Learning to read traditional music notation is fairly simple. Once you understand a few basic concepts it is quite intuitive.
The two dimensions of the Staff
The basic framework for traditional music notation is the staff. The staff consists of a series of five parallel lines. The sequence of musical notes that make up a song are placed along these lines.
The two dimensions represented on the staff are pitch and time.
Pitch – higher or lower – is represented by placing notes higher or lower in the series of staff lines.
Each line and space between the lines represents a specific note. An oval shaped note under line 1 is understood as D. A note on line 1 is E. And so on, until we get to E again in the top space, and F on the top line.
Time – or more accurately, duration of the individual notes – is represented with a specific set of symbols spread out across the width of the staff from left to right.
There are actually two different components to the time dimension of music. Every piece of music has a beat which can be either faster or slower. This is called the tempo of the music.
Tempo is normally measured in terms of beats per minute (bpm), and is indicated at the very beginning of the first staff line of a composition.
The length or “duration” of individual notes is then measured with reference to that tempo. If a song is supposed to have a tempo of 60 bpm, then each beat will be one second long (1/60th of a minute).
The notes placed along the staff therefore tell us two very different things about the sounds they represent. They tell us the pitch of the sound and how long that sound is to be held.
In the illustration below the highlighted note is a hollow note with a stem, placed in the space between the third and fourth lines. From its position in this space we know to play a C, and from its shape (hollow with a stem) we know it is to be held for 2 beats.
This second feature – the concise and very effective way it indicates the duration of individual notes – is perhaps the most unique feature of the traditional music notation system. It is this feature more than anything else that makes learning traditional musical notation worth doing.
Alternative systems such as tablature or tab as it is often called, may seem simpler and more appropriate in some ways for communicating guitar music. But they lack a widely recognized method for indicating note duration. They tell us what notes to play, but don’t tell us in a very consistent way how long to hold those notes. That seems like a pretty important problem with tablature.
In future segments we will discuss in more detail how traditional notation handles pitch, tempo, bpm, etc. And we will have a more detailed look at tablature as well.