three flags and it’s a thirty-second note (and it’s so short you can hardly sing it, so find a different composer!) It’s all very mathematical and orderly.

Sometimes we want different durations, so somebody invented the dot. When there’s a dot after a note, technically it adds an extra half to the note’s value. You’ll often see a dotted half note (empty circle, stem, dot) – that is worth 2 + 1 = 3 beats. A dotted quarter note (filled circle, stem, dot) is 1 + 1/2 = 1 1/2 beats.

What happens if you don’t want sound for the whole measure? Well, we have Rests to measure silence – another set of symbols for various durations.

So how do we keep track of all this counting? We break it up into smaller parts, called Measures (or Bars), and divide up the staff with little vertical lines that we call Barlines |. This visual cue makes it easier to see and keep your place as you’re reading music. Usually they also try to layout sheet music so the placement of the notes gives you cues – so there’s more space after a long note, and short notes are smushed together. (This isn’t always exact because they also have to allow for spacing of the words, or perhaps they’re thinking about where to turn the page or not wanting to print another page for those last two measures.)

So a Measure is actually a measurement of musical time. And the composer decides how to break that up. The most common way is to put 4 beats in each measure, and to let each quarter note be one beat. We call this the Time Signature – and it’s printed at the very beginning of the music and looks like a fraction. The top number is how many beats in the measure; the bottom number is what gets one beat. The time signatures used the most are 4/4 (this is so common that it’s also called Common time; sometimes they put a big C in place of the 4/4 time signature); 3/4 (waltz); 6/8; 12/8 (blues!); 2/2 (Cut time – big C with a line through it so it looks like a cents sign).

Here’s an analogy for 4/4 time. Think of each measure as a mixing bowl (=one measure) that holds exactly 4 cups (4 beats) of ingredients (quarter notes or equivalent). You must fill the bowl completely every time, and it will not hold more than 4 cups. There are lots of ways you can fill it up, as long as it always adds up to 4 cups (beats): 2 cups water, 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar (half note, quarter note, quarter note). 2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 cup butter (half note, dotted quarter, eighth). See how that works? Oh, here’s a good one: 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, 1 cup air, 1 cup butter (quarter, quarter, quarter REST, quarter). (Don’t ask me how to keep the air in the bowl – an analogy only goes so far!)

The first note in any measure is called the Downbeat. It’s named that way because a conductor who directs in a standard pattern always goes downward to start each new measure. If you lose your place, wait for the downstroke and that’s the beginning of a new measure. Ah, we get a new start every four beats! There is usually a sense of accent on the first beat.

And then there’s the Pickup, which is a note or short series of notes that leads into a new phrase of music. If you say “ta dah”, “ta” is the pickup, and “dah” is the downbeat. So when the Director says “We’re starting at the pickup to measure 9”, she means to include the few notes that come just BEFORE measure 9 and that feel like they go with measure 9. (Notice that when a Director is getting ready for a new measure or to start the piece, her arm moves UP to get ready for the DOWNbeat. That pickup of her arm helps you to see what the tempo is going to be when her arm drops… and is a good time to take your breath, hint, hint.)

Follow the Road Map

The other thing you really need to know is how to read the roadmap of a song. To save paper (and when the notes are the same and only the words are different), we have Repeat signs and Endings to show us where to go next.

A Repeat sign looks like an extra barline plus a colon |: or :| and they usually come in pairs. Think of them like a set of parentheses. What’s (inside that set of left and right parentheses) is going to be repeated. So you’re singing along and you see |: – that’s the left side and it marks the spot that you’re going to come back to later, so notice where it is. But you should keep on singing until you come to its mate 😐 which is the right side, and it tells you to bounce back to that first one and do that section over one more time.

Here’s an example. “I am singing a |: song that soon will end 😐 loudly and with fervor.”

You perform it this way: “I am singing a (song that soon will end), (song that soon will end) loudly and with fervor.”

