Introduction to Music, Part 7 (Symbols)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Music symbols, part 1

Symbols (1)

First of all, notice the time signature is “C”. That is known as Common Time which is the same as 4/4 time.

Let’s take a break from rhythm and counting and look at various symbols that can affect the way a note is played; the pitch of a note or other aspects of the music. Above are a number of symbols you are likely to encounter in music. I divide the symbols into a few categories: 1) Articulations; 2) Accidentals; 3) Dynamics; 4) Tempo or rhythm; 5) Ornamentations and 6) Directions. Only a few of the many symbols in music are shown above. I don’t want to overload you with everything right now. The names of many of these symbols are Italian words. Time does not allow an explanation of why this is true, but suffice it to say that you will learn quite a few Italian words when learning music.

Let’s start with Articulations. These have to do with how the note is played. Is it connected, is it played short, is it held, or what? The musician accomplishes whatever the symbol is asking for through the technic, the physical logistics of playing their instrument. (Vocalists will remember that your body is your instrument so don’t feel left out if I only refer to playing an instrument. I mean singing too).

The two most common articulations are the slur, sometimes called a phrase mark, and the staccato. The slur is the curved line that happens over or under two or more different notes. A slur indicates that the notes should be played in a connected manner, smoothly. The Italian word, that is sometimes written out in the music is legato. How you do this depends on your instrument. The resulting sound should be of a sequence of pitches without any gap in the sequence. It should be mentioned that in keyboard music, a slur is sometimes used to indicate a phrase and does not necessarily mean that every note within the slur is to be played legato. A wind instrument could play a slur by not tonguing between the notes. A keyboard player would make sure there is no gap between notes when moving from one finger to another. A string player could keep the bow going in the same direction for the entire slur.

Staccato is just the opposite of legato (slur). When the staccato dot is present above or below the note, it is performed shorter than normal. You will remember I said shorter not faster. If a 1/4 note, for example, is marked staccato, you would play the note and then immediately release (stop the sound) but you would still wait until the next beat before playing the next note. Imagine you have a series of 1/4 notes. Play them as though they are all 1/8 notes with an 1/8 note rest in between them. That is a typical way in which staccato is played.

Notice the line joining the last note in the next to last measure of the treble clef into the last measure is called a tie. Do not confuse a tie with a slur. A tie connects the same two notes (pitches), one after another. It is only when the two notes are the same note and no other notes happen in between those two notes that it is a tie. For a tie, you sustain (hold down on a piano) the note for the combined length of both note values. In this example, it is held for a whole note plus an 8th note. You only sound the first note of the two tied notes. You do not sound the second note. A pianist would play the first eighth note and keep the finger pressed down during the entire next measure.

Finally, in the last measure you will see the half-circle with a dot, sometimes called a bird’s eye. That is a fermata. It means to hold the note longer than marked. How long depends on the music and is open to interpretation by the performer.

Next time, a whole bunch of symbols…

Introduction to Music, Part 6 (Time Signatures)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Time Signatures and Counting

Time Signatures

Up until now we’ve talked about each measure having 4 beats and the quarter note equaling one beat. Can we have 20 beats in a measure? Can the 8th note equal one beat? Yes, to both questions. But what tells us how to know this?

Time signatures do.

A time signature tells us how many beats are in a measure and what type of note equals one beat. The time signature is the first thing that occurs (from left to right) after the clef. It only happens at the start of a piece of music unless there is a change to the time signature. (You may also see the term ‘meter’ used instead of time signature). The most common time signature is 4/4 time. This means that there are 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat. Click on the image to see the full size, easier to read version.

The top number of a time signature tells how many beats there are in a measure. The bottom number tells you what type of note gets the beat. The top number can be anything from 1 to infinity. The bottom number tells you what type of note gets the beat. For the bottom number, the way I look at is this: take just the bottom number and put a 1 above it and read it as a fraction. Thus for 4/4 time, make it 1/4 and say it – “quarter.” That’s the type of note that gets the beat. For 3/8 time, 3 beats in a measure, then 1/8 = “eight” so the eight note gets the beat. The bottom number can be 1 or any multiple of 2.

