Every beginning musician should know the basics. You likely received a quick class in music theory when learning how to play your instrument. They taught you the notes, told you what the area was called in which the lines were drawn, and so on. If you need a refresher on the basics, read on. You might also want to consider a beginner music theory course.
All About the Staff
The staff is the foundation of all music. It is the lines and spaces where notes are drawn. There are five lines and four spaces in the staff. The lines and spaces are numbered from the bottom to the top. So, the first line would actually be the bottom line.
Every line and space is a note on the staff. At the left-hand side of the staff, a clef is written. This clef is what shows the musician what pitch the notes are written in. The two most common clefs are the bass clef and the treble clef.
The notes are written on the spaces and lines of the staff. The spaces begin at the bottom of the staff with the note F and continue upward with A, C, and E. A good way to remember the name of the notes for the spaces in the staff is just to think of it as the FACE of the staff.
The lines begin at the bottom like the spaces, but the note they begin with is E. Each line following is G, B, D, and F. One of the best ways to remember the name of the notes for the lines is to memorize this sentence: “Every good boy does fine.” The first letter of each word is a note from the lines of the staff.
The Different Length of Each Note
Each note has a different length – how long the note is held when being played. The notes are drawn differently depending on how long they are. The whole note is the longest note. It is an oval shape with no coloring in the center.
The half note is half the beats of the whole note and looks similar to the whole note. It also has the oval shape with no coloring in the center, but it also has a stem drawn perpendicular to the lines of the staff. This line can be drawn facing upward or facing downward.
The quarter note looks similar to the half note and is half of the half note. It has the oval shape, but it is filled in. There is also a stem on the quarter note, and like the half note, it can point up or down.
Notes smaller than the quarter note have something drawn on the stem called a flag. These notes are drawn like the quarter note, but there are flags on the stem instead. Like the other notes, these stems can also be facing up or down. Learn more about writing notes by taking an online course in music theory.
Deciding Measures and Time Signature
A measure is a black line drawn vertically through the entire staff. Each measure holds a certain number of notes. Beside the clef, two numbers are written stacked on top of each other. This is the time signature, and it is what tells you how many beats can be in the measure and what note will equal one beat.
The most common time signature is 4/4. The top number means that there are four beats in each measure. The bottom number means that a quarter note is what equals one beat. So, if you were looking at a piece of sheet music that had this time signature, you would know that each quarter note should be held for one beat. Each half note would be held for two, and each whole note would be held for four beats.
Another common time signature is 3/4. The top number means that there are three beats in each measure this time, but the bottom number is the same – a quarter note equals one beat. If you were looking at sheet music with this time signature, each quarter note would equal one beat. This kind of sheet music usually involves a lot of eighth and sixteenth notes.
When to Rest and How Long
Sheet music is made up of more than just notes. There are also symbols known as rests. Each rest is related to a certain note as you rest for the same length of time as you would play the related note. A rest means that no note is played. To musicians playing wind instruments, this can also be considered a time to catch their breath and prepare for the next notes.
A whole rest is a filled rectangle that is drawn descending from the fourth line. A half rest is a similar filled rectangle, but it is drawn ascending from the third line. A quarter rest is a bit of a squiggly line drawn vertically through the lines of the staff.
Like the notes above, the rests can also have flags, and these flags are used for rests shorter than a quarter rest. However, where the notes shorter than a quarter note were drawn exactly the same but with flags added, these rests are drawn as a line slashed through the lines of the staff with flags curled to the left side. Using an electronic instrument? Learn about music theory for electronic instruments.
Symbols That Modify Notes
If you haven’t noticed yet, there is no specific note to be drawn for 3/4 notes and other notes of similar value. To depict such notes, dots are used on sheet music. The dot adds half the value of the note drawn. So, to draw a 3/4 note, you would draw a half note with a dot beside it. In a 4/4 time scale, this would mean that you would hold that particular note for three beats.
There are also times in music in which a measure can get in the way of playing the proper melody. To play a note longer than the measure line would allow, you would draw a tie. This is a curved line drawn from the bottom of one note to the bottom of another to show that they are attached.