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Musical Elements

Music Notation

Peter Kun Frary


Music history is irrevocably connected to music notation. Discussion of music before 1900 would be difficult without reference to manuscript scores, music publishing and music reading. Indeed, if not for music notation, music literature would not exist before the 20th century and the advent of audio recording.

Early Western Music Notation c. 1310 | Sherbrooke Missal (Mass) on parchment | National Library of Wales

Although numerous ancient cultures used symbols to represent musical sounds, most were not particularly accurate, thus limiting our understanding of their music. The earliest known form of musical notation was created in ancient Iraq around 2000 BC, imprinted on a partially intact cuneiform tablet. Ancient Greece also developed a musical notation system in the 6th century BC, using small symbols above song text to indicate pitch:

Seikilos epitaph | c. 100 AD, Greece | The Seikilos epitaph is the world's oldest fully intact musical piece with musical notation. The small symbols above the letters indicate pitches | Nationalmuseet

Inscriptions on musical instruments found in the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, circa 4th century BC, suggest a musical notation system existed in ancient China but written pieces from this period have not survived. Several notation systems were extant in ancient China but Gongche notation or gongchepu was the most popular, dating from the Tang Dynasty (c. 600-900 AD), and still in use for traditional Chinese music. Chinese characters are used to represent musical notes. Unlike ancient Middle Eastern and European notation system, Gongche notation contains some rhythmic detail, albeit not as complete as modern Western music notation. Because traditional Chinese music has maintained an unbroken legacy across many centuries, compositions written in Gongche notation may be performed today with great accuracy and stylistic authenticity.

Chinese Gongche notation | The large columns of characters are guqin tablature (seven-string Chinese zither), the smaller columns are Gongche symbols (musical tones) while the dashes represent rhythmic accents | Wikimedia Commons

Although ancient cuneiform and Greek musical pieces have been performed and recorded by modern musicians, interpretation is whimsical at best. Why? Most ancient musical notation systems merely indicate pitch and lack rhythmic instructions, making accurate reconstruction nearly impossible. Plus, these cultures and their performing traditions disappeared long ago, leaving few clues to their authentic style.

Reconstruction of ancient music is even more problematic with notation based on mnemonic symbols. Mnemonic music notation systems use small symbols above or below the text to prompt memorized melodic motives, phonetics and phrasing. Cantillation manuscripts of ancient Hebrews, recitation of the Qur'an and chant of the Byzantine and early Roman Catholic churches employed mnemonic symbols. In Western traditions, these symbols are called neumes.

Hebrew Trope | Genesis 1:9: Let the waters be collected | The black characters are Hebrew. The blue symbols are mnemonic musical symbols known as neume in the West and called te'amim in Hebrew. The red symbols indicate phonetics, e.g., pronunciation of consonants | Wikimedia Commons

Western Music Notation

The Catholic church's emphasis on ecclesiastical uniformity was the main driving force behind the development of Western music notation. Prior to music notation, music was handed down as an oral tradition and, thus, subject to change due to memory imperfections and individual interpretations. The notation of music, aside from educational and historical benefits, aided greatly in maintaining a common liturgy across thousands of miles and multiple countries. The use of Neumatic notation helped maintain uniformity but still relied on the frailties of human memory.

The two main properties symbolized by modern music notation are pitch and rhythm. The first music notation to symbolize both pitch and rhythm was suggested by the cleric and music theorist Franco of Cologne in about 1250. After Franco's revelation, there were many twists and turns in the development of notation but by the late 17th century European musicians were using modern music notation, also known as staff notation.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) | Sarabande, French Suite No. 1 BWV 812 (c.1722) | Library of Congress | Johann Christian Bach, son of J.S. Bach, copied his father's manuscript. A modern classical pianist could easily play from this nearly 300 year old manuscript.

Modern Music Notation

Learning to read music fluently takes years of practice, so obviously mastery of this topic is not the goal here. Our purpose is to engender appreciation of the abilities and role of music notation in music. To appreciate music notation, you need to understand its basic principles.


Pitch is represented by the positions of notes on a staff. Notes are oval shaped symbols to which a stem, flags or beams can be added:

The staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces. Think of the staff as a musical ladder: the higher the placement of a note, the higher the resulting pitch. However, unlike a ladder, both the lines and the spaces between the lines serve as steps. The lines and spaces are numbered from bottom to top, i.e., from lower to higher pitch.

