Music Notation is a system for writing and reading music, which uses symbols to represent the notes we need to play, and the order we need to play them in. You might already be familiar with some forms of music notation, such as standard notation and guitar tablature (or guitar tab for short).
An example of standard notation might look something like:
And the same music in guitar tab:
We won’t be learning to read standard notation on this course, however it will come in handy to cover a few basics to help us understand the notation we’re going to be using during our lessons. The example below shows some of the basic elements we need to know about this form of notation:
Without going into too much detail, standard notation places note symbols on stave lines (the horizontal lines) to depict note names, for example F, F#, etc. The stave is made up of all of the stave lines, and it is divided into measures. Each measure occurs after a certain number of beats, which in this example is four beats, and is depicted by a vertical line running through the stave.
The time signature (the 4/4 symbol just before first note symbol), gives us information about the rhythm of the piece of music, and tells us how to count the beats in each measure. In the example given, we would use the same 4/4 rhythm we just learned for our strumming technique, counting four beats for every measure and playing each note on a downbeat. It’s worth pointing out that people often use the word bar instead of measure when describing a piece of music – bar and measure both mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably. The ‘twelve bar blues’, for example is a typical way of playing blues music which uses a repeating format comprising of 12 measures.
The position of the note symbol on the stave line tells us the note name, as follows:
The note symbols also tell us the duration of each note (i.e. how long we should play each note) so we can work out the timing of the music. If we think about how we counted to four previously for each measure, we would count “1 …… 2 …… 3…… 4 …… ” when we played only downbeats, but we needed to count “1…&… 2 … & … 3 … & … 4 … & … ” when we played downbeats and upbeats. In the first case, we divided the measure into four beats (all downbeats), and in the second, we divided it into eight beats by including an upbeat between each downbeat. The overall time taken to play the measure was the same in both cases, it’s just that we played eight shorter beats when we included the upbeat.
In standard notation, the note symbols tell us what type of beat to play by having different symbols for each type of beat. A quarter note () tells us that the beat lasts a quarter of a measure, and would be the equivalent of counting “1 …… 2 …… 3…… 4 …… “. In the example below we’re using the same 4/4 rhythm we just learned for our strumming technique, counting four beats for every measure. In fact, what we have been doing so far is counting 4 quarter notes for every measure and this is what we mean when we say are using a 4/4 time signature. When we look at the time signature symbol (4/4), the first number tells us how many beats to play in each measure (in this case four), and the second number tells us the note duration for each beat (in this case four, which means quarter notes).
options width=700 stave-distance=30 tabstave notation=true tablature=false time=4/4 notes 2/4 3/4 4/4 5/4 | 6/4 7/4 8/4 9/4 text :q,.font=Times-10-,.11,1,2,3,4,|,1,2,3,4
An eighth note (, or for two eighth notes together) tells us that the beat lasts an eighth of a measure, and would be the the equivalent of counting “1…&… 2 … & … 3 … & … 4 … & … “. In the same way we just used 4 quarter notes for each measure in the previous example, we could also use 8 eighth notes for each measure, since these would add up to 4 quarter notes (one quarter note = two eighth notes). This is exactly what we did when we played upstrokes and downstrokes – we divided the measure into eight shorter beats for our upstroke/downstroke strumming pattern. The example below shows a passage played in eighth notes.
options width=700 stave-distance=30 tabstave notation=true tablature=false time=4/4 notes :8 2/4 3/4 4/4 5/4 6/4 7/4 8/4 9/4 | 2/4 3/4 4/4 5/4 6/4 7/4 8/4 9/4 text :8,.font=Times-10-,.11,1,&,2,&,3,&,4,&,|,1,&,2,&,3,&,4,&
In reality, we can have different types of notes in each measure, as long as the notes fit within the time signature. There are also other types of notes, such as sixteenth notes (which divides a measure into sixteen beats), and thirty second notes (which divides a measure into thirty two beats), as well as different time signatures we can use (e.g. 3/4, 6/8, etc.). As you can appreciate, it all starts to get a bit complicated, so we’ll return to some of these concepts on another lesson.
Although standard notation tells us which notes to play, it doesn’t tell us where to play them on the fretboard. Standard notation was originally devised for writing music on the piano, however unlike a piano, the guitar is set up so that notes with the same pitch can appear at multiple positions on the fretboard. The A note on the 5th fret of the low E string is exactly the same as the A note on the open A string, for example. Standard music notation only tells us the pitch of each note, so we can have multiple options for where to play the note without knowing its exact position on the fretboard.
Standard notation is a useful way to read and write music, however as we’ve seen, it can get a little complicated when trying to figure out all of the notes on the stave – especially if we are new to reading music notation. So far, we have been looking at strumming rhythms using chords, so we don’t really need to understand how to read the notes in standard notation, we just need a way to write down our chords and strumming patterns.
A Chord Chart is a simplified version of standard notation which allows us write rhythm patterns without worrying about the notes. It shows the chord name above the stave and instead of detailing the individual notes in the chord, it uses rhythmic notation symbols to indicate the duration of the note. The rhythmic notation symbols can appear at any position on the stave lines, since they don’t represent any notes, just the durations (i.e. quarter note, eighth note, etc.), however they are usually written in the middle of the stave.
Guitar tab is laid out like a guitar fretboard, with each horizontal line representing a string, starting with the low E string at the bottom of the diagram, and the high E at the top.
The numbers tell us which frets to play on each string, however they only give us rough information about the timing of the music. We can’t tell the time signature or the note duration from guitar tab, we can only tell if the notes are played one after the other (a scale, for example), or whether the notes are all played at once (i.e. a chord).
Standard notation and guitar tab both have their advantages and disadvantages, however most guitarists prefer tab, since is easier to understand and tells us exactly where we should be placing our fingers on the fretboard. The main disadvantage of guitar tab is that it doesn’t tell us the timings of each note, so we would usually have to listen to the recording to figure out when to play the notes in the tab. For this reason, we will often see tab combined with standard notation, as shown in the example below:
In this layout, the standard notation is the part at the top with the note symbols, and the guitar tab is the part at the bottom with the numbers. Combined notation gives us the best of both worlds – we can see exactly where we should be playing the notes from the guitar tab, and we can figure out the timings of each note from the standard notation.
Argh, My Brain!
Phew – that was complicated! If you’ve managed to grasp all of that – well done! If you’re struggling with some of these concepts, don’t worry – we’ll be using tab and chord charts throughout the course and will come back to some of these concepts as we discuss other lessons. There are also a few more areas to cover regarding notation, but we will get to these as we dig deeper into the course.