An Introduction to Music Note Names

Comprehensive Guide to Music Note and Symbols

Staff

Stave or staves is the plural of staff. Staff is the group of lines and four spaces each line represent various musical pitches. There are two types of staff treble staff and the bass staff.

Suitable music symbols are placed on the staff lines according to their functionality and pitch. The lines and spaces are numbered with the bottom to top approach. The bottom one is the first line whereas the topmost line is the fifth one.  

The graph of musical staff is constructed as pitch with respect to time. Pitches are labeled on the vertical axis or y-axis while the time on the horizontal axis or x-axis.

The Staff

The staff is an essential latticework of music notations for placing the symbols.

It is formed with five lines and four spaces. These lines and spaces represent various letters, in return, they represent a note. These notes start from A to G.

The note sequence proceeds alphabetically to the staff. As a result, the intervening spaces and the staff lines to the pitches of the diatonic scale.

Treble Clef

Out of two main clefs, Treble Clef is the first one.

The ornamental G is located at far left side of the treble clef. The inner swoop of the G encloses the G line on the staff.

The treble clef is responsible for the higher pitch of instruments like flute, violin, and saxophone. Moreover, the higher notes of the keyboard are notated owing to treble clef.

Some common mnemonics are used to retain the note names of the lines and spaces of the treble clef. EGBDF “every good boy does fine” is used for lines. Whereas, FACE is used for spaces.

Bass Clef 

Lower registers of the music are produced because of the bass clef. Therefore, the lower pitch of the instruments like bassoon, tuba or cello is owing to the bass clef.

The sheet music is composed in the bass clef. Lower notes of the keyboard are produced owing to the bass clef.

Retaining the notes requires a sharp memory. Thus, mnemonics are used to assist in remembering the note names for the lines.

For the lines GBDFA “good boys do fine always” is used. For the spaces: ACEG, “all cows eat grass.”

Ledger Lines

The five lines in the staff are unable to represent the whole extension of notes that exist in octaves. Hence, ledger lines are used.

Another name of the ledger line is the leger line. Ledger lines are simply the continuation of the staff. In Western musical notation ledger lines represent the pitches above or below the lines and for the spaces of the staff.

Besides such attributes of ledger lines, they also support half rest or whole rest.

They are helpful in supporting the multiple voices on staff as well. In this case, rare double rest is suspended between two ledger lines.

Grand Staff 

In American English, it is grand staff while in British English it’s great staff.

Grand staff is created when the music is intentionally played at once by a single instrument mostly a keyboard or harp.

Traditionally, the upper staff is supported by the treble clef while the lower staff by bass clef. In this case, middle C is sandwiched between the two staves. It can be written in either way. Primarily on the first ledger line below the upper staff. Secondly the first ledger line above the lower staff.

The music played with the pedalboard, the clef staff is used. It is mainly comprised of three staves. One for each hand on the manuals and the third for the feet on the pedalboard.

Notes 

In musical notation, notes are referred to as the pitch or the duration of any sound. It can represent a pitch class as well.

Notes are the basics of writing music. They help in comprehension, categorizing, and analyzing the music phenomena.

Small ovals on the staff represent the notes.

Notes have the length or time duration. Therefore, the number of beats they receive entirely depends upon the time signature.

There are multiple types of notes like whole note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note,

dotted half note, and dotted quarter note.

Whole Note 

Whole note for Americans while semibreve for British is a note with a hollow oval head with no note stem.

The other notes are the fragments of the whole note. For instance, half notes and quarter notes are played for a half or quarter duration of the whole note.

Primarily, whole notes are used in the music of free rhythm Anglican chant.  

Half Note 

Half note in American has another British name as a minim. It is a note played half the time span of the whole note while twice the span of a quarter note.

A half note is the shortest amongst the five notes. It is structured like a hollow oval notehead and with a straight note stem without flags.

Half notes with stems are drawn akin to the rest of the notes with stems.

Stems are to the right side of the notehead, facing up when they are positioned below the middle line of the staff. Similarly, if the notes are on or above the middle line of the staff that they are drawn on the left of the notehead while it’s facing downwards.

Quarter Note 

When one-quarter of the duration of the whole note is played than it is called a quarter note in American language while crotchet in British.

