Magazine Archive

Home -> Magazines -> Issues -> Articles in this issue -> View

Fundamental Music Notation (Part 1)


Article from Polyphony, July 1976

As a preface to this series, let me explain what we will try to do, and how we will do it. The majority of us are electronic hobbyists with a common interest in electronic music and audio circuitry. Some of you may have a background in music, but most are lacking in the background needed to write down the music they compose while experimenting with their synthesizers. This series is not intended to teach you how to compose, orchestrate, and notate the perfect symphony. Rather, it will be a review of the most common procedures used to represent music on paper. For those who have a basic background in music (perhaps you learned to play an instrument in grade school), this will be a good review and possibly you can learn something new. For those that have a Doctorate in music theory, you can write me a nasty letter about the things I am omitting.

The series will be broken into about four parts. The first will deal with pitch notation, including names of notes, frequencies of notes, accidentals, scales and key signatures. The second article will cover timing notation, including note durations, time signatures, rests and written tempo indications. The third article will discuss dynamics and expression, and will have some miscellaneous tidbits thrown in. The fourth installment will cover the goal of this series, notating electronic music. Discussion will include how synthesis has been notated in the past, things to keep in mind when scoring for electronics, and hopefully some reproductions of electronic music scores. Part four is the proposed end of the series, but we will continue to print new ideas about notation from our readers. Hopefully, some of you will send us your own scores to be printed!

The general format of the series will be more like a glossary or outline, rather than full text. This will allow future use as a reference source, and will cut the size of the series from a textbook to a magazine article. (Thank goodness!)

PITCH NAMES are derived from the first seven letters of the alphabet - ABCDEFG.

The STAFF is the configuration of five lines and four spaces on which the music is written.

The G CLEF is placed on the staff such that the body of the clef circles the line designated as the note G. The most common position for this clef is when the second line from the bottom of the staff is G. With the clef in this position, it is commonly referred to as a TREBLE CLEF.

The F CLEF is placed on the staff such that the line passing through the two dots is the note F. The most common position for this clef is when the fourth line is designated F. This is called a BASS CLEF.

STAFF DESIGNATIONS use consecutive letters for adjacent lines and spaces. Higher locations on the staff use later letters of the alphabet. To help students remember the proper names for lines and spaces, several phrases have been devised. The first letter of each word is the note name, working from the bottom of the staff to the top.

To remember the lines of the Treble Clef, remember - Every Good Boy Does Fine. The spaces of the Treble Clef spell F-A-C-E. The lines of the Bass Clef are represented by - Good Boys Do Fine Always. The spaces of the Bass Clef are - All Cars Eat Gas.

LEDGER LINES are used to provide lines and spaces for notes outside the normal scope of the staff.

The GRAND STAFF is a joint bass and treble staff.

Most instruments use one of the common staves for it's music, but instruments with a wider range of pitches available generally use the grand staff. Piano, organ, harp, and condensed ensemble scores are typical applications of the grand staff.

HALF STEPS occur in the musical alphabet at E/F and B/C. These notes produce adjacent musical tones. All other adjacent letter pairs produce a FULL STEP, which means a musical tone is available between the two letter notes. On the keyboard, any two consecutive keys produce a half step.

SHARPS and FLATS are used in conjunction with the letter names to achieve notation for the tones which lie between the letter notes. A sharp is used in front of a note to raise the note a half step. A flat is used in front of a note to lower the note a half step. Double sharps and double flats also exist, and are used to raise or lower each by a whole step. The "double signs" are not used often. A natural sign is placed before a note when you wish to cancel a previously given sharp or flat.

ENHARMONIC NOTES are notes which are written differently but sound the same pitch. Examples of enharmonic notes are: G sharp/A flat, E sharp/F, C flat/B, F double sharp/A double flat/G, etc.

RELATIONSHIP OF PITCH NAMES, KEYBOARD, OCTAVES, FREQUENCIES, AND INSTRUMENT RANGES are shown in the accompanying chart. The use of subscripts to denote various octaves is the system recommended by the Acoustic Society of America, and accepted by the U.S.A. Standards Association. Other systems are also in use, and descriptions can be found in most music textbooks. All frequencies given are based on the A-440 tuning standard and the equally tempered scale formula. Instrument ranges are approximate, as upper and lower extremes depend heavily on the skill of the performer.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

SCALES are a series of notes with a predetermined pattern of intervals between the notes. A one octave scale uses the seven notes of the musical alphabet in consecutive order, with the eighth note being a repeat of the first note, but an octave higher. When a melody is written in a particular key, the scale starting on the named key will contain the basic notes used in the melody. The two main types of scales are MAJOR and MINOR. Major scales and keys tend to have a happier or more pleasant sound. Minor keys have a solemn, weighty sound.

MAJOR SCALES have half steps between the third and fourth, and seventh and eighth notes. All other steps are whole steps. In the C scale, the half step requirements fall between E and F, and B and C. As mentioned earlier, these intervals are normally half steps so no accidentals (sharps and flats) are required to achieve a proper major scale. However, when starting a major scale on other notes, accidentals will be required to preserve proper interval spacing. An A major scale would be: A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A. Playing a C major scale on the keyboard uses only white keys.

MINOR SCALES again use eight consecutive notes from the musical alphabet, but the half steps fall between different notes as compared to the major scale. There are three forms of minor scales, each having a slightly different sound and application in music.