Other time signatures you will run across include: 2/4, 3/4, 6/4, 2/2, 3/2, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8. Those are the more common time signatures. I’ve seen 1/1 (one whole note per measure) but only for a measure or two, and in the music of J.S. Bach, the great 18th century organist and composer, 16/32, 16 beats in a measure and the 32nd note (twice as fast as the 16th) gets one beat.

While it is true that some time signatures are more often used in faster music or slower music, the time signature itself does not say anything whatsoever about the speed of the music. Yes, 2/2 time, which looks just like 4/4 time, is often faster, it isn’t always. What determines the speed of a piece of music is the tempo marking. See below.

The numbers show how you can count the different time signatures. See how in 6/8 time you count the eighth note as one and the quarter note gets 2 beats? How about 2/2 time? In it, the quarter note is 1/2 a beat long while the whole note is only 2 beats long. In time signatures with a 2 or 4 on the bottom, it is typical to divide the subdivisions into groups of two or four. You’ll see examples of that in future articles. In time signatures with 8 or 16 on the bottom, it is more typical to group the subdivisions into groups of 3. See the horizontal line joining the notes? That is what is known as a beam. When two eight notes are joined together, instead of using a flag, we use the beam. Since a 16th note has two flags, when joined together, we use 2 beams.

Tempo is the speed of a piece of music. Just above the time signature at the beginning of the music, a composer may indicated the speed they want the music performed at. This is the tempo marking. That, and only that, determines how fast a piece of music is. A time signature simply tells us how many beats are in a measure and what type of note gets the beat, not how fast to play.

I wonder what that “C” at the end of the last line of music means? (next time)

If you’re reading this close to when it is posted, no new posts for a few weeks so I can enjoy the Christmas holiday season.

Next time: Introduction to Symbols

Introduction to Music, Part 5 (Rhythm)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Measures and rhythm

Rhythm

Rhythm is the relationship of note values to one another and their placement in a measure. A measure is the space between the two bar lines. We are measuring beats. If we say that a 1/4 note is one beat long, then in the above example, each measure adds up to 4 beats. Remember that a 1/2 note is twice as long as a 1/4, thus equaling two beats. It is important to keep in mind as you learn to play or sing that you keep each similar note value the same length throughout the piece of music. For example, no matter where in the music you are, a 1/4 note will take up the same amount of time as any other 1/4 note.

As you can see a few notes have dots after the notehead. We describe these as dotted-[whatever the note value of the note is]. A 1/4 note with a dot is called a ‘dotted quarter’. Memorize this saying: A dot increases the length of a note by half its value. That’s a mouthful.

Take the dotted half-note as an example. A 1/2 note is 2 beats long. Half of 2 is 1. So, a dotted half-note is 2+1 or 3 beats long. A dotted-quarter note is equal to one plus a half-beat. Since an 1/8 note is half the value of a 1/4, an 1/8 note is half a beat long. So, a dotted-quarter note is equal to a quarter plus an eight or 1 + .5 or 1.5 (1 and-a-half) beats long. An 1/8 note almost always follows a dotted-quarter note. Any note value can be dotted.

Review the example above and use the numbers to help identify the note values. A dash between numbers indicates the note lasts for that many beats. In order to count 1/8 and 1/16 notes, we need to subdivide the beat into smaller parts. For 1/8 notes, the first of the two 1/8 notes is always the beat’s number. The 2nd half is ‘&’, said ‘and.’ For 1/16 notes, we subdivide the beat into 4 parts. The first is always the number of the beat, the 2nd is ‘e’, the 3rd is ‘&’ and the 4th is ‘a’ (said ‘uh’).

(Note that the next to last measure in the bass clef has a different rhythm than the treble clef. It is held for four beats. This is common in piano music and scores. If you count four beats per measure, focusing on the treble clef part, then you just hold down, if you were playing piano, the bass clef note for four beats).

Try clapping the examples. Whenever there is a dash between numbers, clap the first number, but keep the hands together until the dashes end. Keep the counting steady. You can count out loud, or better yet, use a metronome – there are many online sources for computer based metronomes – or the second hand of a watch or clock to keep the beat steady. The next section will have more on counting.