The beat is known by the time signature of the music but a quarter note can or cannot be the beat.

Quarter notes have a filled oval note head with a straight stem and no flag. If the stem is below the middle line of the staff or on the staff than the stem point upwards. However, the stem’s direction can differ from more than one part.

In relation to the stem, an orientation of the head of the note can be reversed.

Eighth Note 

Quaver in British of eighth note in American is played for one-eighth of the duration of the whole note.

Sixteenth note or semiquaver is twice the value of the eighth note. An eighth note is half the duration of the half note, one sixteenth the duration of a double note or breve, and one thirty-second duration of the longa.

The structure of the eighth notes is represented by an oval and a filled in note head. Moreover, it has a straight note stem with only one note flag.

In the instrumental notation, the stem is placed at the right of the notehead and exceed upwards if the notehead is positioned below the middle line of the staff. It is positioned downwards if the notehead is above or on the middle line of the staff.

Whereas in case of vocal music the middle-line notehead stretches upwards rather downwards.

Sixteenth Note 

Sixteenth note in American or semiquaver in British is a note played halve the duration of the eighth note.

In mensural notation, a sixteenth note is referred to as semifusa.

The structure of the sixteenth notes has an oval filled in notehead with a straight note stem and two flags. A single sixteenth note is always stemmed with two or more flags.

Like all the notes with stems, sixteenth notes are structured to the right of the notehead, facing upward, when they are below the middle line of the music staff. When the notes are on or above the middle line the stems are positioned to the left while the notehead facing downward.                   

Dotted Half Note 

A dot placed after the note indicates a change in the duration of a note. Dot is responsible for adding half of the value of the of the note to the note itself.

 

Dotted Quarter Note 

A dotted note has a small dot written after it.

The first dot maximizes the duration of the basic note by half of its original value. In 6/8 time there are two beats per measure and the dotted quarter note has ⅜ or has one beat.

 

Whole Rest

The whole rest note is four times the duration of a quarter note while double the duration of a half rest.

Whole rest note is four times the span of a quarter rest note while double the span of a half rest. In most time signatures whole note lasts for four beats or 4/4 times. Depicting that for an entire measure no other note is played.

4/4 is a time signature which denotes the number of beats in a measure and the type of the note that receives one beat.

Hence in 4/4 time signature, four quarter notes are present in one measure.

Half Rest

Minim or half rest is structured as a filled-in rectangle located on top of the middle line of the staff.

The height of the half rest is half the distance between the lines. Whole rest and half rest looks quite similar. The major difference is the whole rest swings on the fourth line.

Half rest has the resting duration of twice as long as a quarter rest. According to mathematics, two half rests are equal to one whole rest.

Moreover, coming across a half rest in a piece of music beats one should pause for two beats. This is equivalent to exactly half note.

Quarter Rest

Quarter rest or quarter note they both are equal in time length.

A quarter note is a time span of silence which lasts for one beat in 4/4 time. Depicting that, no note must be played for the duration of one beat. Additionally, quarter rest has one-fourth the value of a whole rest.

More simply, four ¼ rests are equal to the one whole rest. Whereas, two ¼ rests are equal to one-half rest known as crotchet in British.

Eighth Rest

An eighth rest is half of quarter rest note in terms of time duration.

In simple words combining two eighth rest one-quarter rest is formed. While, four eighth rest make up half rest, and one by eight notes form a whole rest.

In time signature terms, the topmost number indicates the beats in a measure while the bottom number specifies the note that receives a beat. Thus, an 8th note gets half of the beat in 4/4 time signature.

Considering 8 at the bottom for instance 6/8 the 8th note gets one beat.

Accidentals 

In music notation accidental is a note that is not the part of a scale.

The sharp (♯), flat (♭), and natural (♮) symbols, among others, are also known as accidentals. Accidentals are preferred by the composers as playing with one set key all the time becomes monotonous.

Accidentals also help in understanding music theory. Accidentals are just as considerable as the diatonic notes are.  

Sharp 

Sharp or dièse in French or diesis in Greek is jargon in music language depicting a higher pitch. Or it is an accidental which indicates the slight increase in a pitch.

More precisely, in music’s context sharp depicts “a note higher in pitch by a semitone.” Sharp is an antonym of a flat which means a lowering of a pitch.

