Musical Notes

A comprehensive guide to naming and notating notes

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Musical Notes

Identifying a pitch is something, naming it is another. You can’t just write the frequencies of musical notes and expect a musician to perform them. It is not practical. This is why the musical notation was invented. Music notation system have used different methods for naming musical notes for centuries. Today we still use some of them.

Solmization

Solmization is a method of attributing a distinct syllable to each note. It is one of the most common naming convention in the world. Italy, Spain, France, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, most of the Latin American countries and many more use it. The syllables in this system are:

Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si

These are derived from a part of a Latin hymn “Ut queant Iaxis” in honor of St. John the Baptist. Solmization is commonly attributed to Guizo of Arezzo who was an Italian music theorist of the Medieval Era. “Ut” was later replaced with Do for singing easily. During 16th Century Giovanni Battista Doni added Si or Ti.

ABC

English-speaking and Dutch speaking countries use the first seven letters of the Latin alphabet for naming notes.

A B C D E F G 

Germany uses H for B. The next note after G is again an A. So the sequence continues. Today the standard pitch is A above the middle C and it equals to 440 Hz. We pitch all other notes in relation to it.

Let’s have a look at the note names in these two common methods.

POSITION

DEGREE

NAME

1st note

First degree

Tonic

2nd note

Second degree

Supertonic

3rd note

Third degree

Mediant

4th note

Fourth degree

Subdominant

5th note

Fifth degree

Dominant

6th note

Sixth degree

Subdominant

7th note

Seventh degree

Leading note

Naming Musical Notes On A Piano Keyboard

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the music alphabet is studying them on a piano keyboard. This way you can both learn where to find the notes on a piano and the relative pitch relations between notes.

Piano Keyboard
Piano Keyboard

Modern pianos have 52 white keys and 36 black keys, total 88 keys. From right to left, pitches of the notes get lower. From left to right, pitches get higher. Each key on a keyboard represents a specific note. The white keys represent seven basic keys from A to G. The black keys represent notes with accidentals. So we can name them as sharp of the previous basic note, or flat of the next basic note. Now let’s place the note names on a piano keyboard.

Notes on a piano keyboard
Notes on a piano keyboard

The black keys are in groups of twos and threes. Now let’s look at the note names on a keyboard. As you can see, there is a block of 12 keys in this figure. The first white key to the left of a group of two black keys is C. Names of the other notes are in alphabetical order. The white key to the right of C is D. Hence, the white key to the right of D is E.  After B, another C comes and the cycle goes on like this. We always name the keys at the same position with same names. As a result, all white notes to the left of a group of two black keys are C’s. In addition, the C in the middle of a piano keyboard is Middle C. Usually it is under the brand name of a piano.

Scientific Pitch Notation

To identify a scientific pitch, we can number the note names. We call the lowest C, the leftmost one on a piano C1. The next C is C2 and the next one is C3. It goes on like that. Of course, we number all notes in the same region with same number. For example, D to the right of C3 is D3. This method is Scientific Pitch Notation.

Scientific Pitch Notation
Scientific Pitch Notation

As you can see, from C1 to C8 there are eight C’s on a piano keyboard.

Staff

For visually representing any musical note, we need some certain elements of notation. One of them is a musical staff or stave (in British English). Staff is a set of five parallel horizontal lines and four spaces between them.

Staff
Staff

Each of these lines and spaces represent a different pitch, thus note. If it is a percussion staff, they represent different percussion instruments. In other words, we place notes and rests on these lines or in the spaces of a staff. The vertical position of the note head indicates which note to play. The lower the note is, the lower its pitch or vice verse. We number the lines and spaces of a staff from bottom to top.

Lines and spaces of on a staff
Lines and spaces of on a staff

Ledger Lines

Although the staff  is important to indicate the pitch of a note, it has limits. If we need to write notes outside the range of the staff, we place them on or between ledger lines. We can draw these extra lines above or below any staff. They are parallel to the staff and they have the same distance of the lines of the staff. In other words, they enhance the staff.

