Building Blocks

These days a lot of musicians are thoroughly trained in High School and College. It’s more and more rare to find players who haven’t had at least little music theory background. Although it’s been proven in the industry that a whole lot of great musicians never read a note, It’s become more important then ever to have some basic reading skills. Music jobs are so varied these days it’s a good idea to get as thorough an education as possible. I thought this week I could give an overview of reading basics. Many of you will already know all this stuff, but since I’m going to be doing mostly transcriptions and things in this blog I’d like to give this introduction to reading for reference.

There are some vocabulary terms that are important to understand:

Treble Clef: Treble Clef is a common staff among single note instruments of Mid to High range. Instruments such as the Saxophone, Trumpet, Guitar, and Clarinet use the treble Clef exclusively. Even the lower families of Clarinet and Saxophone use the Treble Clef, although their notes range in the lower spectrum.

Bass Clef: Bass Clef is used for low instruments. The Bass, Trombone, Tuba, and Cello commonly use the Bass Clef.


Time Signature: The Time Signature shows what type of note will carry the pulse of a song as well as how many beats complete a measure. It is shown in a way that looks similar to fractions. The symbol 4/4 for example shows two different things. The first 4 is the number of beats per measure and the second 4 stands for a quarter note. So in 4/4 time you have a total of 4 quarter notes per measure. 3/4 would contain 3 quarter notes per measure.

4/4 Time

3/4 Time

Measure: After individual notes a measure is the smallest cell of the song’s framework. Measures contain the notes and rhythms used to create a piece of music and are grouped into larger sections based on the written material. They are divided by a thin vertical line at the end of each measure.

Grand Staff: This is the combination of a Treble and Bass Clef in one Joined Staff. This is the notation that is read by pianists and keyboard players. Since the pianist has the ability to play notes from both the extreme high and low register it needs both Clefs to be fully utilized.

Note Head: This is the round point of the note. By using different types of Note Heads you can assign duration to each note you chose. When combined with the Stem, even more rhythmic information can be given to each note. This is also the point on the staff that you look at to distinguish which pitch is meant by the composer.

Note Stem: The Stem is the line that is drawn out of the Note Head. A line without any alteration shows a note of 1 beat or more. Flags on the stem will cut the value of a note in half. These are used when the rhythms become smaller then 1 beat each. Here are the most common rhythmic values.

Quarter Note = 1 beat

Half Note = 2 beats

Whole Note = 4 beats

Eighth Note = 1/2 beat

Sixteenth Note = 1/4 beat

Dotted Note: A dot on the right side of a Note Head adds half the original value of the note. A dotted half note will have a value of 3 and a dotted Quarter note will have a value of 1 1/2.

Dotted Quarter Note = 1.5 beats

Dotted Half Note = 3 beats

Scale: A scale is a group of notes that form a chain with no breaks. It is essentially a group of pitches (typically 5 or 7) chosen within an octave. Scales and Triads form the foundation elements of western harmony.

C Major

C Pentatonic

Triad: A Triad is a group of three notes that is made by assembling the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a 7 note scale. These three notes are the most important in distinguishing a particular scale from others. From the first 5 notes of a scale you can tell whether it’s Major or Minor, which is often the first goal.

C Triad

Ledger Lines: Ledger lines are used to extend the range of any staff (Treble, Bass, Grand, and others). A Ledger Line on a note that is higher or lower then the staff will have a short dash through it as if there were another line added to the staff itself, only the line shows on the Note Head of that specific pitch and not across the whole page.

Low C, Middle C, and High C

Sharp: This symbol (#) raises the given pitch by a half step (this is the smallest interval on the piano).

Flat: This symbol (b) lowers the given pitch by a half step.

Natural: This symbol (not available on the keyboard) returns the note to its unaltered note value. This is necessary when a note has already been altered in a bar and you need to go back to the unaltered version. Accidentals are reset after the end of each bar.

Rest: A rest is a symbol for when to stop playing. Rests have all the same possible durations as notes but there is no pitch information.

Quarter Rest = 1beat

Half Rest = 2 beats

Whole Rest = 4 beats

Eighth Rest = 1/2 beat

Sixteenth Rest = 1/4 beat

Dotted Rest: Dotted rests have the same value as the dotted notes. They are used less frequently though. Depending on the time signature, a dotted rest can be a little unclear.

Dotted Quarter Rest = 1.5 beats

Dotted Half Rest = 3 beats

With this information a page can start to take shape. That is after we learn which notes are which in the first place.

The musical alphabet has only 7 letters. It starts with A and goes on to G. (A B C D E F G). This chain of letters goes on infinitely in both directions. (…A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G…). These notes can then be affected by Sharps and Flats to create the pitches in between each unaltered letter name. When you look at the piano there are white and black keys. Simply enough the white keys are plain with no alteration to the letter name and the black keys are affected by Accidentals (Sharps and Flats). Each black key can represent the Sharp version of the note to the left or the Flat version of the note to the right. In this example I’ve included both names for the black keys. C# and Db are the same note on the keyboard. The other pairs of altered notes also represent the same notes on the keyboard. These two names, both Flat and Sharp, for each black key on the piano are called Enharmonic Equivalents.

Here is the Chromatic Scale from the bottom to the top of the Grand Staff with the Enharmonic Equivalents:

Now all that’s left is to put it all together on a page of music. I suggest going out and getting a real book or basic song book. The melodies are pretty simple and will be easy to recognize. Its also a good idea to try and read songs that you’re already familiar with so that you can connect the written rhythms and shapes to the way you already interpret it in your head.

There’s one more thing that will be very important to easy reading through a songbook. Key signatures. Sharps and Flats are placed directly on the Staff after the Clef symbol to show which Key the song is in. The Sharps and Flats land in the same places as the notes that they affect in the piece. That way if your in the Key of Eb your Bb, Eb, and Ab, will all be marked in the score to remind you to replace each E, B, and A with their flattened counterparts. Here are twelve Major keys.

Sharp Keys (and C Major which has no alterations)

Flat Keys

It’s a lot of stuff to start with, but it only gets easier once you memorize a few of the basics. Hope this helps to give a starting point for those of you who haven’t already studied up on this stuff. Please ask questions and let me know if there’s anything that you’d like covered in upcoming posts. I’ll be trying to fill in the blanks along with my transcriptions in the weeks to come.

Joe SM

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  3. DominqueJSmith says:

    Great composition..

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