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Musical notation

Music notation is a system of writing for music. The term sheet music is used for written music to distinguish from audio recordings. In sheet music for ensembles, a score shows music for all players together, while parts contain only the music played by an individual musician. A score can be constructed (laboriously) from a complete set of parts and vice versa.

Present day standard music notation is based on a five-line staff with symbols for each note showing pitch and duration. Pitch is shown using the diatonic scale, with accidentals to allow notes on the chromatic scale, and duration is shown in beats and fractions of a beat.

Table of contents
1 Standard notation described
2 Other notation systems
3 See also

Standard notation described

Elements of the staff

A staff (in British English, also stave) is generally presented with a clef, which indicates the particular range of pitches encompassed by the staff. A treble clef placed at the beginning of a line of music indicates that the lowest line of the staff represents the note E above middle C, while the highest line represents the note F one octave higher. Other common clefs include the bass clef (second G below middle C to A below middle C), alto clef (F below middle C to G above middle C) and tenor clef (D below middle C to E above middle C). These last two clefs are examples of C clefs, in which the line pointed to by the clef should be interpreted as a C. In a similar fashion, the treble clef points to a G and the bass clef points to an F.

In early music, the clef was written as a letter and its location on the staff was chosen by the writer. The treble clef and bass clef used today are stylized versions of the letters G and F, respectively. Their locations are now standardized. Unusual clefs are used for certain instruments, such as the Bb clef used for some horn music and the low G clef used for classical guitar music and four-part men's choral music.

Following the clef, the key signature on a staff indicates the key of the piece by specifying certain notes to be held flat or sharp throughout the piece, unless otherwise indicated. The key signature is presented in the order of the circle of fifths, with flats B-E-A-D-G-C and sharps in the opposite order, F-C-G-D-A.

Another common element of a staff is the time signature, which indicates the rhythmic characteristics of the piece. Time signatures generally consist of two numbers; the upper number indicates the number of beats per measure (or "bar"), while the lower indicates what sort of note constitutes a "beat". A time signature of 4/4 (also known as "common time" and sometimes indicated with a large "C" symbol) implies that there will be four beats per measure, with each beat constituting a quarter note. A signature of 2/2 (or "cut time", a "C" with a vertical slash) allows 2 beats per measure, with each half note lasting a beat. This is important, because the first beat of each bar is generally stressed. Less commonly, music that lacks rigid rhythmic organization is written without a time signature.

Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the five line staff can be represented using leger lines, which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces. Octave (8va) notation is used, particularly for keyboard music, where notes are substantially above or below the staff.

Multiple staves can be grouped together to form a staff system. A system is used where two staves are required to cover the range of the instrument (as with a keyboard instrument), or where multiple related instruments are played (as with three violin parts on a score). A score for ensemble music includes multiple systems, as does most organ music (where the pedals are written as a separate system).

Various directions to the player regarding matters such as tempo and dynamics are added above or below the staff, often in Italian (sometimes abbreviated). For vocal music, lyrics are written.

Here is a diagram of some common musical notation.

Development of music notation

The ancestors of modern symbolic music notation originated in the Catholic church, as monks developed methods to put plainchant (sacred songs) to paper. The earliest of these ancestral systems, from the 8th century, did not originally utilise a staff, and used neums (or neuma or pneuma), a system of dots and strokes that were placed above the text. Although capable of expressing considerable musical complexity, they could not exactly express pitch or time and served mainly as a reminder to one who already knew the tune, rather than a means by which one who had never heard the tune could sing it exactly at sight.

To address the issue of exact pitch, a staff was introduced consisting originally of a single horizontal line, but this was progressively extended until a system of four parallel, horizontal lines was standardised on. The vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated which pitch or pitches it represented (pitches were derived from a musical mode, or key). Although the 4-line staff has remained in use until the present day for plainchant, for other types of music, staffs with differing numbers of lines have been used at various times and places for various instruments. The modern system of a universal standard 5-line staff was first adopted in France, and became widely used by the 16th century (although the use of staffs with other numbers of lines was still widespread well into the 17th century).