PURE (NATURAL) MINOR SCALES have half steps between the second and third steps, and between the fifth and sixth steps. An A natural minor scale uses no accidentals, and is played on a keyboard using only white keys. Shown below are natural minor scales in A and C.

HARMONIC MINOR SCALES are similar to pure minor scales, except the seventh note is raised one half step. This gives one and one half steps between 6 and 7, and one half step between 7 and 8. Again shown are scales in the keys of A and C, but in the harmonic minor mode.

MELODIC MINOR SCALES have a different pattern for ascending and descending uses. The ascending mode is similar to the pure form, except the sixth and seventh notes are raised a half step. This produces half steps in the scale pattern between second and third, and seventh and eighth notes. The descending mode of the melodic minor scale is identical to the pure minor scale, as shown below.

CHROMATIC SCALES are all the half steps available within an octave (twelve), and the form is identical for all keys. The only difference is the starting note.

NAMES OF NOTE POSITIONS WITHIN A SCALE are useful in naming the chords built on the different notes, and naming the relationship of a particular note to the tonic or key.

Note of Scale: Position Name:
1 Tonic
2 Supertonic
3 Mediant
4 Subdominant
5 Dominant
6 Submediant
#6 (raised sixth) Raised Submediant (minor only)
7 Leading Tone (major only)
Subtonic (minor only)
#7 (raised seventh) Leading Tone (minor only)

KEY SIGNATURES are a group of sharps or flats that are written at the beginning of a song or section of a song. These accidentals are the ones required to produce a proper major or minor scale pattern, but when written as a key signature, they need not be rewritten every time an altered note appears in the piece. Sharps and flats will still be seen in the music, but these will be accidental notes as required to fit into the chords or melody being used. Also, a natural sign can be used prior to a note which is altered by the key signature. The natural sign will cancel that particular note's sharp or flat. Accidentals, including natural signs, are good only for the duration of the measure (measures will be covered in the next issue) at which time the key signature goes back into effect as the only designated sharps or flats. The letter name of a key is the same as the tonic note of the scale which the key signature represents. Thus, a key signature with no sharps or flats would be C major, the same as a scale with no sharps or flats. Also, this key signature could represent A minor which doesn't have any accidentals. A chart of various keys and key signatures is shown below.

Major Key Signatures

Bass Clef Key Signature Positions

RELATIVE KEYS use the same key signature, but are actually two different keys. C major and A minor are relative, as are G major and E minor.

CHORDS are groups of notes which are sounded simultaneously or one after another at high speed (arpeggio). The most basic chord is constructed using 1-3-5 of the scale of the key you wish. For example a C major chord would be C-E-G, a C minor chord would be C-E flat-G. When a chord is written with the tonic in the lowest position, and the other notes represented as intervals of thirds above the tonic, the chord is called a TRIAD. The chord based on a major scale is called (amazingly enough) a major triad. Likewise for a minor triad. A minor triad with a flatted fifth is called a DIMINISHED TRIAD. A major triad with a sharped fifth is an AUGMENTED TRIAD. All four of these basic chord structures are used extensively, and each has a different texture, or sound, to it. Basic triads can be expanded into more complex chords by adding more notes. Common complex chords include seventh, ninth, augmented eleventh, and thirteenth flatted ninth type chords. Chords with a tonic note other than the tonic note of the key signature will have a specific relationship to the tonic key as outlined in the "Names of Note Positions" heading. For example, a G chord in a piece that is written in C major would be a dominant chord with respect to the C major tonic chord. If the music should modulate to the key of A minor, and a G major chord appears again, it will now be a subtonic chord.

This should give you the basics required to get from the notes on your keyboard to a melody on paper. Next time we will discuss how to notate different lengths of notes and timing of the notes relative to each other. In the interim, a bibliography is given for more detailed study or reference.

Harvard Dictionary of Music, by Willi Apel, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

The Acoustic Foundations of Music, by John Backus, WW Norton and Company, New York.

Introduction to the Theory of Music, by Howard Boatwright, WW Norton and Company, New York.

Horns, Strings, and Harmony, by Arthur H. Benade, Doubleday and Company.

Scales, Intervals, Keys, and Triads, by John Clough, WW Norton and Company, New York.

Also check out your local libraries, especially if you live near a university that has a good music department. Another good source of information for beginning musicians is in grade one piano instruction books. Check at local music stores for this type of book.

Series - "Fundamental Music Notation"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

More with this topic

Browse by Topic:

Music Theory

Previous Article in this issue

Voltage Controlled Clock

Next article in this issue

Adding Fine Tuning To Standard Controls

Publisher: Polyphony - Polyphony Publishing Company

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


Polyphony - Jul 1976

Donated & scanned by: Vesa Lahteenmaki


Music Theory


Fundamental Music Notation

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Feature by Marvin Jones

Previous article in this issue:

> Voltage Controlled Clock

Next article in this issue:

> Adding Fine Tuning To Standa...

Help Support The Things You Love

mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.

If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!

Donations for May 2024
Issues donated this month: 0

New issues that have been donated or scanned for us this month.

Funds donated this month: £34.00

All donations and support are gratefully appreciated - thank you.

Magazines Needed - Can You Help?

Do you have any of these magazine issues?

> See all issues we need

If so, and you can donate, lend or scan them to help complete our archive, please get in touch via the Contribute page - thanks!

Please Contribute to mu:zines by supplying magazines, scanning or donating funds. Thanks!

Monetary donations go towards site running costs, and the occasional coffee for me if there's anything left over!

Small Print

Terms of usePrivacy