Ledger Lines
Ledger Lines

Clefs

Staff alone is not enough for representing the whole range of musical notes. After all, you can’t keep on writing extra lines above or below the staff. It wouldn’t be practical. Also as I mentioned before staves are not practical for naming musical notes. In fact, it can only show if a note is low or high in pitch. This is where the clefs come in handy. A clef is a symbol that we use to indicate the pitch of a specific line or a space of the staff. So that when you place notes on a line or in a space, you can name them. We place the clefs at the beginning of the staff.

There is a reference point on the staff for each clef by which you can identify the pitch of a line or space of the staff. There are three types of clefs we use commonly in modern notation: G clef, F clef and C clef.

G Clef

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G clef is a clef that indicates where the note G is. The reference point of the G clef for naming musical notes is the center of it. The center of the clef curls around a line of the staff. As a result, we name that line of the staff as G. (G2 according to the scientific pitch notation) We can name all other notes according to that line.

The most common G clef that is still in use today is treble clef. When we place a G clef on the second line of the staff, we call it a treble clef. Some of the instruments that use treble clef in their notation are violin, flute, oboe, bagpipe, clarinet, saxophone, horn, trumpet, cornet, vibraphone, xylophone, mandolin, recorder. Also, we use on the upper staff of grand staff which is used for harp and keyboard instruments such as piano. Also viola sometimes uses treble clef for very high pitches. We use treble clef for soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto and tenor voices too.

Treble clef is so common that we use G clef and treble clef as synonymous. However, know that there are different kinds of G clefs which indicate where G is. For example, we place the French violin clef on the first line of the staff. So that line indicates the note G.

Placing a treble clef on a staff

Treble Clef: G
Treble Clef: G

This is an example staff with a treble clef, a time signature and a whole note on it. When we notate like this, we first place the treble clef, then time signature then key signature (if there is). Here there is no key signature so after time signature we place the note. Notice how the center of the treble clef curls around the second horizontal line of the staff. So the note we placed on that line is G now. To separate the measures (bars), we use a bar line (the vertical line at the end of the staff).

Naming musical notes with a treble clef

When we use treble clef, names of the notes on the five lines of the staff from bottom to top are E, G, B, D, and F.

Treble Clef: Notes on lines
Treble Clef: Notes on lines

You can memorize them by using the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine”

Names of the notes in the four spaces of a staff from bottom to top are F, A, C, and E.

Treble Clef: Notes in spaces
Treble Clef: Notes in spaces

You can memorize them by using the word “FACE

Treble Clef: Notes around staff
Treble Clef: Notes around staff

In this figure, you can see all notes around a staff with a treble clef. We haven’t used any ledger lines here. For treble clef, the note right under the first line of the staff is D. The note on the first line is E and the note in the first space is F. It goes on like that. Let’s look at some of the notes on the lower ledger lines and in the spaces between them.

Treble Clef: Notes on the lower ledger lines
Treble Clef: Notes on the lower ledger lines

 

Now let’s see the notes on the upper ledger lines and in the spaces between them.

Treble Clef: Notes on the upper ledger lines
Treble Clef: Notes on the upper ledger lines

Notice how we always name the notes between A and G. After a G we start with another A again. It is like a cycle. But note that even two notes with same names at different positions have different pitches.

We can go further up or down with additional ledger lines. But if we use more staves for more instruments, it is not practical to use lots of ledger lines. Instead we use different clefs. Now let’s learn about F clef.

F Clef

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F Clef is a clef that indicates where the note F is. The line between two dots in the clef symbol which indicates F (F4 according to the scientific pitch notation) is the reference point of F Clef. There are various types of F clefs. When it is placed on the fourth line, it is called a Bass Clef. This is the most common F clef. It is used for cello, double bass, bass guitar, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone, baritone, horn, tuba, timpani and also for the lowest notes of the horn. We use it for barritone and bass voices. Also we use it on the bottom staff of the grand staff which is used for harp and keyboard instruments such as piano.