Next time: Time signatures and counting

Introduction to Music, Part 4 (Note values)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Note and Rest Values

Now that we know what the letter names of the Treble and Bass clef are, we need to learn about note and rest types and their values as well as an introduction to rhythm.

Note & Rest Values

Shown are the most common note and rest values that you are likely to run across in most music. There is one longer value and at least 3 faster note & rest values. A note’s value tells you how long the note lasts in relation to the other notes. It does not tell you how fast a note is. Read that again, it’s important. (How long the note lasts refers to how much time there is between the time the first note sounds and the next note sounds). All notes have a proportional relation to one another.

(For any readers familiar with the British system of crotchets, minims, quavers and my favorite, hemi-demi-semi-quaver, you’ll have to convert from that to this system which is typically used in North America and elsewhere).

Rests represent silence in music. Yes, silence is an important part of music. With rests, you have no sound for the value indicated. It does not mean to stop. The beat keeps going. That is, there should be silence for the amount of time the rest indicates.

The longest note or rest, the whole note is twice as long as a 1/2 note. The 1/2 note is twice as long as a 1/4. A 1/4 is twice is long as an 1/8 and a 1/8 is twice as long as a 16th. To put it another way, a 1/2 note is twice as fast as a whole, a 1/4 is twice as fast as a half, a 1/8 is twice as fast as a 1/4 and finally, a 1/16 is twice as fast as an 1/8. Whether you describe the notes in terms of longer or faster than one another, it is always twice as much as you move from one value to another. I recommend picking one or the other methods of describing the note relationships and stick to that while learning the note and rest values.

Try tapping a steady, non-stopping, steady beat on one leg while tapping out the various note values on the other leg. For example, you would tap one leg twice for every single time the other leg is tapped in order to indicate eighth (1/8) notes.

Next time: Measures and rhythm

Introduction to Music, Part 3 (More notation)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Piano Keyboard with LettersBasic Notation, Part 2

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To review from our last posting – Basic Notation, Part 1 – refer to the grand staff shown here.. We have staffs made up of lines and spaces. We have two clefs, the treble for the high notes and the bass for the low notes. Each line or space has a letter name that belongs to a specific pitch and a specific location on the keyboard. Those letter names can also refer to a specific fingering for your instrument. As you go higher in the staff (toward the top of the page), the letter names go forward in the alphabet (remembering to start over with A once you reach G). As you go lower in the staff (toward the bottom of the page), the letter names go backwards in the alphabet.

The grand staff is used primarily in keyboard music (piano and organ). It is also used in harp, some percussion and handbell music. We will use the grand staff for examples so that both clefs are shown. (Not every instrument reads the treble clef). We also show it so that you learn both clefs. Unless you play a keyboard or harp instrument, you will only see one clef in your music. Focus on learning that staff’s notes, but don’t ignore the other one. (Viola players, I haven’t forgotten about you. We’ll talk about the Alto clef later).

As you will see in future sections, some notes extend pass the staff in either direction. They have a little line going through them or just above or below them. These are called Leger Lines. Think of them as a 6th, 7th, 8th or more line temporarily added to the 5 lines and 4 spaces that are always present. Since the lines and space in a staff refer to specific pitches, it is impossible to represent all pitches with just 11 notes. (The 11 being the 4 spaces, 5 lines and 2 spaces on either side of the staff). So, we have to add lines and spaces above or below the staff to represent those notes.

Memorize all the letter names in the two staffs. Remember that the notes on the staff refer to a specific location or fingering on your instrument. For example, the first line in the Treble Clef, E, is the note E two higher than Middle C on the piano and only that “E”, not other “E”‘s on the piano. Use the sayings to help with your learning. Remember, as you go up, go forward in the music alphabet and as you go down, go backwards in the music alphabet.

Next time, Note and rest values and rhythm.

