Reading Music for Guitar Beginners – Step 2: Understanding Pitch


In Step 1 we described how the staff in traditional notation captures the two different dimensions of a musical composition: time and pitch.

In its simplest form a musical melody is essentially a series of sounds strung together to form a unified composition. Each of the individual sounds is represented as a note having a specific pitch and duration.

In this post we want to say a few things about pitch.

Pitch is the up or down-ness of the note

It is difficult to put into words, but just about everybody instinctively understands what it means for a musical sound to be “high” or “low”.

Technically speaking, sounds are created by a vibrating medium: a singer’s vocal chords, a police siren, a guitar string, the mouthpiece of a tuba or the reed of a clarinet, and so on. The faster the vibration, the “higher” the pitch of the sound created.

On the guitar we raise the pitch of the note created by a string by pressing down on a fret when we strike the string. This essentially shortens the string. And a shorter string vibrates more quickly.

As you probably already know, this is represented in written music by placing the note higher or lower on the musical staff.

Let’s explain further…

Notes and Octaves

In music an octave (“octavus” is Latin for 8) is the range between two notes that sound the same, one lower and the other an octave higher. They sound the same because their vibrations are multiples of each other. A higher note – the 8th note (or “degree”) in a major scale – has twice the frequency of vibration of the lower one – the 1st note (or “degree”) of the major scale.

If you look at the piano keyboard you can see the same pattern of notes repeated several times. That is because notes having the same pitch – only higher or lower – are repeated in a regular sequence.

octave of C

For example, if you start at “middle” C on the piano and go up (to the right) 8 notes you come to C again.

On the guitar there are two instances of the note C within the normal playing range of a beginner. The lower one is at the third fret of the A string (string 5) – which we refer to as A3. The higher one – an octave higher – is at the first fret of the B string (string 2), which we will refer to as B1.

C on the guitar

When we write it in traditional musical notation A3 is one line below the staff. B1 is in the space between lines 3 and 4.

Now if you add the other notes in the C Major Scale between these two instances of C, they look like this: D is at the first space below the staff. E is at the first line of the staff. F is at space 1. G is at line 2. A is at space 2. And B is at line 3. That is how you write the C major scale.

C scale

So there you have it…the first major step to learning how to read musical notation for the guitar. In the next post we’ll talk about note values: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes…and more.

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