The logic of sheet music

While sheet music can look obtuse and unreadable on first impression, the fundamental logic of sheet music is actually extremely simple. Possibly the best way of discovering this simplicity, is to walk through the steps of reinventing sheet music for yourself.

Lets reinvent sheet music

If you had to design a way of notating music graphically, how would you approach it? You know that melodies are a series of notes from a scale, arranged one after another in time.

You may think of a graph, where vertical position represents the note to play, with higher notes towards the top, and horizontal position represents time, increasing towards the right:

A precursor to sheet music is to plot pitch over time as a line graph.

But from this alone, you may find that it is unclear which position represents which pitch. So as the next evolution, you try using some lines, and indicate which note to play by circling the line:

Early sheet music used to use one line per each note being represented.

Yet, there are still two problems:

  • It is hard to recognise which line you are on as they all look the same.
  • It is not clear when each note should be played, as there is no horizontal scale.

To address this, you do a few things. First, you realise that you can show twice as much range, in half the space if you use both the lines, and the spaces between them to represent different notes.

Sheet music evolved over time to use both the lines and the spaces to represent different notes.

Secondly, you decide to only show 5 of the lines, and show notes outside of this range using short 'ledger lines', indicating where the line would have been.

Showing only 5 lines, and indicating notes outside that range using short 'ledger lines gives a consistent visual reference.

The 5 lines serve as 'home base', giving you a consistent visual reference, so that it remains clear where a note is regardless of how many notes are used.

Showing only 5 lines, and indicating notes outside that range using short 'ledger lines gives a consistent visual reference, regardless of note range used.

And finally, you modify the shapes of the notes to indicate different time values, adding a stick to the shorter notes.

The shapes of notes in sheet music are modified to show how long the note will be played for.

This is essentially how sheet music works. Different vertical positions represent different notes on your instrument, and the shapes of the note symbols represent how long that note will last for.

Note symbols

Notes are a collection of different symbols which sheet music uses to tell you what notes to play, and also the duration of the note.

Notes look like this, and you will have certainly seen the eighth and sixteenth note symbols before as they are frequently used to represent 'music' as a cultural idea:

Notes of different shapes represent different durations of time.
Side Note

The cultural use of these symbols can be a source of confusion, due to the heavy use of eighth note symbols. Whole notes for example may not look 'right' intuitively. Just stick with it, and it will make sense over time.

Notes have different parts:

Music notes have 3 parts, a round head that marks pitch, and the stem and flags, which mark duration.
  • Head. All notes feature a head. A note's head circles a line, and the position of the head tells you which note to play on your instrument.
  • Stem and flags. The stem and flags are features added to the circle to represent notes of different time durations. Not all notes have them.

The staff and clef

Sheet music represents notes using the staff, a set of 5 lines and 4 spaces. As was explored during the introductory section, both the lines and spaces represent different notes, and pitch increases towards the top.

Sheet music represents notes with the staff, a set of 5 equally spaced horizontal lines.

At the beginning of every staff line you'll find a clef. The clef tells you which notes are on which line or space on the staff. Different clefs exist, but as a player of a melody instrument, you will be using the treble clef almost exclusively.

The treble clef looks like this:

The clef in sheet music is a symbol that tells you which note is on which line.

Staff values

The treble clef states that the note G may be found on the second line of the staff. For clarity I have highlighted it below:

The position of a note's head on the staff tells you which note to play on your instrument. Circling the line G tells you to play a G on your instrument. On an ocarina in C you would use the following fingering:

The note G in sheet music, and how that same note is fingered on an alto C ocarina.
Side Note

Note that only the position of the head describes the pitch. Despite having different shapes, all of the following represent the same note on an instrument:

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
G4 G2 G G/2 G/4 G/8|

The other notes are defined relative to this point. If a note circles the space below the G line you take one step down the scale. The music now tells you to play an F.

And here are the rest of the notes of the C scale that fit within the range of an alto C ocarina. You can find out how to finger these using your instrument's fingering chart.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F "G" G "A" A "B" B "C" c "D" d "E" e "F" f |

There are a few ways of remembering which note is in which position, which are discussed in the article Playing the ocarina with sheet music.

Side Note

Note that if you see music notation that is 'polyphonic', asks you to play more than one note at once, how you handle this is play the top note as this is the melody note.

How sheet music notates rhythm

As well as pitch, sheet music also notates rhythm, starting with the time signature. A time signature is two numbers that describe the rhythmic grouping of a piece of music.

The time signature is two numbers one above the other, and describes the beat grouping of a rhythm.

For example the time signature '4/4' (read 'four, four') means '4 quarter notes'. These are separated by vertical lines called 'bar lines'.

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C

Further details on how sheet music notates rhythm are covered in the article Understanding rhythm.

Sharps and flats

If you remember from Octaves and scale formation, in western music the octave is split equally into 12 semitones, named:

C, C♯, D, D♯, E, F, F♯, G, G♯, A, A♯, B

These names repeat over multiple octaves, and the 12 major scales can be formed from this using the formula:

whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

Sheet music is designed to notate a single one of these 7 note scales, as thinking about the 'gaps' would be needlessly complicated. Most music only uses 7 notes at a time.

By default, notes placed on the staff represent the 'natural' notes, the notes which are named using neither a sharp (♯) or flat (♭).

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F "G" G "A" A "B" B "C" c

Sheet music tells you to play the in-between notes using either sharps, or flats. Adding a sharp tells you to play the note that is 1 semitone higher.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"C" C "C♯" ^C "D" D

Adding a flat tells you to play the note that is 1 semitone lower:

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"D" D♭ "D♭" _D "C" C

Sharps and flats affect the pitch of the note in all octaves, and are effective until the next bar line. so repeating notes will also be sharp or flat.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"C" C "C♯" ^C "C♯" C  "C♯" c | "C" C "C" c

To return to the natural note, a natural (♮) is used:

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
"C" C "C♯" ^C "C" =C

Key signatures

If you remember, the scale of G major contains an F sharp. You could notate music in G by adding a sharp sign before every F, but it would be cumbersome longer music.

The key signature provides a means of making certain notes sharp or flat 'by default'. A key signature is one or more sharp or flat signs that are placed after the clef at the start of the music.

X: 3
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: G

The key signature for any single key always looks the same, with the sharp or flat symbols in the same order, in the same vertical positions. It makes it easier to recognise which notes are used in a piece of music, without needing to scan through the whole melody.

You can see all of the common key signatures below. The circle of fifths organises all of the scales such that C, which requires no key signature, is at the top, and the sharp keys are on the right, and the flat keys are on the left, in order of increasing numbers of sharp or flat symbols.

The circle of fifths organises the keys in music by the number of sharps or flats they use.

Reading notes from relative positions

One of the benefits of sheet music is that with a bit of practice, you can discern where the melody is going by reading the shapes formed by the notes on the page.

For example, the following shows two instances of a common pattern; play a note, play the note above, then play the starting note again. First from G, then again from high D. As you progress you will be able to play such patterns without caring about the named value of a higher note. You just ascend to the next note in the scale, then drop back down again.

Sheet music is essentially a 2 dimensional graph, and the positions of the notes in relation to each other form visual patterns. With a bit of experience, you can learn to read sheet music by interpreting these patterns, instead of the individual notes

This is explained in more detail in the article Playing sheet music by pattern recognition.

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