Musical Notation

Mankind’s earliest attempts at music inevitably required improvisation, which was no doubt assisted by suitable intoxicants. Melodic works created this way are sometimes sublime but are more frequently ridiculous. A form of notation solves this problem, allowing musicians to produce a consistent performance for each piece of music.

Music is a form of language. Conveying the spoken word is difficult enough: the Western world employs letters, loosely related to sounds, which are then assembled to create words. In Asian languages, however, pictographs of material items are commonly used, requiring the actual sounds to be memorised and passed on over the generations. Depending on the language, such words and pictographs can be ‘scanned’ in various ways, such as left-to-right, right-to-left or top-to bottom.

Unlike speech, where noises are effectively monophonic, producing one sound at a time, music is frequently polyphonic, meaning that any number of sounds can occur at once. This makes musical notation far more difficult than any normal language, precluding the use of words or pictographs. Instead, a highly sophisticated system of graphical representation has evolved, allowing musicians to read incredibly complex works with relative ease.

Notation Basics

The system of notation used in the Western world involves the use of staves, in the form of lines across each page of the score. The music itself is recorded as a sequence of ‘dots’, each representing a note and positioned on the staves so as to specify its pitch and timing in the performance. As with other Western languages, the score is ‘scanned’ from left-to-right, moving down a line at a time.

Each staff consists of five lines, as shown here:-

When writing music, each note is positioned vertically to indicate its pitch (a high note is placed higher up the staff than a low note) and horizontally to indicate its timing, as shown here:-

Although a single staff can be used, real music often requires the use of two sets of staves, one above the other, thereby accommodating a wider range of notes. The upper staff is usually employed for main ‘melody’, whilst the lower staff is sometimes used for a ‘bass accompaniment’.

Staff Lines

The ‘dots’ that represent notes can be placed on the staff lines or between them. This gives a range of eight intervals or tones of pitch, corresponding to a complete octave. And, should notes be required to go above or below a staff, extra ledger lines can be introduced for the notes concerned.

The seven notes that make up an octave are also identified by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G. However, since most music is based around C they’re usually thought of in the order C, D, E, F, G, A and B, corresponding to do, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te in the tonic sol-fa system.


The assignment of lines to notes is set by the clef symbol and key signature (see below) at the beginning of the score . Here’s a treble clef, or G clef, as normally used on the upper staff:-

From this, you can see that the ‘curl’ of the ornate G character of the clef symbol winds around the line for the note of G. The notes of the octave occupy the staff lines and spaces in an ascending order, as shown here:-

The notes on the staves are in the order EGBDF, which is sometimes memorised by means of the phrase Eat Good Bread Dear Father or as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, whilst those on the spaces are in the order FACE.

The bass clef, also known as the F clef and normally used on a lower staff, looks like this:-

This character is actually a modified form of the letter F, in which the two horizontal bars have been transformed into a pair of dots, centred around the F line. The lines and spaces are assigned to notes as follows:-

In this case, the two note sequences can be memorised as Good Boys Do Fine Always and All Cows Eat Grass.

Less common, although used in some styles of music, is the tenor clef, which is shown below:-

This is centred on the C line, and can, if preferred, be read as if it were a treble clef, but with the notes shifted, or transposed, down by a note, or, in other words, by an interval. The note sequences can be remembered as D FACE and by the phrase Every Girl Buys Dresses, although the latter may be considered incorrect for the modern world.

Finally, there’s the alto clef, which is shown here:-

As with the tenor clef, this is based on the C line, and can also be read as a treble clef, this time with the notes transposed up by an interval. The sequences can be memorised using FACE G and the phrase Good Boys Do Fine.

The Complete Score

The treble and bass clefs usually appear as upper and lower staves on a score, as shown here:-

Contrary to appearances, the two staves are separated by only three notes, the D below the bottom line of the upper staff, middle C and the B above the upper line of the bottom staff, as shown here:-

In this diagram an extra red line has been introduced to show the position of middle C. The alto clef (see above) spans this centre region between the clefs and can be used for instruments that normally work over this range.

The following diagram shows the positions of ‘important’ notes, as well as their identification code, using Helmholtz notation and scientific notation, and the note number on a standard keyboard. It also illustrates ledger lines, as used for notes that are outside the range of a staff.

Accidentals and Key Signatures

The notation so far described only accommodates whole notes. In practice, staff lines must also be able to convey information about notes that are sharp or flat. The treble clef, for example, must accommodate all the notes across an octave from E to E', including F#, G#, A#, C#, D#, and F#, shown here as they appear on a standard keyboard:-

Fortunately, modern musical notation includes accidental characters, which are placed before an individual note or in the key signature (see below). The symbols for these are as follows:-

the meanings of which are given in this table:-

SymbolMeaningEffectOn a Keyboard
bbDouble-flatLowers note by toneMove 2 keys left
bFlatLowers note by semitoneMove 1 key left
nNaturalCancels previous accidentals 
#SharpRaises note by semitoneMove 1 key right
×Double-sharpRaises note by toneMove 2 keys right

An accidental in front of a note also acts on other notes on the same line in the same bar. And in some instances such an accidental may also apply to notes of the same name in another octave.

You may be wondering why some of these are required. For example, on an instrument set for equal-tempered tuning, the note Db gives the same result as C#. In other words, a flattened note gives the same result as sharpening the next tone down. In fact, with some instruments the results aren’t the same, and different fingering may be needed to get the required note.

