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Musical Notes

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07.02.2022

Musical notes

People tried to preserve music in written form as early as the 11th century. But the final version of musical notation was adopted only in the 17th century. By this time, musicians had developed a five-line system for displaying sounds. It was called a musical stave, on the lines of which modern musical notes are located. They are entered between the lines or placed directly on one of the five lines.

Notes are sounds of a certain pitch, written in the order of their performance by the musician. The duration of sound is also encrypted in each character. Therefore, a performer can read musical notation as if it were a normal text, play the melody in the mind, and play it back on a musical instrument.

Octave as a System for Combining Notes

Musical sounds are usually combined into octaves. This is the name given to the intervals between two notes separated by 8 scale steps and 6 tones. If you play two notes at the same time, separated by an octave, they will sound identical to you, but different in pitch. More precisely, the upper sound will have a frequency 2 times higher than the lower one from the previous octave.

Piano notes on keyboard instruments help to understand the meaning of the octave system. First of all, you should familiarize yourself with the piano keyboard (85 keys), on which you can play all the sounds used in music.

The piano keyboard includes nine octaves. They are arranged from the left to the right as the frequency of the sound increases. The interval between the same sounds of different frequencies is called an octave in musical notation.

The lowest sounds belong to the subcontraoctave, located on the left side of the keyboard. This interval includes only 3 notes, since lower sounds are not used in music. The subcontraoctave is followed by the contraoctave, as well as the great and small octaves.

The 1st octave is located at the centre of the piano keyboard, it is followed by the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th octaves. Only one note belongs to the 5th, since higher sounds are also inapplicable in music and cannot be distinguished by human hearing.

Consider an example that will help you finally understand what a musical octave system is. The 1st octave at the center of the keyboard begins with C and ends with B (inclusive). If you assign the number 1 to the C key and start counting the white keys from it to the right (toward the 2nd octave), then the 8th key will be the C note of the 2nd octave.

If you simultaneously press both boundary keys, you will hear a harmonious sound, but the pitch of musical notes will differ in frequency by a factor of two (C note of the 2nd octave sounds twice as high as the same note in the first octave). The same effect will appear when you press any other identical notes from different octave intervals.

Sound Duration

When talking about the duration of a note, they mean not a specific period of time, but a correlation with the duration of other symbols. Here is a list of sounds as their duration decreases. Each subsequent character will be shorter than the previous one by 2 times:

  1. Maxima is the longest musical sound with a playing time of 8. It is indicated as a flag. But this symbol was used in the music of the 13th and 14th centuries;
  2. Longa (duration: 4). This designation is also similar to a flag and is now almost never used;
  3. Breve or double whole (2). It is written as a rectangle or oval, limited by vertical short stripes on the sides;
  4. Semi-breve (1). In modern terminology, the names of these piano notes have changed to “whole”. The musical symbol itself is drawn as an empty oval;
  5. Minim (1/2). There have been changes in the name here too. These sounds are now called half sounds and are drawn as an empty oval with a vertical line at the top;
  6. Quarter (crotchet) is a filled oval with a vertical line. The duration of these notes is 1/4;
  7. Eighth (quaver) – 1/8. It is written in the form of a filled oval with a line and a tail;
  8. Sixteenth (semiquaver) – 1/16. It looks the same as the eighth, but with two tails;
  9. Thirty-second (demisemiquaver) – 1/32, with three tails.

The durations are 1/64, 1/128 and 1/256. The shorter the note, the more tails it has on the vertical line.

Modern music does not use all of the listed musical notes. A range of durations from whole sounds to thirty-seconds is sufficient for recording melodies. A whole note contains 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, 8 eighth notes, 16 sixteenth notes, or 32 thirty-second notes. In the same way, a half note contains 2 quarter notes, 4 eighth notes, 8 sixteenth notes, etc. Knowing this you can easily build a tree of notes by their duration.

