Music Notation Basics Part I - Notes and the Musical Staff
(26 Jun 04)
This multi-part Music Notation Basics begins with the basics of music notation, including note names and the relationship of notes to one another and to pitch.
I will use the piano keyboard to help make ideas clearer, for two reasons. First, the keyboard is very familiar to many people, and you can usually find one nearby in a store, community center, church or tavern. Second, the keyboard provides a great picture of how our musical system is built, and many of us learn best through pictures.
I will use the word pitch to mean the frequency of a sound—whether it sounds lower or higher in the sense that a bass drum has a lower pitch than a snare, for example. Pitch says nothing about how loud a sound is.
I'll use tone to mean a sound that has a single, fixed pitch. In this article I won't use the word tone to describe the quality or character of a sound, such as 'a pleasing tone' or 'good tone'.
The word note will mean a few different things, and I'll try to let you know how I am using the word if I think it might be confusing.
First, a note is a written mark (or symbol), such as "", used to specify the pitch and duration of a musical tone.
Second, it can also mean the musical tone itself; the actual sound that you hear. For example, you might say, "Please play a higher note." or, "Let's hear the first few notes of that song."
Third, if one were to ask, "What note is that you just played?", we are asking for the name of the note. Because all notes have names, we often use the word note to mean note name.
Because there are only a few note names used in music and yet there are many different musical tones, note names have to be reused. If I asked you to play the note 'A' on your piano, you might need to know which one, and I'll discuss that problem in this article.
You can see that the word 'note' refers to a number of ideas. It represents concepts, much as the word 'number' refers to various related concepts. Let's begin with how the notes are named.