bandcoachHeader (9K)

Beginning Theory: 1: Notes alone

Music can be described as sounds and silences in time:

How we identify when and what to play is what notation is all about

Beginning Theory

In response to some recent statements about not being able to read notation, I figured it might be appropriate to write a few small tutorials on the basics of reading and writing notation. This series is designed to be used as a primer for those who arenít sure and a simple guide to the concepts without overloading the beginner too much in one go.

  1. Notes alone
  2. Staff and clef
  3. Ensemble orders
  4. Dynamics
  5. Articulations, expressive techniques
  6. Simple melody writing
  7. Basic bass writing
  8. Basic keyboard writing
  9. Simple pad writing
  10. Expanded melody writing

I am not including any advanced work on rhythm, as it is already addressed by T:SSSR. The T:SSSR series will also be continued and expanded to cover the concepts of meter in depth and individual aspects of advanced rhythmic technique.

Other topics such as scales, chords, intervals, and harmony are covered by KSC.

Notes Alone

The most basic way that we can talk about music is to describe it in terms of the notes we play or hear. No need to use actual symbols or graphics other than the letters of the alphabet or numbers if we are so inclined.

So what makes musical note names special?

In Western Music theory, there are 12 notes that have been arrived at by various experimenters and theorists over the millennia. Other experimenters have deduced other numbers of notes up to 43 as determined by Harry Partch.

The notes that we use are A B C D E F G. To these we add notes that are slightly higher (sharpened, #) or notes that are slightly lower (flattened, b), giving us the range of notes:

As we can see from the table above, the sharp and flat notes occur in the same places, even though they have different names. We call notes that have two unique names enharmonic equivalents, i.e. they are the same as far as sound is concerned but serve different purposes for naming. To make this clearer, consider the table below

For the sake of completeness we also have four other note names to add to the table:

Working with 12 notes

So if there are 12 unique note names, why do we say the piano has 88 keys? Surely the notes must repeat?

They do. The 12 unique note names are used to describe notes within a single octave, the span between notes of the same name. The piano keyboard covers 7 1/3 octaves (88 notes).

We give each octave a number to distinguish notes in different octaves. Each octave starts at C. Middle C is called C3. The D above it is D3. The B below it is B2.

What about MIDI Note Numbers and Note Names?

There are 128 MIDI note numbers. They cover 10 2/3 octaves. Some of these would have frequencies below the threshold of hearing (sub-20Hz), some are above the average adult hearing range (above 12KHz).

The range we have, though, is because MIDI is based in a binary standard, it is based on powers of 2; 128 is 2 to the power of 7, meaning that it uses a 7 bit number to represent the note numbers.

Middle C is 60/C3. every other note can be worked out from this. The following table shows the note names, octave, MIDI note number, and frequency for each of the 128 notes in the MIDI spectrum. The frequency given is based on equal temperament and A3=440Hz.

So what use is all of this?

No use and lots of use. It depends on how you want to think about your music.


Say I had a melody that I had played. I want to make a note of the melody, but I donít know any notation. I can still write down the notes used in the melody in sequence. I wonít have any

  1. rhythmic information in this first catch, or
  2. information about direction,

but I will have the sequence of notes.

Now for this to be meaningful I need to add some directional information. Why? Because going up to E is not the same as going down to E:

Once we add the directional information, we can see that the melody moves between two different octaves, so we need to show octave displacement as well:


What about rhythm? How can I show how much time there should be between each note starting? How can I show how long each note should be?

Some initial thinking told me that this melody was 2 bars long. By playing it and counting how many times I wanted to tap a beat, I worked out that I had 8 beats or 2 bars of 4/4. However, I have 14 notes. So I have to have some notes being shorter than a beat.

So first of all I need to map out my 8 beats, including which beat each of my notes falls in:

Melody with clicks

The notes I have fit into each beat as above, but all information about how long they are or where in the beat they start is lost at this point.

I can divide these beats in half, moving my notes to the part of the beat they start in:

I use the dash to show that the previous note continues to sound in the next part of the beat.

I can further divide this into halves again, again moving my notes to the part of the beat they start in:

Any empty parts of the beat are silences or rests.

We can do this for any melodic idea we can think of. We may need to change the way we divide the beat for other time signatures, but the procedure is still the same.

More than one melodic idea

Say I now have a second melodic idea, my bass line. I can add it below my melody simply by adding another row:

Bass line on its own

with clicks

Bass line with the melody

with clicks

Identifying the basic octave that each melody works in is a good idea.

Layering chords and chord movement

Chords can be spelled out by playing each note in turn or by playing the notes together.

With the procedure we have now, we can show chord notes from bar to bar and how each part of the chord moves to a note in the next chord:

with clicks

All of the above is a first step towards notation

Next Time:

The Keys to Notation: Pitch, The Staff and The Clefs.