Endings refer to a measure (or a few measures) that come at the end of a repeated passage. There is a bracket across the top of the measure(s) and a little number inside the bracket. Most of the time there are only 2 endings, but there can be more. The first time through, you sing Ending 1, then you go back and do the repeated section. This time when you get to Ending 1, you skip over it – do NOT sing it! and sing Ending 2 instead, which usually goes on to new stuff.

Here’s an example. “I am singing a |: song that soon |1. will end :|| |2. can fill the room, and go on loudly and with fervor.”

You perform it this way: “I am singing a (song that soon will end), (song that soon can fill the room, and go on loudly and with fervor.”

There’s a couple more roadmap things you might need to know. CODA (sometimes called Tag ending) is a little section of music added onto the very end of the piece. The symbol is a circle with a cross over it, or they use the word CODA, or it says “To Coda” and that means you jump past all the rest of music and get right to the section marked Coda. (Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.)

Here’s an example with 3 Endings and a Coda. “I am singing a |: song that soon |1. will end 😐 |2.,3. can fill the room, and go on loudly and (To Coda) with fervor 😐 (Coda) I will never ever stop singing.”

You perform it this way: “I am singing a (song that soon will end) (song that soon can fill the room, and go on loudly and with fervor), (song that soon can fill the room, and go on loudly and I will never ever stop singing.”

Whew! Navigation gets a little complicated sometimes! When you get a new piece of music, it helps to look it over to see if there are any of these road signs, and mark them with your yellow highlighter.

We’re almost done with the road signs. The Italians cornered the market on musical terms centuries ago, so you gotta learn some.

  • Da or dal means “go back to”
  • Capo means “the head” (as in capitol or decapitate or the cap on your head)
  • Segno means “the Sign”
  • al Fine means “until the End” (as in the “finish line”)
  • So if you see D.C. or Da Capo, you are supposed to jump all the way back to the very beginning of the piece (the head) and do it again.
  • If you see a strange symbol that looks like a backward S with a line and dots through it, that’s The Sign. D.S. or Dal Segno (pronounced dahl SANE-yo) tells you to jump back to where The Sign is and start over at that point.
  • Fine is a big old Stop sign; sometimes it’s in the middle of the piece, sometimes near the end. You just gotta be looking for it. (This is why God invented yellow highlighters for musicians.) Al Fine means “until you get to the end or the Fine.” So D.S. al Fine means, go back to The Sign and continue on until you reach the Fine. (BTW, Fine is a two-syllable word: FEE-nay. The Italians don’t like to waste a good vowel.)

As long as we’re learning Italian, here’s some other handy terms: (Even Bigger list of them)

  • Tutti = All (everybody) (just like tutti-frutti means all the fruits mixed together.)
  • A capella = unaccompanied (literally, in the manner of a chapel – must be a little church with no organ or piano or guitar or nothing! Not even a ukelele.)
  • Grave = very slow & solemn (like walking to your grave?)
  • Largo = slow (like a large turtle)
  • Andante = at walking speed (faster than a stroll, slower than a speed walk.)
  • Allegro = fast (jogging)
  • Presto = very fast (running for your life!)
  • Accelerando (Accel.) = speeding up, accelerating
  • Ritardando (Rit.) or Rallentando (Rall.) = gradually slowing down
  • Crescendo / Decrescendo (Cresc./ Decresc. ) = gradually getting louder / softer, increasing / decreasing the volume
  • Diminuendo (Dim.) = gradually getting softer, diminishing the volume
  • Legato = smooth and connected
  • Staccato (dot over a note) = detached
  • Piano, pianissimo, pianississimo (p, pp, ppp) = soft, softer, softest – the more letters it has, the more extreme
  • Forte, fortissimo, fortississimo (f, ff, fff) = loud, louder, loudest – the more letters it has, the more extreme
  • Mezzo piano / Mezzo forte (mp / mf) = medium soft / medium loud – in the middle
  • Appassionato = with passion
  • Con Amore = with love (I just threw those in to see if you’re paying attention)

Happy Singing!