At the beginning of the staff is a symbol called a clef. The clef fixes the position of notes on the staff, i.e., indicates the pitch of the notes written on it. For example, the scroll of the treble or G clef wraps around the second line from the bottom, fixing that line as the note G. Other clefs exist for different instruments and pitch ranges. Here's the treble or G clef:

In the United States, the first seven letters of the alphabet—A B C D E F G—are used to name the pitches of notes (other countries use do, re, mi, etc). This seven letter pattern is repeated across the entire pitch range: A B C D E F G A B C, etc.

Note Placement on Piano | Wikimedia Commons

When moving up the staff (higher in pitch), count forward through the alphabet. When moving down the staff (lower in pitch), count backwards through the alphabet. Play the audio and observe how the pitch rises as the flute plays each note. Here are the pitch names of the notes on the staff and their sounds:

The interval (distance) between two notes with the same name but eight notes apart is called an octave (e.g., D-D or E-E above). Sing this scale: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. The interval from do to do is an octave.


Note durations are indicated by the type of note head and the use of stems, flags or beams. Stems may point up or down for the same duration.

In the above chart, each note has a duration half that of the previous note. For example, a quarter note is half as long as a half note. The chart below further illustrates this relationship between note values.

To make rhythmic reading easier, beams replace the flag in groups of eighth note or shorter durations.


Beat and meter were discussed previously but we'll review them in relation to music reading. A steady recurring pulse is called the beat. The beat underlies most types of music and creates rhythmic drive and coherence. The sound of a beat:

For ease of counting, the staff is divided into groups of beats known as measures. Each measure is separated by a vertical line called a bar line. A double bar line is used at the end of a piece or major section.

Each measure contains a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed beats known as meter. The three most common meters are duple meter, two beats in a strong-weak pattern, 1-2 (e.g., 2/4); triple meter, three beats in a strong-weak-weak pattern, 1-2-3 (e.g., 3/4); and quadruple meter, four beats in a strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern, 1-2-3-4 (e.g., 4/4).

The meter is indicated at the beginning of a piece by a meter signature, two numbers written one over the other. The top number designates the meter and number of beats in a measure. For example, 2 on top means duple meter and 2 beats per measure. The bottom number indicates the note value equal to 1 beat. For example, 4 on the bottom means a quarter note is equal to 1 beat.

In the prior example, the 4 on the bottom of the meter signatures indicate the quarter note equals 1 beat. With this information, you can calculate that the whole note equals 4 beats, the half note equals 2 beats, etc. These note durations are valid for quarter note meters only (meters with 4 on the bottom).

Counting Rhythm

Music consists of a variety of note durations: some equal to the beat, some longer than the beat and some shorter than the beat. For note durations equal to the beat or longer, count the meter aloud as you clap or play the rhythms. For example, count 1-2-3-4 in 4/4 meter, 1-2-3 in 3/4 meter and 1-2 in 2/4 meter. Align the note durations with the numbers as you count.

Counting Division

When a beat is divided into two equal parts the resulting rhythm is called division. To count division, say the word “and” between each beat number. If you speak the beat numbers and the “ands” with a steady pulse, the rhythm of the syllables will correspond to the rhythm of division. Division is written as eighth notes in quarter note meters (e.g., 2/4, 3/4 & 4/4).

Some people find numbers awkward and prefer to model rhythms on words with a similar syllable pattern. For example, a one-syllable word such as “eat” or “play” may symbolize the beat, and a two-syllable word such as “su-shi” or “steam-boat” may symbolize division. Sing the words as you clap the beat:

Singing Exercise

Now we're ready to put pitch and rhythm together. Instead of singing words, we'll use solfège, i.e., do, re, mi, etc., syllables. Solfège syllables were invented in the Medieval Catholic Church to teach people to sing and read music. First, sing this scale using the solfège syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do until it's clear in your mind:

Locate the pitch mi or (e) with your voice. It's the third note in the scale. Sing up three scale tones from do if you can't remember it. Now sing the melody below beginning on mi. All the pitches flow stepwise up and down the scale: mi, mi, fa, so, etc. Clap the beat and sing one note per beat for the quarter notes (black note heads) and two beats for the half notes at the end of each line.

Congratulations you just read music! Reading music is about hearing music in your head and realizing them as symbols and musical sounds. With practice, you can learn to jump from any tone in the scale, e.g., so to do. Eventually singing is not needed to realize sounds and you simply hear the sounds in your head and can write them down or play them. Some musicians—Beethoven and Smetana—composed their greatest works after a hearing loss because they could still imagine music in their heads and write it down.

Epic Music Reading Session


neume, Gongche notation, te'amim, note, staff, clef, octave, beat, meter, meter signature, division, solfège

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