Introduction to Music, Part 2 (Notation)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Basic Notation, Part 1

Piano Keyboard with Letters

You may be thinking, ‘why a piano keyboard, I’m not a pianist.’ Knowing the layout of a keyboard can be helpful in figuring out some elements of music. This will make more sense later, but for now, be familiar with the look of a keyboard. Note the pattern of the black notes. Plus, there are plenty of times when being able to play notes on the piano, even with one finger, can be helpful. You will find that most good musicians know a little bit of piano. But, the reason I show it here is to point out the letters that are used in music. (Tip: To get a better view of the examples shown, click on them to view the full-size versions).

In music we only use the letters A through G. Once you get to G, you start repeating the letters. As you go forward in the alphabet, you go higher in pitch. For the technically minded, pitch refers to how many times a second a note vibrates. Let’s take string instruments as an example. You can’t see it, but when any string instrument is sounded, the string vibrates. The longer the string, the slower the vibration and the lower the sound. The shorter the string, the faster the vibration and the higher the sound. As you go backwards in the alphabet, the pitch gets lower, as you go forward, it gets higher. In notation, as the notes go toward the top of the page (higher), the pitch gets higher. As the notes go toward the bottom of the page (lower), the pitch gets lower. A good tip is to memorize the alphabet backwards from G to A. While we used the example of string instruments, all pitches vibrate, no matter the source.

Music Staff

This is a musical staff. It consists of 5 equally spaced lines. The distance between the lines is called a space. There are 4 spaces in the staff. We number the staff lines and spaces starting from the bottom up. Music is written on this staff. In order to specify a specific pitch, we use clefs. The two most common clefs are the Treble Clef (also called the ‘G-Clef’) and Bass Clef (also called the ‘F-Clef’). As the names imply, the Treble clef is for higher notes and the Bass clef is for lower notes. Depending on what instrument you play, you will use on or the other, but rarely both. Only keyboard and harp players, of the more common instruments, need to read both clefs. Even so, learning both clefs is a good thing to do. If you want to compose or arrange music for other instruments, you need to learn all the clefs.

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Here are the Treble Clef and Bass Clefs. (Remember, click on the image to see a full-size version where you can read the letter names). Use the sayings shown to help memorize the notes. Remember the keyboard at the top with the one key marked ‘middle’? That is middle C. The first line in the treble clef is the E, two white notes higher than middle-C. The fifth (top) line of the bass clef is A, two white notes lower than middle-C.

Next time: More about basic notation

Introduction to Music, Part 1

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

A quick word or two before we get started

This series is designed to introduce you to the world of music. It is not intended as a music appreciation series for the non-musician, but rather it is intended for those who want to be musicians or want to improve their musicianship. It could be that you’ve never played an instrument or sung before and would like to. Perhaps you learned to play or sing by rote, that is, you copied what you heard and saw but don’t really understand why or what you are doing. Perhaps you’ve reached a point where you just aren’t improving as a musician. Hopefully this series can help all of you.

musical notation example (clef, key signature,...
(From Wikipedia)

There is much in the way of theory and how to read music in this series. If you want to learn to play or sing by ear or in a way that results in you only being able to play music someone else has already recorded or that you’ve heard, there is plenty of other material, good or not, that I would point you to. This series isn’t for you, it’s for the person who wants to be a well-rounded musician. It’s for someone who can read music and understand what they are reading and performing.

If you want to be able to play or sing any music, even music you’ve never heard, and do more than just play notes, actually make music, then you absolutely must learn to read music notation and you need to understand why those notes are there in the way they are there. In other words, learn the theory behind the music. That’s what the series is for. I want you to be more than someone who just copies what they’ve heard. I want you to be a well-rounded musician. This series is a very small step in the long process required to be a good musician.

If you are a musician, each instrument – singers, the body is your instrument – has different techniques necessary to play that instrument. String players have to learn how to bow properly. Guitar players need to learn finger positions. Brass and woodwind players need to learn breathing. Singers need to learn diction. Keyboard players need to use proper hand technique, etc. You can learn much on your own in this department, but the best players, even if they say they are self-taught, have had someone at some point in their career show them the technique of their instrument. A teacher is highly recommended. This series will not discuss technique or how to play an instrument.

For all the examples shown, you can click on the picture to see a bigger version.

Next time, we look at basic notation.