More Musical Mnemonics: Visual Mnemonics for Standard Notation

Anyone can use a visual mnemonic as one of many memorizing techniques – for learning how to read the music notes, how to tune your guitar, the notes piano players use to make melodies and harmonies, and much, much more.

There are all kinds of visual cues for creating beautiful and powerful sounds: standard notation, tablature, lead or chord sheets, and more. Each symbol represents something about the sound - its specific tone or pitch, how long it is held, how strongly it is attacked or released, whether it is connected with preceding or following notes, how loud or soft it is, whether the time continues consistently at the same pace or whether it slows down or speeds up. So many details! The first ones to learn are the specific tones or pitches represented by the notes' positions on the staff.

This collection of visual mnemonics is intended as a group of helps for musicians who are learning to read notation. But like all mnemonic devices, some will help certain people better than others. That's why it's good to have an array of them - because people have different ways of learning, remembering, and retrieving knowledge.

For additional mnemonics, both visual and verbal, check out the original article, Marvelous Musical Mnemonics, and the more recent addition More Musical Mnemonics: Visual Mnemonics for Sharps and Flats

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See the Half-Steps on the Piano Keyboard

Reading music might (and I say "might" with hesitation) be easier, if the interval between all pairs of neighboring natural notes were the same. By that I mean, if a newcomer could assume that A-B, B-C, C-D, D-E, E-F, F-G, and G-A were all the same distance apart, they could make other assumptions that might make their reading progress more quickly. But those intervals are not all the same! Five of them are whole steps, and two of them are half steps. It's that combination of whole and half that gives Western music its flavor, that creates what sounds right to us, that gives us the major and minor keys and the fascinating modes.

So, one important help in learning to read music is to know securely where those half-steps occur. If you know those, then you should be able to remember that the others are whole steps. We can use a D-centered keyboard to help visualize where the half-steps are.

Half-steps between natural notes are easier to see on a keyboard than on a fretboard.
Half-steps between natural notes are easier to see on a keyboard than on a fretboard. | Source

From D down OR up to the next (natural) letter is a whole step (C-D or D-E). The next step beyond that on each side is a half-step (B-C or E-F). Whole steps continue (on both sides) until almost back to the D – but these more distant half-steps are the same as the previous two, only one octave higher (B-C) or lower (E-F) than before.

The (natural) half-steps on the guitar fretboard do not seem to me to create a memorable visual pattern, but I have included it here, for anyone who would like to play around with it or who sees something there that I don't.


See the Half-Steps on the Grand Staff

But if your goal is to read music, it's not enough to know where the half-steps occur on the keyboard; you need to know where to find those half-steps on the music staff. Again, these are half-steps between natural notes only. Music is full of half-steps between one natural note and an altered note. But to get started in understanding what's where on the staff, one help is to notice where those half-steps occur.

Half-steps on the grand staff create an attractive, memorable pattern.
Half-steps on the grand staff create an attractive, memorable pattern. | Source

Notice how these pairs are grouped in relation to the middle (third) line of their respective staves:

In the bass staff, the four pairs balance one another perfectly around the middle (third) line of the staff. One pair (B-C) is on the space below the third line (that is the second space) and the line below it (second line); another pair (E-F) is on the space above the third line (third space) and the line above it (fourth line). Those two pairs balance one another symmetrically. The lowest half-step pair (E-F) on the bass staff is found on the space below the first line, and the ledger line below it; balancing it is the highest half-step pair (B-C), found on the space above the fifth line and on the ledger line above it.

In the treble staff, one half-step pair is on the third line and on the space above it (B-C). One pair (E-F) is on the top or highest space (fourth space) and the line above it (fifth line); another pair (E-F), symmetrically balancing that one, is on the lowest or bottom space and the line below it; the final pair (B-C) does not fit with this symmetry, but together with the other pairs forms a visually pleasing pattern that fits well with the pattern seen on the bass staff.

Comparing the half-step pairs in another way, if you take the highest note of one pair on a staff and measure the interval from it to the lowest note of the next pair on the same staff, the intervals read this way (moving from low to high):

Treble:      M3         aug4           M3
Bass:       aug4         M3           aug4

Knowing where to find the open strings of the guitar on the music staff can be a big aid to music reading.
Knowing where to find the open strings of the guitar on the music staff can be a big aid to music reading. | Source

See Some Important Guideposts on the Staff and the Fretboard

For guitarists who want to learn to read music in standard notation, it can be helpful to learn the location of the open string notes on the treble staff (picture above).

Low to high, the notes are E-A-D-G-B-E, located on the staff as shown. Notice the spacing between these pairs. Four pairs are a musical fourth apart (written on the staff as one line note and one space note with an empty line and an empty space between them). G-B (the interval between the third and second strings) is the exception. These two notes form a major third, written in this specific instance as two adjacent line notes.

Another step of progress in reading music is the associating of certain lines or spaces with specific notes being played on the instrument. For a guitarist, that can be particularly challenging, since one pitch can be played in several different locations on the fretboard. The first step, though, is to learn the notes in first position.

