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Music 101: What Are Musical Notes? Learn More About How to Read Music

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

The world of melodic music is based around combining and sequencing specific audio vibrations. These vibrations can be produced by any type of instrument—vocals, strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and even non-traditional instruments like car horns and cooking pots. But to organize and sequence those audio vibrations, we arrange them and give them names. They are called music notes.



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What Is a Musical Note?

A musical note is a name given to a pitch associated with a specific audio vibration. Western music utilizes twelve musical notes. They are as follows:

C# / Db
D# / Eb
F# / Gb
G# / Ab
A# / Bb

Where two notes are listed (for instance C# / Db), both note names will produce the same pitch. The name of the note varies depending on what “key” you are in. For instance, C# is a note found in the A major scale. That same exact pitch can be heard in the Bb minor scale, only it’s referred to as Db.

Piano Frequencies

What Is an Octave?

These notes are spread out across octaves. All the notes appear, in order, in a particular octave, and then the pattern repeats itself in a new octave.

On a standard 88-key piano, the lowest note is called A0. This means it’s the note “A” in the zero-eth octave. One octave up from there is A1, which is the note “A” in the first octave.

The highest note on the piano is called C8. That means the note “C” in the eighth octave.

The black keys on the piano represent the “slash” notes on the list above (C# / Db, D# / Eb, etc.). Their names vary depending on what key you’re playing in.

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Different Types of Musical Notes

One note that’s often singled out among all others is “middle C.” This is also known as C4—the note C in the 4th octave. It’s called “middle C” because it falls right in the middle of the piano keyboard, and also right in the middle of the range used in most musical compositions.

Middle C is the “root” of the C major scale, which is the most basic scale in Western music because it contains no flats or sharps. Its notes are simply:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B.

It then begins a new octave starting on C.

What Is Concert Pitch?

The note “C” does not sound the same on all instruments. Most instruments are tuned to “concert pitch,” and the note “C” sounds the same on all those instruments.

A piano is in concert pitch: so are most members of the string family. Certain woodwinds, like the oboe and the flute, are in concert pitch. Same with certain brass instruments and percussion instruments. And the human voice is in concert pitch.


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What Are Transposing Instruments?

Instruments that are not in concert pitch are called transposing instruments. When these notes play a “C,” they do not sound the same as a “C” on a piano. An example is the type of trumpet used by most jazz and pop performers. This trumpet is called a “Bb instrument,” which means that when the trumpet player plays a “C,” it sounds the same as a “Bb” on the piano. A French horn is an “F instrument”—when it plays a “C,” it sounds like an “F” on the piano.

Making things even more complex is the fact that different versions of the same instrument transpose differently. For instance, tenor and soprano saxophones are Bb instruments, but alto and baritone saxophones are Eb instruments. A master musical composer must know these transpositions and write up a score accordingly. If not, the players will sound severely out of tune!

Musical Notes and Durations

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Musical notes vary in duration, and when they’re written on sheet music, notes of different lengths are depicted in different ways. Most Western sheet music gets divided into measures, and the most common of these is a measure containing four beats. Spinning off from this:

  • A whole note is a single note that covers the entirety of a 4-beat measure
  • A half note is a single note that covers half of a 4-beat measure
  • A quarter note is a single note that covers one-quarter of a 4-beat measure
  • An eighth note covers 1/8th of a 4-beat measure
  • A sixteenth note covers—you guessed it—1/16th of a 4-beat measure

Some music has even smaller subdivisions: 32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes sometimes appear in written music, but these can be hard to read. If your composition has a bunch of 32nd and 64th notes in it, you probably need to double or triple your tempo. Those same notes, in a faster tempo, will become 8th notes or 16th notes, and those are preferred by most players sight-reading a piece of music.

What Are Tuplets?

“Tuplets” involve rhythmic patterns that aren’t even subdivisions of a measure. For instance, a triplet places three notes in a spot where, if the measure were evenly subdivided, there would only be two notes. To be specific, you could divide a 4-beat measure into 2 half-notes or 3 half-note triplets. Any type of tuplet is possible—quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, etc.—but triplets are by far the most common.

How Do Musical Notes Appear?

Written music appears on a “musical staff”—a series of lines and spaces where composers indicate musical pitches and their specific durations. The notes and spaces on a staff vary depending upon which “clef” you are using.

  • The treble clef. The most commonly used clef in music is “treble clef,” where the lowest line represents an E4 and the highest line represents an F5. Sometimes musicians call the treble clef the “G clef” because its symbol (vaguely) represents the letter G, and it curled center points to the line representing the note G.
Treble Clef Notes

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Here is an image of a treble clef staff where the lowest indicated note is an F4 (the space above the lowest line of the staff) and the highest note is an F5.

  • The bass clef. The second most commonly used clef is called bass clef. In bass clef, the lowest line represents a G2 and the highest line represents an A3. The image below shows a bass clef with notes spanning from A2 to A3. Sometimes musicians call the bass clef the “F clef” because it vaguely resembles the letter F and it’s pointing at the line depicting the note F.
Bass Clef Staff Notation
  • The alto clef. This is for instruments in the alto range like a viola or a low female vocalist.
  • The tenor clef. This is for instruments in the tenor range like the cello or mid-register male vocalist.

Do You Need to Know How to Read Music?

It’s worth noting that there are accomplished instrumentalists and songwriters who cannot read music. This tends to be particularly true of the pop, rock, hip hop, country, folk, and R&B genres. Some jazz musicians don’t read music, but they are few and far between.

But even if you can’t read music off the page, it’s essential to know the names of notes and where to find them on your instrument. This allows you to effectively communicate with other musicians so that you can focus on the most important parts of music: composing and playing.