In key signatures or in accidentals the sharp symbol resembles with “# or ♯ .”

Flats 

Flats are the accidentals opposite to the sharp.

In the music language flats or bemolle an Italian word (“soft B”) means lower in pitch. More precisely, flat in musical context means “lower in pitch by a single semitone(half step).”

The flat symbol ♭, in music notation, is derived from a stylised lowercase “b”.

Natural 

Natural is an accidental which abandons previous accidentals while representing an unaltered pitch of the note.

Any note is known as natural when neither it’s flat nor sharp, double-flat or double-sharp. The white keys on the piano or organ represent the natural notes.

The C major scale is occasionally regarded as the central, basic of natural scale as all of its notes are natural notes. Whereas all other major scales have at least one sharp or one flat in it.

Double Sharp 

Double sharp is an accidental having two sharps. The original note is raised by two half steps also known as semitones.

Bold letter “x” represents a double sharp accidental which is placed before a notehead akin to other accidentals.

The major difference between a single and a double sharp is a number of half steps by which the natural note is changed.

Black piano keys represent single sharps while the double sharps refer to piano naturals.

In day to day life double sharps are used for following the rules of music. For instance instead of switching between writing A natural or A# sharp composer might prefer the harmony with an A natural complimenting with G double-sharp.

Double Flats

When two flats join together they form a double flat, as a result, it lowers a note’s pitch by two of the half steps.

A double flat is represented by this symbol (♭♭) which is placed before a lote just like other accidentals. Double flats represent the piano natural.

Double flats have an eccentric purpose in musical language. Instead of switching between writing G natural and G flat one can represent the tone of G simple by writing a double flat.

Key Signatures 

The arrangement of sharp or flat signs on the lines and spaces of the staff is called a key signature.

Key signatures are also used to specify the corresponding notes in each octave. These notes are consistently raised by the sharps or lowered by the flats as compared to their natural pitches.

The key signature can be placed after the clef or at the beginning of the staff or after a double bar line.

Flat Key Signature 

Flat key signature is made of one to seven flats formulated as B E A D G C F. The mnemonic for flat key signature is “Battle Ends In Down Goes Charles Father.”

F major is the major scale with one flat. In rest of the “flat major scales,” the keynote of music in a major key is four notes below the last flats. It is akin to the second to last flat in the signature.

Sharp Key Signature 

Sharp key signature implies a number of sharps between one and seven followed by this order: F C G D A E B.

“Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle” is the mnemonic for F C G D A E B. The keynote in a major key is right above the last sharp in the sharp signature.

Time Signature

A time signature is also known as meter signature or measure signature. Time signature denotes the number of beats or pulses in each measure or bar. It makes sure which note value is equal to which beat.

The mid score time signature follows a barline and specifies the change in meter.

There are several types of time signature which depends on the regular beat patterns of the music. Simple time signature (¾, 4/4,), compound (9/8, 12/8). Shifting beat patterns of the time signature includes complex time signature (5/4,7/8), mixed, additive, fractional or irrational meters.

Specific Time 

Common Time

4/4 is the most common meter in music. Therefore, it is named as common time. The two numbers in the time signature are replaced by ‘C.’

In 4/4, the stacked numbers indicate the measure of four quarter note beats. Hence, for counting 4/4 meter, each time the beat is tapped it is equal to one-quarter note.

Common time can be written with a c-shaped semicircle.

Cut Time 

Cut common time or cut time is a musical meter with a time signature symbol.

Cut time is also called “Alla breve” in Italian which means on the breve. Originally “it alla breve” means the beat is counted on the breve. It is simply a dupe meter with a half-note pulse.

Note Relationship 

Music composition widely relies upon the relationship between notes. Note relationship is about the connection of two or more notes with each other.

Note relationship depends upon the melody and harmony.

When the sequence of notes is heard or played separately they are known as melody. Any outcome of the relationship between the single notes is also known as the melody. Melody has a sense of direction and possesses a meaning.

When the series of notes are played or heard at the same time the result becomes harmony. Harmony relationships can sound unpleasant as well, therefore a random set of pitches cannot be labeled as harmony.

Ties 

A curved line which connects the heads of two notes having the same pitch is called ties. It indicates that those two notes are meant to be played as a single note with a duration equivalent to the sum of individual value of notes.