The duration of the sound while playing a melody is easiest to equate to the heart rate. For example, if you need to play a whole note, it should sound the same time as 4 heartbeats. To simplify the task, the musicians calculate in their heads: “One-and, two-and, three-and, four-and.” A half note sounds 2 times shorter. Hence, you will need to calculate in your head: “One-and, two-and.” For the quarter note, it will be enough to calculate “one-and”.

Additional Duration Increase

Sometimes the note duration is changed by additional symbols on the stave. The examples of such musical notation are given below:

  1. Dot on the right side of the note. It implies the extension of the sound by half of the original. For example, if a dot is near a whole note, the duration of the sound should be the same as if a half note was added to the whole note (1+1/2). A dot next to a half note means adding a quarter (1/2+1/4);
  2. Two dots. If there are two dots near the musical symbol, then the duration of the sound must be increased by half and a quarter from the original note. That is, two dots near the half note of the piano imply an increase in duration in this form: 1/2+1/4+1/8;
  3. Slur. If adjacent identical notes are connected by a curved line, then you do not need to play them separately. Press the key 1 time and hold it for as long as you get when adding the duration of all the sounds connected by the league. At the same time the sounds themselves can have a different duration. For example, a slur might connect a quarter note to an eighth note. This would be equivalent to writing a quarter note with a dot (1/4+1/8);
  4. Fermata. This musical symbol is written above the note. It has the shape of a strongly convex arc, under which a point is drawn. This symbol implies the choice of duration at the musician’s discretion.

Clefs and Table of Notes

Most often treble and bass clefs are used in musical notation. They are especially in demand when playing the piano, because notes for the right hand are usually written in the treble range, and for the left – in the bass range. The treble clef is drawn from the second line of the stave, on which the note G of the first octave is placed in the melodies. The bass clef is written from F in the bass range (fourth line of the stave).

You might think that writing a musical composition in treble clef alone is much easier to read than using two different systems. But this is far from true.

Only two octaves can normally be placed on the five lines of the stave. Many additional lines would have to be drawn to draw higher or lower sounds. They would make musical notation too cumbersome and difficult to read. Therefore, piano music is written in two clefs. Let’s consider the arrangement of musical notes on the stave for the large, small, first and second octaves.

Bass Clef

Large octave Small octave
C On the 2nd additional line under the stave Between the 2nd and the 3rd
D Under the 1st additional line at the bottom Under the 1st additional line at the bottom
E On the 1st lower additional line Between the 3rd and the 4th
F Under the 1st On the 4th
G On the 1st Between the 4th and the 5th
A Between the 1st and the 2nd On the 5th
B On the 2nd Over the 5th

Therefore, the C note of the first musical octave in the bass clef will be on the first additional one above the stave.

Treble Clef

First octave Second octave
С On the 1st additional line at the bottom Between the 3rd and the 4th
D Under the 1st line of the stave On the 4th
E On the 1st Between the 4th and the 5th
F Between the 1st and the 2nd On the 5th
G On the 2nd Over the 5th
A Between the 2nd and the 3rd On the 1st additional line at the top
B On the 3rd Above the 1st additional line at the top

In order to write the C note of the third octave in the treble clef, you need to draw two additional lines above the stave and place a symbol with the desired musical duration at the highest line.

Sound Raising and Lowering

Seven base notes of an octave are not enough to write compositions. Sometimes they are not enough even for the simplest melodies. In such cases you can resort to alteration. This name means a change in musical notes by half a tone. The sound can be both lowered and raised. The following symbols are used for this:

  1. Sharp. This symbol is used to raise the sound. For example, if it comes before D, then you need to play D sharp. The white musical key is responsible for the piano note D. It is the second in a row in each octave. To raise the sound it emits by half a tone, you must press the next black key, located between D and E. If you look closely at the piano keyboard, you will notice that there are no black keys between some of the white keys. They are absent between E and F, as well as between B and C. The difference in the sound of these musical notes is exactly equal to a semitone, and not a tone, as between other white keys. Therefore, the designation “E sharp” is equivalent to the sound F, and “B sharp” = C.
  2. Double sharp. This means raising the sound by half a tone two times in a row. For example, for F it will be G, and for E it will be “F sharp”.
  3. Flat. Unlike sharp, flat does not increase, but lowers the musical sound by a semitone. At the same time, the rules for using black and white keys remain the same as those discussed above.
  4. Double flat. This refers to a double reduction in pitch by a semitone.