Here is a visual representation that can show where to find the treble staff space notes (F-A-C-E) on the guitar neck. The same F-A-C-E pattern can be found elsewhere on the staff (on the top line plus leger lines above or on the lowest line plus leger lines below) and on the fretboard. Use the color-coding to help you find the notes. The darker colors show the notes in first position. The same color in a lighter hue indicates the same note in a different location on the guitar. Notice especially the dark red F-A-C-E; see the pretty pattern where they occur on the fretboard? Use that knowledge to help you in reading the notes in standard notation.

Compare the location of these F's, A's, C's, and E's on the guitar neck and on the treble staff.
Compare the location of these F's, A's, C's, and E's on the guitar neck and on the treble staff. | Source
The color coding of the notes is designed to help you see which F, A, C, or E is written where on the staff.
The color coding of the notes is designed to help you see which F, A, C, or E is written where on the staff. | Source

See the Notes of Pentatonic Scales on Keyboard and Fretboard

Another great visual mnemonic is formed by the notes of some major and minor pentatonic scales.

In Western music, when we speak of the Pentatonic Scales, we generally limit ourselves to two patterns: one major pattern and one minor pattern. Worldwide, there are many, many more than these -- and that's a subject for another day! But, if you wish to visualize the notes and intervals of the major and the minor pentatonic scales on the piano or on the guitar, here are some helps for you.

On the piano, it's easiest to learn the notes first as black keys. But the same pattern of intervals can occur as white keys too (and as a combination of black and white keys – which sounds the same, but is not as easy to remember visually).

The black-key major pentatonic scale shown here (Gb or F# major pentatonic) begins with the lowest key of a three-note black-key group, then it plays every black key ascending until it repeats the starting note an octave higher. The same pattern can be transposed down one half-step to F major pentatonic, up one half-step to G major pentatonic, or up (or down) a tritone to C major pentatonic - the three all-white-key major pentatonic scales. (Notice anything significant about C-F-G? Hmmm.)

The black-key minor pentatonic scale shown here (Eb minor pentatonic) begins with the highest key of a two-note black-key group, then it plays every black key ascending until it repeats the starting note an octave higher. The same pattern can be transposed down one half-step to D minor pentatonic, up one half-step to E minor pentatonic, or up (or down) a tritone to A minor pentatonic - the three all-white-key minor pentatonic scales. (Notice anything significant about A-D-E? Hmmm.)

Notes of Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales on a Keyboard

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See the Combined Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales on the Guitar Neck

The pentatonic scales in open position on guitar are so easy and fun, that I often teach them as part of the first guitar lesson for teens and adults. In my opinion, it is easiest to teach them as one combined pattern, as shown here on the guitar neck and on tablature; but at some point in the future, it should be pointed out that this pattern is actually the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale combined into one.

To separate them, just be sure to start and stop on the same-letter-name note, either E or G. If the guitarist begins and ends this pattern on E, the scale is the E-minor pentatonic scale; if the guitarist begins and ends this pattern on G, the scale is the G-major pentatonic scale.

The same (combined) scale is also shown transposed up a half-step, still in first position, and it can be transposed in the same way to any position on the fretboard. Other patterns are possible, as well; but this easy-to-remember visual mnemonic pattern is an excellent one for starters.

Combined Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales on Fretboard and Tablature

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See the Notes of the Combined Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales on the Music Staff

In the picture below, you can see where on the staff the notes of the combined E minor and G major pentatonic scales are written. On the grand staff (here descending) you see notes from high G down one octave-plus to E. On the treble staff (here ascending) you see notes from low E (open sixth string) up one octave-plus to G.

Notice where the steps (line to next space or space to next line) and skips (space to next space or line to next line) occur, and compare that with the pattern of notes on the above keyboard diagrams for E minor and for G major pentatonic scales.

On the grand staff for piano (descending) and on the treble staff for guitar (ascending), you can see the intervals of the pentatonic scales.
On the grand staff for piano (descending) and on the treble staff for guitar (ascending), you can see the intervals of the pentatonic scales. | Source

Comments, Questions, Requests?


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If you are a musician who has particular trouble remembering some aspect of music-reading or music theory, please leave a question here and I will do my best to provide the answer - or direct you to a place where you can find it.

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Comments 4 comments

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Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

Thanks, akirchner, I appreciate your kind comment so much! I'm always eager to find and pass along tips that may help fellow musicians of all levels to do even better as they learn and perform. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to submit them.


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akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

Wow - I'm a musician though I don't do so well at it after all these years but your hub is incredible! I think all musicians could benefit from your awesome images.


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

If you're not playing an instrument that requires notes below Bass C, there's not much reason for you to be able to read those notes, really. :)

If you ever directed other singers, you would need to be able to troubleshoot the basses around a fifth below Bass C, but you would be able to figure out those notes from what you already know, I believe; just follow the same principles as in the treble staff.


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

FACE-that's a mnemonic I remember using. As a woman, my singing will always be on the Treble clef. I can read the bass clef down to about the C below middle C-the lowest note I can sing no matter what the style (I can sing jazz and pop lower than I can classic music). Otherwise, I can't read the Bass clef but for counting.

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