A tie is akin to a slur in its appearance. However, slur combines the notes of various pitches and are played independently, but flawlessly.

Slurs 

The notes embraced by the slur are bound to be played without separation or by legato articulation technique.

Like the ties, slurs are also the curved lines but slurs cannot connect two or more notes of the same pitch. Rather slurs possess a variety of pitches.   

Slur begins and ends with a note and it can include minimum two notes at a time. Notes are said to be slurred if at either end or any in between the two notes shares the same part.

Tuplet

Tuplet has multiple names like irrational rhythm, groupings, artificial division, gruppetto or rarely known as contrametric rhythm.

A tuplet is any rhythm which divides the beat into a various number of equal subdivisions with the permission of time-signature. The notes involved in a tupled are often grouped together with a bracket or in a slur.

Chords 

A chord is a set of harmonic set of pitches composed with two or more and usually three or more notes known as pitches. They are considered to be heard as if they are played simultaneously.  

A chord progression is known as the ordered series of chords.

In modern Oceanic music, Western classical music, and Western popular music sequence of chords is used. Most frequently used chords in Western classical music are triads. They are known as triads because three various notes are used to make triads the root note, and the intervals of the third and fifth notes above the root note.

Few of the chords which use more than three notes are added tone chords, extended chords and tone clusters. They are helpful in contemporary classical music or jazz.

Dynamics 

In music, dynamics means how loud or quiet the music is.

In the written form of music, dynamics are represented by the Italian letters. Dynamics are also indicated by the particular musical notation. Dynamics also extends beyond loudness to insert changes in timber and tempo rubato.

Pianississimo 

An abbreviation of pianississimo is ppp. It indicates that the music must be played softer than pianissimo.

Pianississimo means extremely soft. Amongst the rest of the dynamics pianississimo is the softest.

Pianissimo 

pp is an abbreviation of Pianissimo. In Italian it is p.p. The softest dynamics in music are often represented with additional ps.

Pianissimo is an extremely soft and gentle dynamic to play.

 

Piano 

A piano is indicated with a small letter ‘p.’ The dynamic piano means to play softly or lightly.

The symbol piano is positioned at the bottom in the music writing to inform the musicians how to stay in effect till another marking appears.  

 

Mezzo Piano

Mezzo Piano or (mp) means “half soft”. Mezzo piano indicates to play softly.

Few dynamic markings hold the letter “m” which stands for mezzo, depicting “medium.” Therefore mezzo piano marking means to play medium quiet.

Mezzo Forte 

Mezzo forte dynamic is abbreviated as (mf) and it means to play medium loud. Mezzo forte depicts less loud or half strong.

Mezzo forte is louder than a mezzo piano but softer than the forte dynamic.

Forte 

Forte means loud and in literally meaning it depicts “strong”. t is denoted by the symbol f.

Unlike piano passage forte passage is different.

Fortissimo 

Fortissimo dynamic indicates an extremely loud volume. It is a step ahead from a forte, which depicts loud.

Fortissimo is abbreviated as ff. Some instruments are intentionally constructed to be loud. In a traditional orchestra, loudest instruments are a brass section, trumpets, and trombones. Instruments like cymbals can be ear-splitting as well.

In contrast with other dynamics, fortissimo is the loudest dynamic.

Fortississimo

Fortississimo indicates the loudest of the dynamics amongst the rest. It is louder than fortissimo.

Fortississimo is abbreviated by at least three f’s, it can have multiple f’s as well. Dynamics refer to the change in volume within a song. Thus, a song played in forte can have extra f’s to express fortississimo.

Sforzando

Sforzando indicates to make a strong and a sudden accent on a chord. Sforzando (fz) means “suddenly with force.” It is also known as sforzato, forzando, forzato, and abbreviated  as sf, or fz.

Sforzando can also be written as an accent note that appears on a music sheet as an upside-down V. The extent of the sforzando is determined entirely by the performer.

Crescendo 

Crescendo indicates the composer about the gradual increase in loudness of the music over a time period.

Apart from musical terms crescendo is also used in a literary term to portray any crowded place or situation with increasing volume.  

Abbreviation of crescendo is ‘cresc’. It is considered at the same position in music language as the other dynamics are.

