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Elements of Music Notation

Music notation for the guitar evolved over the course of hundreds of years from tablature to modern day notation. Guitar tablature is a grid of six horizontal lines, each one representing a string, with numbers along the lines indicating the fret on which to play the note. Tablature in modern times is sometimes considered inferior by modern day musicians, however one must remember that almost all guitar music before the 18th century was in the form of tablature.

Tablature actually has some advantages over standard notation since it directly displays the exact string and fret on which to play the notes. It can also be used to convey difficult rhythmic groups with a simpler form of notation. The main disadvantage is that tablature does not convey the harmonic structure of music, it simply describes where to play the notes on the fretboard. Since there is such a large body of works written in modern notation, you are best served by learning the notation of this common language shared amongst all musicians.

Musical notation is truly a strange temporal language, consisting of a concise set of symbols that convey the pitch, duration and expression of notes that are performed during a passage of time. Also, with music notation, many concepts are implied and are not explicitly written down. The most important element of music is the sound you produce, so keep in mind that music notation is only a tool that you use to inscribe musical ideas so that you can play them later.

In this chapter, you will learn about the notation of notes, natural harmonics, musical alphabet (note names), staff, treble clef, leger lines, accidentals and key signatures. Rhythm instruction will take place later in this manual. (For now, excuse our liberties in the figure below and keep in mind that there are several different shapes that notes can have, including stems and flags, filled or open, in order to notate their rhythmic duration.)

The staff is the set of five parallel horizontal lines and includes the spaces in between them. The higher the line, the "higher" the pitch. Time passes from left to right as the piece is played. This is the framework of sheet music, it provides a grid upon which to place the two main elements of music, pitch and time.

The leger lines (sometimes spelled ledger), extend the range of the staff to allow higher and lower pitched notes to be notated.

The treble clef:

Generally, the treble clef circles the second line and is merely a stylized "G", thereby signifying that the second line is a "G". In guitar music, the pitch values are actually transposed up an octave, so they fit nicely on a single staff. To be perfectly precise, when writing music for Guitar, a small 8 should actually appear appended to the bottom of the clef, or the word "Guitar" should be written above the clef. We know we are playing guitar, so we ignore this little detail.

Notes quantify the pitch and duration of a musical sound. The higher up the staff a note is, the higher its pitch. The note head and flag determine the relative time that the note is to be played for. The shape of the note head determines whether the note is to be played as a fundamental or as a harmonic .

The musical alphabet consists of the letters A,B,C,D,E,F,G. Only seven of the possible 12 notes in an octave have natural name letters. This is due to the fact that early music used scales that generally had seven notes per octave.

Each of the lines and spaces of the staff is assigned one of these letter names, depending upon the clef in use. For guitar, we will always be using the treble clef. The names of the notes on the staff using a treble clef can be memorized as follows. The spaces going from bottom to top spell the word F A C E. The lines, from bottom to top, make up the following phrase, Every Guitar Built Desires Frets.

The non natural notes, the notes that fall in between the natural name notes in the musical alphabet are always named with accidentals. You can always see the letter name of a fret or sheet music note, including its accidental, by looking at the "Mouse" name field in the Explore Music window.

Accidentals consist of 5 possible symbols which modify the pitch of the associated note:

double sharp

raises a natural letter name by 2 semitones, (2 half steps), equal to one whole step.

sharp

raises a natural letter name by 1 semitone (1 half step)

natural

cancels a previous accidental, and returns note to its natural unaltered value

flat

lowers a natural letter name by 1 semitone (1 half step)

double flat

lowers a natural letter name by 2 semitones, (2 half steps)

The 5 non natural note names are: (F sharp or G flat), (G sharp or A flat), (A sharp or B flat), (C sharp or D flat) or (D sharp or E flat). They are listed in enharmonic equivalent pairs since they can be called either name depending on the accidental that you are intending to use with them. (The piano keyboard is constructed in this pattern, the guitar fretboard would need white and black rectangles under each of its six strings, for all of its frets, in order to mimic this pattern.)

C

C

D

D

E

F

F

G

G

A

A

B

D

E

G

A

B

Also, accidentals when used in sheet music, are placed immediately in front of a given note. The accidental is only valid for the duration of the measure, or until canceled with a natural sign or different key signature.

The key signature consists of accidentals. For example, with the treble clef and a key signature of two sharps, every note that appears on the top line, will be F sharp instead of F, and every note that appears on the 3rd space, will be C sharp instead of C. Key signatures provide a convenient way to write music. For example, if the entire piece of music had a hundred F sharps, you save writing the sharp sign ninety nine times! Accidentals appearing within measures generally signify a note not covered by the key signature. The shape of the different key signatures follow a set pattern, that can be seen in the "Choose Key Signature" window. Key signatures never contain sharps and flats simultaneously, you are either in a sharp key or a flat key, with C Major having no accidentals at all.

Note: You may use any key signature in any lesson whenever you want. Making all lessons completely customizable.

ACTIVITY: Learning the names of the key signatures.

If you don't know about key signatures, you can have Virtualoso Guitar query you on their names, by selecting the "Choose key signature..." menu item under "Key Signature". This will bring up the window shown below.

Select "Make Me Guess!" from the "Key Name" menu. The key signature will be randomly chosen and if you click on the "Key Name" menu again, it will show you the name that it selected.

We don't really do formal testing on key signatures since there is such an easy way to remember the names of the key signatures using the following rules:

  1. C Major has no accidentals
  2. F Major has one flat
  3. Other flat keys take the name of the second to last accidental in the key signature
  4. Sharp keys take the name of the note one half step higher than the final accidental

We will embellish upon key signatures later, and give the reasoning behind key signature minor names.

Now that you understand the main symbols of notating musical ideas, you are ready to learn about the theory of scales.

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