Let’s Play #1 – Basics of Music Notation
by Jerry Kovarsky
Welcome to a new series where I will share concepts and lessons about playing keyboards. It’s not going to be specifically focused on Modal synths, and the intent is to give you new ideas and hopefully inspire you to develop your playing and writing more.
I’m an old-school trained musician so I am used to using traditional music notation to convey ideas. But I have no idea what your background is, so for this column I want to go over some of the basics of printed music so we can get on the same page. If you know this stuff already, don’t fret; we’ll be moving on into other things in the coming columns.
Show Me The Notes
Here is the musical keyboard – notice that the white keys are broken up by groups of black keys, in a pattern of 2 and then 3 black keys. This repeats itself for as long/wide as your keyboard is. I am showing a 49-note keyboard – they can go as far as 88-keys on a full piano.
The white key below the first of the two black keys is called C. Since the pattern of black keys repeats, every time the 2 black-key group shows up, the white key below them is a C.
Similarly, the white key below the first of the three blacks keys is an F, and it repeats across the full length of the keyboard:
Here are the names of all the whites notes within a single grouping of keys (which we call an octave):
And now across the full range:
The black keys on the keyboard are named according to their relationship to the white keys. If we choose a single white key, and move upward to the nearest key (which is usually a black key, but not always, as I’ll soon explain), we say that it is a sharp version of that same named key. So moving up from C to the first black key of the 2-key group is the note we call C-sharp (usually written as C#). And so we can see the names for the 5 black keys as described below:
Alternatively, if we move down to the nearest key from a white key, we say that is a flatted version of that key. So moving down from a D to the black key nearest it is the note we call D-flat (written as Db). So the same 5 black keys can also be described as flat keys:
Why do we have two names for the same notes? That’s something we will cover in a future installment – it has to do with the concept of scales and key signatures. In music theory we say that two names for the same note means the names/notes are enharmonic. Nothing to worry about for now.
Last tidbit regarding the relationship between the white and black notes: moving from one to another is the smallest step we have on a keyboard (or a fretted stringed instrument). This distance is called a half-step. Put two of these small steps together and you have a whole step. This terminology will be used later when we discuss scales, and chords and things of that ilk.
The beauty of the way the black notes are laid out on the piano keyboard in repeating patterns of 2s and 3s makes it very easy to visualize notes when looking at it. But it also causes the situation of the two adjacent white notes (E and F, and B and C) that seems to defy the rule of sharps and flats.
It actually doesn’t: we can call the F note an E-sharp, and the E note an F-flat and so on. But that is only done in some of the more complicated key signatures and is not something you will likely run into until you are playing some very advanced and difficult classic music.
The Design Of Music Notation
Now let’s translate these visual keyboard concepts into traditional music notation. We describe notes on a series of lines and spaces that is called a staff of music. It has 5 lines and 4 spaces like so:
The funny symbol at the start of the staff is called a clef, in this case the Treble clef, which is used to indicate notes for the upper half of the keyboard, usually played by the right hand. And so notes placed on those locations looks like this:
Here they are on the piano keyboard:
And if we place them all in a row it looks like this:
So you may be saying to yourself, “Self, that’s only nine notes, how is music notation ever going to represent anything near the full range of my keyboard?” Good question! And the answer is that we temporarily extended the concept of the spaces and lines as you go above or below the staff, but they are only attached the specific note(s) being used. If the staff got much taller it would become too hard to differentiate, or count the lines and spaces to quickly understand which note is being represented. Here’s are some notes heading downward below that first line (E):
And here are notes heading upward from the top line (F):
Note: I had to add more notes to this image, so this has 61-keys instead of 49.
So you can see that we are still representing the concept of alternating lines and spaces.
Once notes start heading further down the keyboard we used another clef to represent that lower half of the range, called (not surprisingly) the Bass clef. Here are the lines and spaces for that:
Here’s the Bass clef lines on the keyboard:
And here’s the spaces:
Some More Notation Symbols
Earlier on I described the black notes as either being sharps or flats. Here is how we show that in music notation – I’ll move from the C note up through each note of the octave of keys, first using sharps:
Now let’s look at that same range of note described using flats:
And if we place them all in a row it looks like this:
Note: Here we have another symbol used on the D note (and others following it): it is called a natural sign. Its purpose is to undo the flat or sharp used before it on the same named note.
One More Tidbit
The full 88-note piano starts on a low A and ends way high on a C. I mentioned earlier that the range of 12 notes before you reach the same-named note that you started on is called an octave. Just like the image above showing the flat keys – we start on a C and we end on a B, before the C is ready to repeat the same pattern. Piano teaching long ago developed a name for the C that is situated squarely in the middle of the range, and it is called… Middle C. Brilliant call!
This wraps up what I want to cover regarding basics of using music notation to discuss our topics to come. What’s missing from this discussion? Plenty! I didn’t discuss note timing/rhythm notation at all, for one major area. My intent is not to teach a music-reading and writing course, so I am going to leave it to you to further your notation studies other places. There are plenty of books, videos and websites that cover this topic. When required, I will explain things as they are needed in future lessons.
Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.