Because the neum system arose from the need to notate songs, exact timing was initially not a particular issue as the music would generally follow the natural rhythms of the Latin language. However, by the 10th century a system of representing up to four note lengths had been developed. These lengths were relative rather than absolute, and dependeded on the duration of the neighboring notes. It was not until the 14th century that something like the present system of fixed note lengths arose. Starting in the 15th century, vertical bar lines were used to divide the staff into sections. These did not initially divide the music into measures of equal length (as most music then featured far fewer regular rhythmic patterns than in later periods), but appear to have been introduced as an aid to the eye for "lining up" notes on different staves that were to be played or sung at the same time. The use of regular measures became commonplace by the end of the 17th century.

It is worth noting that standard notation was originally developed for use with voice. Proponents of other systems claim that standard notation is less than ideally suited to instrumental music.

Symbols used in modern musical notation

The following table shows some of the symbols used in Modern musical notation.
Notes (in decreasing length)
Rests (in decreasing length)

The terms crotchet, quaver, and semiquaver are not used in the U.S., instead, quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note are used. In U.S. parlance, semibreve and minim are used only in discussions of early music; whole note and half note are used in other contexts. The breve is rarely used in baroque and later eras. When it appears, it is written as oo or |O|.

Other notation systems

Figured bass

Figured bass notation originated in baroque basso continuo parts. It is also used extensively in accordion notation, and for jazz. For continuo and jazz parts, it implies improvisation by the performer; for accordion, it is used to notate the bass button to be used.

Shape note

The shape note system is found in some hymnals used in the American south. Instead of the customary elliptical note head, note heads of various shapes are used to show the position of the note on the major scale.

Popular music

Fake books (and the Real Books) utilize standard notation, but with key signatures only on the beginning stave, for the melodic line with letter notation for chord names, chord symbols, written above. Improvisation is implied and this system is used for jazz and popular music. See Berklee College of Music.

Letter notation

The notes of the 12-tone scale can be written by their letter names, possibly with a trailing sharp or flat symbol. This is most often used when speaking about music or writing about it. Letter notation is used in popular music to identify chords.


See: solfege, sargam

Integer notation

In integer notation all pitch classes and intervalss are designated using the integers 0 through 11. It is not used to notate music for performance, but is a common analytical and compositional tool when working with twelve tone, serial, or otherwise atonal music. Pitch classes can be notated in this way by assigning the number 0 to some note - C natural by convention - and assigning consecutive integers to consecutive semitones; so if 0 is C natural, 1 is C sharp, 2 is D natural and so on up to 11 which is B natural. The C above this is not 12, but 0 again - the octave a note is in is ignored (octave equivalency), and the system operates in modulo 12. One advantage of this system is that it ignores the "spelling" of notes (B sharp, C natural and D double-flat are all 0) which is usually irrelevant in the kind of music it is applied to (enharmonic equivalency).

Intervals and chords can also be notated in this way - 04, for instance (often simplified to just 4 to represent the interval), indicates two pitches four semitones apart, and 024 indicates a chord or melodic fragment consisting of three notes, each a whole tone apart (for example, C, D and E, or G sharp, B flat and C) and the first and last a major third apart. This notation may be used to represent all permutations of a tone row or set in a matrix.

The above notation is the basis of set theoretical techniques in musical analysis - as such, its usage is most common in atonal music but may be useful for tonal music.


Tablature was first used in the Rennaisance for lute music. A staff is used, but instead of pitch values, the placement of fingers upon the fretboard of the instrument is written instead. Rhythem is written separately and durations are implied. In later periods, lute and guitar music was written with standard notation. Tablature was again used in the late 20th century and early 21st century for popular guitar music.

Klavar notation

Klavar notation is a chromatic system of notation geared toward keyboard instruments, that is said by its adherents to be eaiser to learn than standard notation. A considerable body of repertiore has been transcribed to Klavar notation.

Graphic notation

Graphic notation refers to the contemporary use of non-traditional symbols and text to convey information about the performance of a piece of music. It is used for experimental music, which in many cases is difficult to transcribe in standard notation. Practitioners include Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage, and Roger Reynolds. See Notations, edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles, ISBN 0685148645.

Systems not based on the standard 12-tone scale

Other systems exist for non-Western music, such as the Indian svar lippi, along with other alternatives such as Ailler-Brennink and the Chinese Dien Pou or simplified notation.

See also