In some keys sharps and flats are practically not used. For example, they are not available by default in the basic keys of C major and A minor. But both of them sometimes require lowering or increasing a particular sound by a semitone. In such cases sharp or flat is placed directly in front of the desired piano note and is played on keyboard instruments once.

That is, if you met note A with a flat in your music book, this does not mean that all subsequent A notes should also be played with it. All notes retain their original value if there are no additional symbols next to them.

There are one or more alterations in other keys. They affect the entire work as a whole and are written right next to the clef (they are not placed near the notes). For example, if you see a flat symbol near the clef on the third line of the stave, then all B notes in the melody should be lowered by semitone (instead of the white B key, you need to press the black one to the left of it – B flat).

There are also often exceptions in keys with alteration. In some songs, you need to raise or lower the sound using additional sharps and flats that are absent near the musical clef. They are placed right in front of the notes.

Sometimes you need to make another exception, i.e. to play a sound without sharp or flat, which is present in the default key. In this case a natural sign is used. It is written before a note that does not need to be raised or lowered. If you have E flat marked near the clef, and you just need to play E, you will see a natural sign in front of the desired musical note. It also acts once, like flats and sharps near notes in keys without alteration.

Designation of Rests and Their Duration

The musical melody does not have to be continuous. In most songs sounds alternate with silence. Rests are marked on the stave with special symbols so that the performer can accurately reproduce the composition. Like notes, there are whole, quarter, eighth, half, sixteenth, and thirty-second rests. That is why their duration is calculated in the same way as when playing sounds.

Musical Bars and Other Intervals on the Stave

If you look at piano musical notation for keyboards, you will see that there are vertical lines on the stave. They cross horizontal lines at right angles. Notes are placed between each pair of vertical lines.

Such segments are called musical bars. They contain the required number of beats with a given duration. The strong beat is always placed at the beginning of each bar, and the weak beat is placed at the end. This system allows the performer to place emphasis on specific sections of the song.

The number of beats per bar can be seen near the clef. There may be written 4/4, 2/4, 6/8 or other options. Let’s consider a simple example. If 4/4 is indicated immediately after the clef, then there must be 4 quarter musical notes in each bar or other sounds, the duration of which will add up to 4/4.

For example, there may be 3 quarter notes and 2 eighth notes in one bar in your melody, which in total will give 1 quarter note. It can also be 1 whole occupying the entire bar.

The number of sounds in each segment cannot exceed the specified measure. But it can be smaller than what is written next to the clef. In such cases sounds are replaced by rests. For example, if you have a bar of 4/4, but there are only 3 quarter notes on the segment, then a quarter rest should be between them.

Other vertical lines can be seen on the stave, which should not be confused with the bar. A double line implies a change in the number of beats or key. A bold double line is placed at the end of the composition. In this case only the outer strip is drawn in bold, while the inner one remains thin.

If you see a fragment of a melody separated on both sides by a bold double line with a colon inside, then this section of the composition must be played twice. This designation is called a musical reprise.

If the fragment is repeated twice, but in each case has a different ending, the reprise is supplemented with square brackets above the stave. One bracket captures the first version of the ending. Number 1 is written under it. Number 2 is written under the second bracket. This section is played at the end of the fragment when repeated.

