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…