How To Read Music
When we watch a film or a play we know that the actors probably learned their lines from a script which essentially tells them what to say and when to say it A piece of written music operates on exactly the same principle in a very basic sense. It tells a performer what to play and when to play it aesthetically speaking. There’s a world of difference between say Beethoven and Justin Bieber but both artists have used the same building blocks to create their music notes and although the end result can sound quite complicated.
The logic behind musical notes is actually pretty straightforward.
The Foundational Elements
Let’s take a look at the foundational elements to music notation and how they to create a work of art music is written on five parallel lines that go across the page. These five lines are called a staff and a staff operates on two axes up and down and left to right. The up and down axis tilts the performer the pitch of the note or what note to play and the left to right Axis tells the performer the rhythm of the note or when to play it.
Let’s start with pitch to help us out. We’re going to use a piano but this system works for pretty much any instrument you can think of In the western music tradition pitches a named after the first seven letters of the alphabet ABCDEFG after that the cycle repeats itself. ABCDEFG ABCDEFG and so on but how do these pictures get their names? Well, for example, if you played an f and then played another F higher or lower on the piano you’d notice that they sound pretty similar compared to say Abby.
Going back to the staff every line and every space between two lines represents a separate pitch. If we put a note in one of these lines or in one of these spaces, we’re telling a performer to play that pitch the higher up on the staff are noticed placed the higher the pitch but there are obviously many many more pictures than nine that these lines and spaces give us a grand piano for example can play 88 separate notes.
So how do we condense 88 notes onto a single staff? We use something called a cliff A cliff is a weird looking figure place the very beginning of the staff and it acts like a reference point telling you that a particular line or space corresponds to a specific note on your instrument. If we want to play notes that aren’t on the staff. We kind of cheat and draw extra little lines called Ledger lines and place the notes on them.
If we have to draw so many ledger lines that it gets confusing then we need to change to a different cliff.
As for telling a performer when to play the notes two main elements control this the beat and the Rhythm the beat of a piece of music is by itself kind of boring. It sounds like this notice that it doesn’t change. It just plugged along quite happily. You can go slow or fast or whatever you like really the point is that just like the second hand on a clock divides one minute into 60 seconds with each second. Just as long as every other second the beat divides a piece of music into little fragments of time that are all the same length beats with a steady beat is a foundation we can start adding Rhythm to our pictures and that’s when music really starts to happen.
This is a quarter note. It’s the most basic unit of rhythm and it’s worth one beat. This is a half note and it’s worth two beats. This whole note here is worth four beats. And these little guys are eighth notes worth half a beat each great you say what does that mean? You might have noticed that across the length of a staff. There are little lines dividing it into small sections. These are bar lines and we refer to each section as a bar. At the beginning of a piece of music just after the cliff is something called the time signature which tells the performer how many beats are in each bar. This says there are two beats in each bar.
This says there are three this one four and so on the bottom number tells us what kind of note is to be used as the basic unit for the beat one corresponds to a whole note to a half note for to a quarter note and eight to an eighth note and so on. So this type signature here tells us that there are four quarter notes in each bar 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 and so on but like I said before if we just stick to the beat it gets kind of boring.
So we’ll replace some quarter notes with different rhythms notice that even though the number of notes in each bar has changed the total number of beats in each bar hasn’t.
So what does our musical creation sound like sounds okay, but maybe a bit thin right? Let’s add another instrument that own pitch and Rhythm now, it’s sounding like music sure. It takes some practice to get used to reading it quickly and playing what we see on our instrument, but with a bit of time and patience you could be the next Beethoven or Justin Bieber.