As mentioned above, musical notes for keyboard instruments are written separately for the right and left hands. The top stave is for the right hand, and the bottom stave is for the left. They are combined with a curly bracket on the left.

Chords

Musical sounds applied sequentially to the stave are played in turn. But sometimes you need to play several notes at the same time. In this case, we are talking about chords. In chords note symbols are drawn one above the other, in one vertical line. This means that the musician must press several keys at once.

A chord can consist of two, three, four or even five notes. Triple chords are also called triads. The most complex compositions of 4–5 sounds cannot be performed without good musical preparation.

Some chords from piano music book are called arpeggiated. They are played not simultaneously, but sequentially. That is, the musician does not immediately press all the keys of the chord, but quickly goes through them in ascending order or in a different order. A wavy horizontal line is drawn before such musical combinations.

Sound Volume

Musical notation contains all characteristics of the melody. There is the volume of the sound in it as well. It is indicated above the lines of the stave in the form of special symbols. Let’s consider basic musical terms that are used in musical notation to control the volume of compositions:

  1. PPP (pianississimo) – as quietly as possible, almost silently.
  2. PP (pianissimo) – very quiet.
  3. P (piano) – quiet, a little louder than pianissimo.
  4. MP (mezzo-piano) – moderately quiet.
  5. MF (mezzo-forte) – moderately loud.
  6. F (forte) – loud. Forte is written where it is necessary to play in contrast in order to highlight a certain episode of a musical composition.
  7. FF (fortissimo) – very loud.
  8. FFF (fortissimissimo) – as loud as possible.
  9. SFZ (sforzando) – a sudden accent on a chord or a note.
  10. < (crescendo) – a smooth increase in volume at a given segment of a piece of music.
  11. > (decrescendo) – a smooth decrease in volume.
  12. FP (forte-piano) – the melody on the marked segment is first played loudly, and then quietly.

Sometimes these symbols are preceded by a small letter s. It has the name subito in musical notes. This term is translated from Italian as “suddenly”. That is, the volume should change unexpectedly, very quickly. For example, sff means a sharp transition to loud music, and spp means a sudden fading of the sound.

The volume and richness of the sound of the melody on the piano is also controlled by the pedals. The right one is called “forte”. It amplifies the volume of the musical composition. If you play the piano without using this pedal, the sound will stop as soon as you release the keys on the keyboard. Holding down the right pedal stops the hammers inside the instrument from muting the strings, so piano notes continue to sound for some time after the keys are released.

The place of use of the forte pedal in the composition is indicated above the stave: the PED mark is written in the desired area. You can also see an asterisk symbol above the stave. It shows where to release the right pedal.

The left pedal of a piano is called “piano”. It muffles the musical sound and makes it quieter. This pedal operates differently in pianos and grand pianos. In the piano, the volume is decreased by reducing the distance between the strings and the hammers. In the grand piano, the effect is achieved by shifting the hammers to the side and hitting only two of three strings that are responsible for each musical note.

How to Create Musical Compositions?

It is very difficult to memorize a melody invented in a fit of inspiration even for an experienced composer. The maestro will still improvise and create new music during subsequent plays. For a beginner this task is far more impossible. Therefore, it is better to immediately record your results and achievements. Master musical notation and save the invented compositions so as not to regret the lost songs in the future.

You can do it manually. Play a short fragment and write it down in a music book. This requires only the presence of a musical instrument and basic knowledge of music. But remember that using this technique you will constantly go astray, forget where you left off, and start playing again. As a result, the task will take a lot of time and will adversely affect the desire to compose music in the future.

The easiest way is to use special software for recording and editing melodies. For example, you can use Amped Studio. This program will automatically record piano notes if you play a song on a musical instrument. Then you can edit the composition and add additional effects to it from the sound library.

With modern software it is possible to write songs without any musical education. You will succeed if you love music and feel it with your soul. Try it and you will create real hits that your friends, acquaintances and even strangers will sing with pleasure.

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