Crescendo continues until the forte is measured until the 4th end. Duration of the crescendo depends on the distance between the initial mark of indication and the establishment of a new volume level through a dynamic mark which is louder than the initial dynamic crescendo.

Diminuendo

Diminuendo is the opposite of crescendo.

A gradual decrease in the volume is described as diminuendo. It is also referred to as dec, decresc and by the sign “>”.

The two terms decrescendo and diminuendo are convertible.

Articulation Marks 

Articulation is the performance technique that affects the transition on a single or multiple notes.

Articulation involves slight differences with duration, amplitude, meter, and techniques like tremolo and pitch.

Sometimes articulations are combined to create technically accurate sounds known as compound articulations. For instance, when the staccato marks combine with a slur portato is produced known as articulated legato.

Staccato 

In the 20th century music, the dot above or below the note indicates that it should play staccato. A wedge is mostly used for playing emphatic staccatissimo.

Before 1850 dots, dashes, and wedges were suppose to have the same meaning. Despite, some theorists distinguished it as, dash indicating shorter and sharper notes while the dot represented longer and lighter notes.  

Spiccato 

Spiccato is known for a bowing technique for string instruments.

In this technique, bow bounces lightly on the string. The term spiccato is derived from the past participle of an Italian verb spiccare which means to separate.

Martelé, saltando, and sautillé uses similar techniques as of spiccato.

Accent 

In the musical terms, an accent depicts the emphasis, stress or stronger attack on a note or group of notes or chord.

Accents are responsible for the articulation of performance regarding a musical phrase.

Accents can be written into a score. In the music notation accents are responsible for boosting the dynamics by fifty percent. There are dynamic accents, tonic accents, and agogic accents.

Syncopated accents are the accents which do not collaborate with the stressed beats of the succeeding meter. Syncopated accents are used in classical music, popular and traditional music. However, they are widely used in blues, funk, jazz, Latin mu, and disco.

Tenuto 

Tenuti is the past participle of Italian language which means to hold. It depicts the full or an extra duration.

Tenuto is used as a direction in musical notation. In simple words tenutos mark can alter, either the dynamic or the time span of the note. In either of the case marking depicts that a note should be emphasized.

In music, direction tenuto is the oldest directions.

Marcato

Marcato is an Italian word which means marked. It is abbreviated as Marc.

Marcato is a musical instruction referred to note, chord or passage which is to be played louder than the surrounding music.  Marcato is louder than a regular accent > or an open horizontal wedge.

In jazz scores, marcato symbol indicates a note is to be shortened till ⅔ it’s normal duration.

Fermata

Femats is an Italian word from fermare depicting to stay or stop. It also means to hold, pause or a grand pause when the note is at rest.

Fermata is also known as corona (Italian), point d’orgue (French), Fermate (German), and calderón (Spanish).

Femata indicates that the note must prolong or pause longer than its duration time. Femata indicates the end of the phrase or a work’s section if it’s placed over a bar or a double bar.

Femata can take place either at the end of a piece or in the middle of a piece. It can either be followed by a brief rest or multiple notes.

Ornaments 

Ornaments in music are also known as embellishments to add eloquence to a song.

Variety of ornaments are performed as fast notes around the main note. There are various types of ornaments like the addition of the grace notes before the main note. There are a number of standard ornaments are indicated with standard symbols like trill, upper mordent, and lower mordent. Composers also have their vocabulary ornaments and they are confidential or personal to them akin to programming codes.  

Trill 

Trill is a musical instrument possesses a rapid alternation between two adjacent notes having a semitone or a tone apart.

In German, it is known as triller, in Italian trillo, in Spanish known as trino,  while in French it is called as trille.

A trill provides rhythmic, melodic and harmonic interests through dissonance.

Upper Mordent 

The upper mordent consists of the note of the scale above while the principal note played as rapidly as possible in the duration of the principal note.

A third note must have a longer duration than the succeeding ones and must have the accent.

When the note, on which the upper mordent is placed is preceded by an appoggiatura, the mordant is delayed.

Lower Mordent 

The lower mordent consists of the principal note.

It is the note of the scale below, and the principal note replayed as quickly as possible in the duration of the principal note.

The third note should be of longer duration than the preceding ones and should bear the accent.

Stephanie Su
 

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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