So what are notes? Most of us can probably recognize these famous musical components, but what do they mean? Each musical note conveys quite a bit of information. Let's start with the placement of the note. The placement of the note on the staff is important because it tells the musician which pitch to play (for more information on pitches, see What is Pitch?). As we mentioned before, the note values in each staff depend on the clef. Let's not get too involved with this now, though. We will talk more about these note values in What are Intervals?.

OK, so let's take a look at some real notes. See that picture to the right of this text? That's an example of a few notes. The main differences in these notes are just in their stems, which is everything but the circular part of the note. Every time one of those "tails" is added, the note's duration gets halved. It's not important for you to remember each note value at this point because it is much easier to understand note durations when you are actually playing an instrument. Also, remember that we already discussed a little bit about note durations in What is Rhythm?.

What are Rests?

An example of several rests

Remember our discussion of rests from What is Rhythm? Here are some examples of what rests might actually look like in music. These rests work in a very similar way to the notes. As little "tails" are added to the rests, the rest durations are halved.

By now, you may be wondering why the whole, half, and quarter notes/rests are different from the eighth, sixteenth, and 32nd notes/rests. Not sure why this happened as music evolved over the centuries. One theory to why these notes and rests are different is that musical composers wanted to let musicians easily see and recognize notes that were commonly used. So, musicians can quickly see whether a note is a half note or a quarter note without counting the stems. This is just one of the countless tiny timesavers that composers have built into music.


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So how do musicians read music?

Most people think that reading music is hard and difficult. In order to understand in a better way as to how to read music, it would be best to first ask us, What is music exactly?

To start with defining what music exactly is, music is

1)The art of producing significant arrangements of sounds, usually.

2)With reference to rhythm, pitch and tone color and

3) Usually succession or combination of notes, especially if pleasing to the ear.

Before you decide that learning how to read music is not your cup of tea because your head is already reeling with the many high-sounding music terms that have already been used, wait and relax. There are simple enough explanations to each of these terms. Read on to find out.

Pitch is the frequency at which a note vibrates. Tone color is the type of sound that is produced. A simple example is the sound produced by an overdriven electric guitar, which is a very rough aggressive tone. In contrast to this is the sound produced by the flute, which is usually a soft mellow tone. Rhythm is simply the duration of the time in which you play the notes.

In the most contemporary sheet of music you will find that music is written on either the treble or the clef staff. There are two kinds of clefs. And of course the clef that will appear on your music depends completely on the instrument you are playing.

There are also some notes that are called Accidentals. Accidentals are actually those notes which are not in the general key that most of the song is written in.

If you've ever seen any sheet music (like what's pictured in the corner), you may have been scared away by the seemingly complicated array of notes and lines. Reading music is actually quite simple, though, and we'll teach you the basics of it. One thing that you should remember is that music is read like a page in a book: you start at the upper left and read across the lines until you get to the lower right.

What are Clefs?

An example of several clefs

The first thing that you will see at the beginning of every line of music is a clef. There are three main clefs that are used by musicians: treble, alto, and bass. In the little example in the upper left corner, you can see a treble clef and a bass clef. These two clefs are often used to write piano music.

So what is a clef? A clef tells the musician what note each line in the staff corresponds to. Sound complicated? It's actually pretty simple. Let's look again at that example in the upper left corner. The top line of music is in treble clef while the bottom line is in bass clef. So, the notes in each line are different because there are two different clefs. The middle line in the treble clef of music refers to the note of 'B', and not 'G.' It is commonly referred to the "G-clef" since the 'curl' encircles the line of 'G'.

OK, so why did composers invent all these crazy clefs anyway? Good question. Clefs were introduced many centuries ago mainly for singers to use. This is because treble clef corresponds generally to the range of a soprano singer, alto clef corresponds generally to the range of an alto singer, and bass clef corresponds generally to the range of a bass singer. As composers grew skilled at writing music for singing groups, they translated their skills to writing for instruments. Of course, they did not want to learn a whole new system of writing music, so they just used the same clefs that they had always used before.

Clefs also translate well to string instruments. This is because the violin is higher pitched like a soprano and can use the treble clef. The viola is a little bit lower pitched than the violin and can use the alto clef. Also, the cello is well suited to playing in bass clef due to its lower range. Of course, the lower instruments (viola and cello) can use the higher clefs to play when they are playing high passages. The piano uses a variety of treble and bass clefs often rapidly switching and using combinations of the two.

What are key signatures?

Let's look at that example in the upper left corner again. See those three flats (they look like the letter 'b')? That's an example of a key signature. We talked a little bit about keys in The Scale. To refresh your memory, the key of a piece is just the scale from which the notes of the piece are taken.

OK, so how do these flats translate to the key of the piece? The flats are strategically placed on certain lines. When musicians see notes on these lines, they know to automatically play them flat. Using this technique of having a key signature saves the composer time because he or she does not need to continually draw the same flats over and over again. Of course, music could be written without a key signature, but that would just be confusing for the musicians and the composers.

What are Notes?

An example of several notes

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