Part One: The Basics – What do all those lines, signs and symbols mean? Music notation deconstructed!
The Staff and the Clef
Music is written on a staff which is simply a diagram with five horizontal lines with four spaces in-between.
A symbol called a Clef is placed at the beginning of the staff. The clef defines the tonal range of the staff and there are several types but most guitarists (bassists being the exception) only need be concerned with the Treble Clef (see diagram below).
Notes are placed either on or between the lines to show at what pitch the note should be played. The staff only has five lines and four spaces and there are way more than nine notes that can be played on a guitar. So the staff can be extended, either above or below, using small lines called ledger lines. You’ll see how these are used in a later lesson.
Bars, or Measures
A written piece of music is divided into “bite-sized chunks” called bars (or measures). The two terms are interchangeable, although “bar” is used more commonly in the UK and “measure” is used in the US and elsewhere.
A bar line is a vertical line across the staff which divides the music into equal time-lengths which each contain the same specific number of beats.
A double bar line signifies a major change in the music such as the end of a section, or a key change for example.
A double bar line with a thicker second line is normally used at the end of the piece of music. If you see two dots in front of the double bar line this means that the section should be repeated.
At the beginning of a piece of music you’ll see two numbers, one above the other, called the time signature. The time signature tells you the beat, or the pulse, of the music and will be covered in more depth in lesson four. The time signature will only appear once, at the beginning of the first staff, unless a different time signature is used later in the music. The most common time signature is 4/4 time, but 3/4 time is also used a great deal as well. They look like this on the staff
More about time signatures in Lesson Four.
You may also see some symbols called sharps (#) or flats (♭) placed just to the right of the treble clef. The number of sharps or flats tells you the key of the music. There’ll be more about that later in lesson five but you will never see both sharps and flats together in the key signature – it will be one or the other (or neither) and the key signature features on every staff throughout the music, unlike the time signature.
In the above example there are three sharps which means that the key is A Major.
In the example above there is one flat which means the key is F Major.
More about key signatures later.
A Brief Word on Tablature
You may see guitar music written with both notation and something called Tablature, or TAB for short. TAB looks very similar to a staff but there are six lines rather than five. The lines of TAB represent the strings of the guitar and numbers are placed on the various lines to show where to fret a note. We’ll cover this in greater depth later on. Many guitarists never learn how to read music and prefer to just use TAB as it is simpler. TAB does have some limitations compared to standard music notation but is a very useful tool. Learn to read TAB here .
Lesson One Summary
- Music is written on a staff, which has five horizontal lines
- A Treble Clef is a symbol placed at the beginning of the staff. Guitarists (apart from bass guitarists) only use music with a treble clef and don’t have to worry about other types of clef
- Ledger lines are small lines added above or below the staff to extend its range
- Bars and measures mean the same thing and divide the staff into sections each containing an equal number of beats specified by the time signature
- Repeat signs have two vertical bars, one thicker than the other with two dots next to them and indicate that a section of music should be repeated.
- Time signatures appear at the beginning of a piece of music to indicate the beat and has two numbers, one above the other
- Key signatures appear on every staff and indicate the key of the music.
- Tablature, or TAB, is an alternate and simplified way of writing music for guitar by visualising the strings
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