Bass Clef: F
Bass Clef: F

This is an example staff with a bass clef. Notice how the F clef is placed on the fourth line. So the fourth line stays between two dots of bass clef. If we place a note on that line, it is F. You name the other notes according to it.

Naming musical notes with a bass clef

When we use F clef, names of the notes on the five lines of the staff from bottom to top are G, B, D, F and A.

Bass Clef: Notes on lines
Bass Clef: Notes on lines

You can memorize them by using the phrase “Good Boys Do Fine Always”

Names of the notes in the four spaces of the staff from bottom to top are A, C, E, and G.

Bass Clef: Notes in spaces
Bass Clef: Notes in spaces

You can memorize them by using the phrase “All Cows Eat Grass”

C Clef

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This is a clef that indicates where the note C is. The reference point of a C clef is the middle of the B like shape. There are various types of C clef too. The most common one used today is the Alto Clef. This clef symbol is centered on the third horizontal line of the staff. So that line indicates the note C. (C3 according to the scientific pitch notation) We use alto clef for viola, viola da gamba, alto trombone. We use it for countertenor voice too. This is why it is also called viola clef or countertenor clef.

Alto Clef: Middle C
Alto Clef: Middle C

In this figure, you can see an alto clef. In this case, its reference point is on the third line of the staff. When we place a note on that line, it is a C.

Naming musical notes with a C clef

When we use C clef, names of the notes on the five lines of the staff from bottom to top are F, A, C, E, and G.

Alto Clef: Notes on lines
Alto Clef: Notes on lines

You can memorize them by using the phrase “Fast Ants Can Eat Grass”

Names of the notes in the four spaces of the staff from bottom to top are G, B, D, and F.

Alto Clef: Notes in spaces
Alto Clef: Notes in spaces

You can memorize them by using the phrase “Great Big Dragons Fly”

Grand Staff

A grand staff is basically a set of two staves which are combined with a brace. It is usually used for writing music for harps and keyboard instruments.

Grand Staff
Grand Staff

The upper staff usually uses a treble clef and the lower staff uses a bass cleff. Although this can change according to the context of a piece of music. The middle C is in the center of the two staves. We can place it on the first lower ledger line of the upper staff, or on the first upper ledger line of the lower staff. Typically, the upper staff is for the right hand, the lower staff is for the left hand unless it is mentioned otherwise.

The range of Bass Clef and Treble Clef on a keyboard
The range of Bass Clef and Treble Clef on a keyboard

In this figure, you can see the range of both bass clef and treble clef and also the keys of a keyboard that correspond to those notes. Notice that the above keyboard figure is only a proportion of a piano keyboard. There are some more lower and higher notes on an actual keyboard. You can also see where the middle C is for both clefs. Now let’s see the same notes on a grand staff.

Ensemble Staff

If we use a bracket to combine staves, we create a system which indicates that the music on these staves is to be played simultaneously. Most of the ensemble notation has this system. Sometimes we can group up the parts with additional brackets.

String Trio Staff
String Trio Staff

Here is an example ensemble staff. You can see that there are three staves with three different clefs combined with a bracket. One of violin, one for viola and one for violoncello. So it is a string trio staff.

Stem Practices

As you may notice from previous figures, the stems of some notes point up and some of them point down. The general practice is if we place our notes on and above the third line of a staff, we point their stems down. If we place our notes on and below the third line of a staff, we point their stems up. For the third line there is no certain practice. We either point the stem up or down. The stems are attached left side of the note head if they point down and they are attached right side of the note head if they point up.

Stem Practices
Stem Practices

Notice how the direction of stems changes after the third line of the staff.

The length of a stem is usually an octave on the staff. If the direction of the stem is upwards, its length is an octave up. If it is down, its length is an octave down. Octave is an interval between notes with same names. For example the interval between C3 and C4 is an octave. In the figure above, there are three C’s: C3, C4 and C5. The distance between C3 and C4 or C4 and C5 is an octave. You will learn about that later. But for now, notice that the stems of these notes have a length of an octave.

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