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Musical Notation

Updated on January 6, 2011

Music notation is a system of symbols used to record musical sounds in written form. Among the various kinds of symbols are those that indicate the key, rhythm, tempo, and relative loudness of a particular composition. The complete notation for a musical work is generally known as a score. It provides a detailed record of the composer's work and shows how he wants it to sound and to be performed. Music notation guides the conductor of a musical work in determining his interpretation of it and provides the instrumentalist with the technical information needed to perform it. Although there are many elements that can be indicated by music notation, its main purpose is to indicate pitch, or the highness or lowness of tones, and duration, or how long the tones are to be held. In the staff system, the most commonly used system of music notation, the two essential symbols are the note and the staff. The shape of the notes and rests indicates the duration of the musical tones. The staff consists of a series of five parallel horizontal lines. The position of notes drawn on and between these lines indicates the pitch of the musical tones.

Notation of Pitch

In the staff system the staff provides the basic framework for music notation. The lines and spaces of the staff represent the sequence of tones in the musical scale. The relative pitch of tones is indicated by the position of the note on the staff. The higher a note is written on the staff, the higher is the pitch of the note.

The absolute pitch of a note is specified by a symbol known as a clef, which appears at the left side of each staff. The clef determines the pitch range of a given staff and indicates the pitch values for all the notes recorded on the staff.

There are three clef signs in the staff system of notation.

From highest to lowest these are the G clef, the C clef, and the F clef. The G, or treble, clef sign indicates the G above middle C by partly circling the line on which G appears. The C, or alto, clef sign indicates middle C. The F, or bass, clef sign has two dots that mark the line on which the F below middle C is written.

In many musical scores, including those for piano, two staffs of five lines each are used. The upper staff, known as the treble staff, is marked with the G clef, which indicates the pitch for each line and space. In most musical compositions the melody is written on the treble staff. The harmony or other bass part of musical works is usually written on the lower, or bass, staff. The pitch values for the lines and spaces of this staff are specified by the F clef. When tones fall outside the compass of either the bass or treble staff, they are recorded on short lines known as ledger lines. Ledger lines are drawn either above or below the staff.

The notes written on the lines and spaces of the staff represent the tones in the major scale, which corresponds to the white keys on the piano keyboard. In order to indicate the notes that correspond to the black keys, special symbols have to be used. These are the accidentals, which include sharps, fiats, and naturals. They are always written before the note. A sharp (#) indicates that a note is to be raised a half step, or semitone. A flat (b) shows that a note is to be lowered a half step, or semitone. When a note must be restored to its natural pitch, it is preceded by the natural (q) sign.

When a composer wants particular notes to be either sharpened or flattened throughout a musical work, he does not use these symbols before them every time.

Instead, he puts the desired accidentals on the left side The key signature appears at the left of the staff and indicates that certain notes should be made sharp or flat throughout a composition. Each key signature can indicate either a major or a minor key. When no key Signature appears, the composition- is in C major or A minor, which are keys that have no sharps or flats. of each staff. Known as the key- signature, these signs are written at the beginning of each staff immediately to the right of the clef. This signature indicates the key, or system of related tones, in which the work is composed. The key is known by the name of its principal note, or keynote, which is the fundamental note of a given scale. In addition, the keynote is the tone around which all the melodies and harmonies of a composition are organized. Two of the key signatures, C major and A minor, are not written out, because they contain no sharps or flats.

Notation of Duration

The duration of a tone, or its time value, is determined by two factors. These are the appearance of the written note and also the tempo at which a given musical work is performed. The time signature is written as a fraction at the left side of the staff. The upper number of the fraction tells how many beats are in a measure. The lower number tells what kind of note receives one beat. The top example has four beats to a measure, with a quarter note receiving one beat. The bottom example has three beats to a measure, with a quarter note again receiving one beat. whole note, an open note, is the basic unit of duration.

The half note, which is open and has a stem, is held half as long as the whole note. The quarter note is solid and has a stem. It is sounded for one-quarter as long as the whole note and for half as long as the half note. The remaining notes, through the 64th, are sounded for a fraction of the duration of the whole note and for half as long as the next higher note value. Thus, two notes of one time value equal the duration of the next larger note. Two quarter notes equal one half note, and two eighth notes equal one quarter note.

The duration of a note can be increased by half of its original value if a dot is placed after it, The rests, or intervals of silence between notes when no musical tones are sounded, are also marked by symbols. A rest has the same duration as its corresponding note.

Other Symbols of Music Notation

The time signature is an important aspect of music notation. It appears at the left side of the staff, after the key signature and before the first notes of the composition. The time signature tells the musician the time, or meter, in which a composition should be performed, It consists of two numerical figures, written like a fraction. The lower number indicates the time value of the notes in each measure of a given composition. The upper number shows how many of these notes appear in each measure, and how many beats there are to each measure.

For example, waltz music is written in three quarter time. The time signature, 3/4, indicates that quarter notes will predominate in the composition and that there will be three quarter notes or notes of equivalent time value in each measure, The measure itself, which is sometimes known as a bar, is marked off on the staff by vertical bar lines.

Additional symbols of music notation indicate tempo, dynamics, and ornamentation, Directions for tempo and dynamics are usually indicated by Italian words. Tempo marks indicate the speed at which a musical passage should be played. For example, if the composer wants the passage played rapidly, he will write "presto", the Italian word for fast, above the staff at the beginning of the passage.

The dynamic marks indicate the degree of loudness or softness to be used in sounding the notes, Among the most familiar dynamic marks are "piano", for soft, and "forte" for loud, These words are often abbreviated to just their first letter, p or f, An acute angle on its side with the point facing left is a crescendo mark. It indicates increasing loudness. Ornamental marks are used to indicate decorative passages without writing these melodic parts out in full,

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