Musical Notes

Jane and Tom were studying at Jane’s house and she said, “The test is tomorrow and we must review what we have learned so far.  I will try to help you as much as I can, but remember that music is a language and we can both learn to read it just as if it were a new book.  The symbols that are shown on the pages of sheet music have been used for hundreds of years, in fact monks started naming the notes around the year 1000. Guido D’Arezzo invented the solfege system for signing notes using the vocal note scale which we are all familiar with being the sol-fa notation which is comprised of, do, re, mi, fa, so, la ,ti, do.  In the 16th century, they came up with five horizontal lines called a Staff (also called a stave).  These five lines are like a grid system comprised of a series of lines and spaces and that is what the musical notes are presented on.

The notes represent the pitch, speed and rhythm of the song they convey, as well as expression and techniques used by a musician to play the piece.  The notes became letters, and the specific order you need to learn is E – G – B – D – F – A – C, and you may wish to use a mnemonic such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fun And Chocolate.  You must memorize the sequence of letters.  Music is made up of a variety of symbols, the most basic of which are the staff, the clefs and the notes.  Clefs were used to indicated the range of pitches shown on a staff, and sharps and flats and key signatures were used to specify the pitches used by a section of music or for individual notes.  Two common clefs are the treble or G-clef and the bass or F-clef.

The staff is the basis of written music and each of those lines and each of those spaces represents a different letter, which in turn represents a note.  Those lines and spaces represent notes named A-G, and the note sequence moves alphabetically up the staff.


Let’s review the treble clef first.  The treble clef is illustrated by the large fancy symbol to the far left and it shows the musician that the staff is treble.  Since it curls around the G line, it is also called a G clef.  The treble staff begins with the first line as E.  Each successive space and line is the next letter in the musical alphabet. The staff ends with the last line as an F.  Many mnemonic devices exist to help a person remember which line and space is which.  One of the most common phrases to remember the names of the lines is: Every Good Boy Does Fine, but Elvis’ Guitar Broke Down Friday is also popular.  To remember the spaces, just remember that they spell FACE starting from the bottom.  The treble clef notates the higher registers of music, so if your instrument has a higher pitch, such as a flute, violin or saxophone, your sheet music is written in the treble clef.  Higher notes on a keyboard also are notated on the treble clef.

Now we need to go over the bass clef. The bass clef, also known as the F clef because it locates the line known as F, is on the far left. The bass clef uses the same musical alphabet as treble, but the letters start in different places.  Instead of an E, the bottom line is a G, and the letters proceed logically from there.  Again, simple mnemonics can be used to remember the names of the notes.  The lines on the bass cleft, from bottom to top are: G, B, D, F, A (Good Boys Don’t Fight Anyone), and the spaces are A,C,E,G (All Cows Eat Grass).  The line between the two bass clef dots is the “F” line on the bass clef staff, and it’s also referred to as the F clef.  The bass clef notates the lower registers of music, so if your instrument has a lower pitch, such as a bassoon, tuba or cello, your sheet music is written in the bass clef.  Lower notes on your keyboard also are notated in the bass clef.

The vertical lines on the staff mark the measures.  Measures are used to divide and organize music.  The time signature determines how many beats can be in a measure.  The thick double bars mark the beginning and ends of a piece of music.  Measures are sometimes marked with numbers to make navigating a piece easier.  The first measure would be measure one, the second measure two and so on.

Notes placed on the staff tell us which note letter to play on our instrument and how long to play it. There are three parts of each note, the note head, the stem and the flag.  Every note has a note head, either filled (black) or open (white).  Where the note head sits on the staff (either on a line or a space) determines which note you will play.  Sometimes, note heads will sit above or below the five lines and four spaces of a staff.  In that case, a line is drawn through the note, above the note or below the note head, to indicate the note letter to play, as in the B and C notes above.

Notes are centered on the lines or in the spaces between the lines.  Stems on notes above the middle line trail down from the left of the note.  Stems on notes below the middle line stick up on the right of the note.  Stems on notes on the line usually go down except when adjacent notes have flags that go up.  Note stems are usually one octave (eight successive lines and spaces) long.  When two melodies occupy the same staff, the stems for the notes in one melody are written up and the stems for notes in the other are written down. The note stem is a thin line that extends either up or down from the note head.  The line extends from the right if pointing upward or from the left if pointing downward.  The direction of the line doesn’t affect how you play the note, but serves as a way to make the notes easier to read while allowing them to fit neatly on the staff.  As a rule, any notes at or above the B line on the staff have downward pointing stems, those notes below the B line have upward pointing stems.

The note flag is a curvy mark to the right of the note stem.  Its purpose is to tell you how long to hold a note.  We’ll see below how a single flag shortens the note’s duration, while multiple flags can make it shorter still.  Different pitches are named by letters.  The musical alphabet is, in ascending order by pitch, A, B, C, D, E, F and G.  After G, the cycle repeats going back to A.  Each line and space on the staff represents a different pitch.  The lower on the staff, the lower the pitch of the note.  Notes are represented by little ovals on the staff.  Depending on the clef, the position of each note on the staff corresponds to a letter name.

Now that you know the parts to each note, we’ll take a closer look at those filled and open note heads discussed above.  Whether a note head is filled or open shows us the note’s value, or how long that note should be held.  Start with a closed note head with a stem.  That’s our quarter note, and it gets one beat.  An open note head with a stem is a half note, and it gets two beats.  An open note that looks like an “o” without a stem is a whole note, and it gets held for four beats.  If you know all of this, then you are ready for the test we will get tomorrow.”

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