Music Theory/Music Notation Systems

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There are many ways to describe musical notes, including solfege, letters, numbers, tablature, and of course the standard music staffs. It is important to have a working knowledge of all of these (except tablature, as it is instrument-specific and many instruments do not use it at all).

Letters[edit | edit source]

Letter names give a label to each letter of the C major scale: C D E F G A B. Notes can be sharpened or flattened; between D and E comes a note called either DSharp.svg ("D sharp") or EFlat.svg ("E flat"). Even more confusingly, E can be called DDoublesharpsign.jpg ("D double-sharp"), and D can be called EDoubleflat.png ("E double-flat")! For now, you need only know that a DSharp.svg and an EFlat.svg are enharmonically equivalent (that is, they have the same pitch, but serve a different diatonic function) in the simplified tuning most commonly used today. You will learn about diatonic function later.

These are the letter names used in English, Dutch, and possibly a few other languages. However, Germany, Scandinavia (such as Iceland, Denmark, Sweden) and Slavic countries have another system: their C major scale is C D E F G A H. Their H corresponds to our B. They also use the letter B, to mean the note we call B flat. They do not use special letters for any other notes, however, for instance, what we call a C sharp they would call "Cis", "Ciss" or "Cís" (depending on the language), which literally means "C sharp". We will not concern ourselves with these differences as this alternate system is almost never encountered in English language texts. Some other countries don't use letters for notes at all, but instead the fixed-doh solfege system, where "Do" or "Ut" always means the note C. This is an inflexible system unlike the moveable-doh one used in English, where "Do" (or "Doh") can be any pitch.

Solfege[edit | edit source]

Solfege is one of the most common ways of expressing musical notes for vocalists. In fact, in some countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, solfege is always used instead of note names.

The major scale in solfege runs: do re mi fa sol la ti. (Note: in some regions, such as Portugal, "ti" is called "si"). After "ti" comes "do" again, one octave higher than the previous "do." Notes outside the scale (sharps and flats) are expressed in different ways according to regions. In some the equivalent to sharp or flat is added after the name of the note (C sharp would thus be Do dièse in France and Belgium). In other regions, another syllable with the same initial letter is used, although this is mostly reserved for instructional uses. For example, the pitch between "re" and "mi" can be called either "ri" or "mé". The proper syllable to use is based on whether you are travelling up or down the scale. The first letter of the syllable should come from the previous note, while the second letter is inherited from the next note in the sequence. Most commonly, the chromatic ascending scale is "do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti/si do" and the descending scale is "do ti/si te la le sol se fa mi me re ra do."

In India, Solfege is called "Sargam" and the scale runs: sa re ga ma pa dha ni

The "movable do" system is the one most commonly used, where do becomes the tonic of the key (C in the key of C, etc.) "Fixed do" is also used at some major colleges and universities, where do is always C, no matter what the key is. This involves a lot more use of chromatic solfege though.

This book will not use solfege. More information can be obtained in Wikipedia's treatment of the subject. The material should be learned and practiced, but it is useful mostly in communicating with other musicians who use the system.

Numbers[edit | edit source]

Numbers are used in lieu of solfege to describe relative tones. Either Roman numerals (I II III) or Arabic numerals (1 2 3) can be used. A major scale would be: I II III IV V VI VII. Each number can be pronounced either like a cardinal number ("one, two, three...") or an ordinal number ("first, second, third..."). These can be sharpened and flattened, but the sharp is usually written before the numeral: Sharp.svgII ("augmented second"), Flat.svgIII ("minor third").

Latin names[edit | edit source]

Latin names follow the same principle as the solfege scale and numerals. The notes are called the tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone. Of these, it is most important to remember the "tonic" (I), "subdominant" (IV), and "dominant" (V), because these tones and chords built on these tones are used the most often.

Tablature[edit | edit source]

Tablature is notation specific to an instrument or class of instruments, usually plucked-string instruments such as the guitar or aerophones like the harmonica. It is mostly used in popular music for guitar and bass, because many players of these instruments do not read standard notation and the notation does not help illustrate fingerings, for instance, a "middle C" can be played on several different strings on the guitar, but they all look the same in standard notation. However, tablature usually lacks information on rhythm. Instead, tablature notation assumes that the reader is familiar with the tune or can hear its demonstration on a recording or other source. For these reasons, much professional guitar music includes standard notation along with tablature, with the tab staff running below the standard staff. Tablature is also common on the Internet, often in ASCII form but also in files that can be read by programs such as Guitar Pro or the Power Tab Editor (the latter is freeware).

Tablatures are not useful for the purposes of explaining music theory because they describe how to play an instrument, that is, the mechanics of producing musical sounds but not the underlying ideas, that is, the expression of certain pitches in a logical rhythmic structure.

Standard notation[edit | edit source]

This is a preliminary version. Standard music notation will probably have its own chapter, in which case only a cursory introduction will remain here.

Standard notation is used to demonstrate how a piece is played. Unlike tablature, it applies to any instrument. It indicates key signatures, time signatures, rhythms, tempo, dynamics (how loud each instrument should be), and so on. A highly trained musician can sometimes take a piece of sheet music written in standard notation, look it over once or twice, and then play the song as though he or she had been playing it his or her whole life.

For instance, below is the C major scale, including a C at the end, in standard notation.

C major scale.png

The standard notation staff has five lines and four spaces. From bottom to top the five lines are E G B D F, which is commonly memorized as an acrostic such as:


The four spaces between the five lines are F, A, C, and E, which should surely be easy for an English speaker to remember, because together they spell "face".

But what about the first two notes, which are below the staff? Well, the second note is just below the E, so it must be D. The first is below that, so it must be C. It also has a line through it to indicate it is placed on an "invisible" line. This line is called a ledger line. A note could be placed below this ledger line, which would be B. Or a note could be placed below that, on another ledger line, and it would be A. Notes can continue to be placed on ledger lines above and below the staff infinitely, but extending too far from the staff is impractical, because the pitches will become very hard to read.

Lead Sheet notation[edit | edit source]

Lead Sheet notation is an abbreviated variant of Standard notation used in jazz and popular music. It consists of a single note melody line on a treble staff, and letter chord symbols. For vocal pieces, lyrics are optional. Standard notation specifies every note exactly as it is to be played. Notation programs such as MuseScore, Sibelius, and Finale, can play standard notation. Lead sheet notation allows -- in fact, requires -- the player to interpret and embellish. A "Fake Book" is a collection of Lead Sheets.