The double-flat and double-sharp accidentals may also seem odd. However, with instruments that involve complex fingering it’s often easier to sharpen an existing sharp note or flatten an adjacent flat note.

Key Signatures

A key signature consists of a groups of # or b symbols. These can be placed just after the clef, prior to the first bar, or prior to the section of music to be played in the required key. The following example is for a signature of C# major or A# minor:-

The # signs shown here are aligned with those notes that are normally sharpened within the scale. So, looking at the C# major scale, which is played as:-

    C#  D#  F  F#  G#  A#  B  C#

you can see that all five of the # signs are shown in the signature. The extra two in the signature exist only for the purposes of musical ‘grammar’, representing E#, which is the same as F, and B#, the equivalent of C.

The sharps and flats in a signature are always placed on the staff in a particular order. For a sharp key, as shown above, this is FCGDAEB, sometimes memorised as Fat Cats Go Down After Eating Breakfast. In a flat key, however, the flats appear in the order BEADGCF, remembered as BEAD, Greatest Common Factor.

Given a key, you can work out the actual signature. For example, For a flat key, you must name the flats in the BEADGCF order as far as the key itself, plus one more. Hence a key of Ab has a signature containing Bb, Eb, Ab and Db. For a sharp key, however, you only go as far as the name of the key. So a key of F# has a signature containing F#, C#, G#, D#, A# and E#.

The name of the key signature for a piece of music can be discovered by counting the number of # or b signs in the signature, as indicated by the following table:-

No SharpsSignature No FlatsSignature
0C 0C
1G 1F
2D 2Bb
3A 3Eb
4E 4Ab
5B 5Db
6F# 6Gb
7C# 7Cb

Despite the existence of three types of minor scale, the key signature of a minor key is always set by the natural minor scale. Hence the scale of C minor always has three flats: Bb, Eb and Ab.


The horizontal position of a note on a staff indicates the time at which it’s to be played, and two or more notes played at the same time create a chord (see below). The shape of each note determines its duration or length. The following table defines the standard types of note:-

SymbolNameSizeEqual To
  SemibreveWhole Note2 minims
  MinimHalf Note2 crotchets
  CrotchetQuarter Note2 quavers
  QuaverEighth Note2 semiquavers
  Semiquaver1/16 Note2 semi semiquavers
  Semi Semiquaver1/32 Note 


Each staff is periodically divided by vertical bar lines into bars, also known as measures. These divide the work into equal parts and define the rhythm of the music. Each bar is usually split into two, three or four subdivisions, each of which is called a beat.

The beats in a bar aren’t always treated equally: for example, with four beats in a bar, the first and third beats are usually the strongest. Also, the strength of a beat can be modified by an accent (see below). Each beat can be divided into smaller parts, the first part being strong, the remainder weak.

Time Signatures

The overall rate at which the tune should be played is set by its time signature, which can be located to the right of the key signature, as shown here:-

In this instance the signature is 4:4, also known as common time. The upper (or first) number indicates the number of beats in a bar, whilst the lower (or second) number shows that the length of the beats as fractions of a whole note. In this case there are 4 beats per bar and each beat lasts for a quarter note, meaning that the entire bar occupies a whole note or two minims.

The simplest kind of bar, known as a simple bar, employs simple time, where each beat exactly matches the length of any of the standard notes described above. Although the upper number can be anything, such as 2, 3 or 4, this means that the lower number must be 1, 2, 4 or 8.

Anything other than simple time uses a compound bar and compound time. Typically, the number of beats is divisible by three, usually with an upper number of 3, 6, 9 or 12, whilst the lower number is 2, 4, 8 or 16. The length of each beat is then equal to a dotted note (see above).

The following table gives usual time signatures and examples of the music that uses them:-

1:1Rare, some Elgar
6:8Fast waltz
4:4Common time
5:4Jazz, some Classical
7:4Jazz, rock

Timing Modifiers

Any little notes placed before or after a note will ‘steal’ time from the main note. Those preceding it are appoggiatura, whilst those positioned after the note are called acciaccatura. Several appoggiaturas or acciaccaturas linked to a note are known as grace notes, whilst a group of three or four little notes, known as a gruppetto, can be placed before or after a note to take part of its time.


A tuplet accommodates fractional notes. For example, a tuplet of 5:2 indicates that five of the specified notes should be played in the time normally taken for two. Such a tuplet could be indicated on the score by a number 5 above the note, the lower value being determined from the number of beats in the bar. A triplet is a special tuplet with a value of 3:2, in which any three notes have the same length as a pair of notes outside of the triplet.


The performance of a work can be heavily influenced by the phrasing of the music. This can be shown on a score by means of accents. For example, a curved line linking notes indicates a slur, where the pitch changes continuously across the given notes. A similar line, linking a longer to shorter note indicates that the second note is a muted syllable.

A dot, placed above or below a note indicates that it’s detached from the preceding note, whilst a similar but elongated dot indicates that it should be played staccato, in a short manner.


Normal notation doesn’t tell you how to play a fretted instrument, in which different fingering gives the same note, although often with subtle differences in character. To get around this, a special form of notation known as tablature is used alongside normal music, as in this example for a guitar:-

The tablature shows the instrument’s neck with the first (lowest) string at the bottom. The numbers indicate the fret positions, such as 1 for the first fret or 0 for an empty string. Alternative tablature formats can be created for other position-based instruments, including devices such as harmonicas.


American Concise Encyclopedia, Zane Publishing Inc, 1996

Dolmetsch website at

Music Theory Reminder Lexicon, author unknown, 1999

©Ray White 2004.