Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is Musical Notation? Learn About The Different Types of Musical Notes and Time Signatures

Written by MasterClass

Apr 27, 2019 • 6 min read

Printing music on a page allows a composer to convey information to a musician who will ultimately perform that composer’s work. The more detailed the musical notation, the more precise a performer will be. In this sense, musical notation is no different from printed text.

When a stage actor reads a script, it gives her all sorts of information: her lines, undoubtedly, but perhaps also certain instructions for inflection, her blocking, and information about the scene around her. Musical notation gives the same information to a musical performer: it tells her what notes to play, how fast or slow to play them, and perhaps instructions about dynamics or timbre. Both the theatrical script and the musical score are, at their core, forms of communication.

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What Is Musical Notation?

In music theory, musical notation is a series of symbols and markings that inform musicians how to perform a composition. It can take a number of forms:

  • Standard notation on 5-line musical staves
  • Lead sheets with a melody written on a 5-line staff and chords written using a letter-and-number-based notation
  • Guitar tablature
  • Bar-based MIDI notation (which typically only appears on computer screens)
  • Graphic notation that blends standard notation with illustrations

In classical music, standard notation on 5-line staves is by far the most common form of musical notation. Graphic notation became fashionable among avant-garde twentieth-century composers like Witold Lutoslawski, George Crumb, and John Cage.

In jazz music, lead sheets are the norm. They’re also popular among pop and rock musicians, although many rock guitar players favor tablature. And many rock and pop musicians don’t read music in any form.

Film composers sequence a lot of music on computers using MIDI technology. As such, most film composers are literate in MIDI-based bar notation. And when these composers enlist outside players to perform their music, they overwhelmingly use the standard 5-bar staff notation used in classical music.

How Did Musical Notation Originate?

The known history of music notation dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets dating back to 1400 B.C. indicate that Mesopotamian music used diatonic scales and harmonies in thirds—idioms that remain popular over 3,000 years later.

Ancient Greek notation was standard in the western world from at least the sixth century B.C. to roughly the fourth century A.D. The Romans who would eventually conquer Greek lands seem to have kept this notation system intact.

As the Roman Empire gave way to the Byzantine Empire, a new form of notation entered wide usage. It was during this period that music historians believe solfege originated. Solfege is the practice of assigning syllables to certain notes or scale degrees—for instance, a major scale is often articulated as do re mi fa so la ti do. While the Byzantines didn’t use this exact system, they launched its early origins.

Today’s system of notating music on a staff traces back to Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from approximately 991 to 1035 A.D. Staff notation evolved throughout the late middle ages and Renaissance, and by the Baroque period, it reached a format that is highly similar to what we use today. For instance, today’s performers can read music drafted by the German Baroque composer J.S. Bach and are able to understand it without difficulty.

What Are the Types of Musical Notation?

Most musical notation falls into one of five categories.

  1. Standard notation on musical staves
  2. Lead sheets
  3. Guitar tablature
  4. Bar-based MIDI notation
  5. Graphic notation

All have unique histories, but traditional staff-based notation contains the most intricacies. This notation includes noteheads, bar lines, time signatures, clefs, key signatures, and dynamics, among many other elements.

What Are The Types of Bar Lines?

On ledger lines, bar lines differentiate musical measures. Some of the types of bar lines found in musical notation include:

Single bar line in music

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Single bar lines. These separate one musical measure from another.

Musical double bar lines

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Double bar lines. These separate sections within a musical piece.

Musical bold double bar line

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Bold double bar lines. These signify the end of a musical movement or an entire piece.

What Are the Types of Musical Clefs?

There are three main musical clefs. They are:

Musical treble clef

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Treble clef. Also called a “G” clef because it’s a loose illustration of the letter G and its inner curl surrounds the line indicating the note “G.” In piano sheet music, the right hand typically plays notes written in treble clef.

Musical bass clef

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Bass clef. Also called an “F” clef because it approximates the letter F and its dots are centered on the line indicating the note “F.” In piano sheet music, the left hand typically plays notes written in bass clef.

Musical C clef

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C clefs. These clefs (which loosely resemble two C’s stacked on top of each other) are centered on the line indicating the note “C.” It’s common for C clefs to “move around” on the staff. The clef pictured above is an alto clef, where the note C4 is represented by the middle line.

What Are the Types of Musical Notes?

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 are:

Musical whole note

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A whole note is a single note that covers the entirety of a 4-beat measure. It contains an open notehead with no stem.

Musical half note

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A half note is a single note that covers half of a 4-beat measure. It contains an open notehead with a stem.

Musical quarter note

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A quarter note is a single note that covers one-quarter of a 4-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem.

Musical eighth note

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An eighth note covers 1/8th of a 4-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem and a tail.

Musical sixteenth note

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A sixteenth note covers 1/16th of a 4-beat measure. It contains a closed notehead with a stem and a double tail.

Some music has even smaller subdivisions: 32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes sometimes appear in written music, but composers typically set tempos that obviate the need for such small durations.

What Are the Types of Accidentals?

Musical notes may contain accidentals—such as flats and sharps—that provide additional information. Accidentals allow all 12 notes in western music to appear on a 5-line musical staff.

The key accidentals are:

Musical sharp accidental

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Sharp. This marking indicates the player should sound a note a half-step higher than the pitch on the staff.

Musical flat accidental

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Flat. This marking indicates the player should sound a note a half-step lower than the pitch on the staff.

Musical double sharp accidental

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Double sharp. This marking indicates the player should sound a note a whole-step higher than the pitch on the staff.

Musical double flat accidental

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Double flat. This marking indicates the player should sound a note a whole-step lower than the pitch on the staff.

Musical natural accidental

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Natural. This symbol indicates that the player should disregard any previously indicated accidentals and simply play the pitch indicated on the staff.

What Are the Types of Time Signatures?

Musical time signatures show two pieces of information: the duration of each beat in a measure of music, and the number of beats per measure.

Musical 3/4 time signature

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This time signature, called 3/4, indicates that there are three beats per measure and each beat has the duration of a quarter-note.

Musical 6/8 time signature

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This time signature, called 6/8, indicates that there are 6 beats per measure and each beat has the duration of an eighth-note.

The most frequently used time signature in western music is 4/4, which indicates four quarter-notes per measure. Because of this frequent use, 4/4 is often called “common time” and is sometimes indicated with a “c” as in the image below.

Musical 4/4 time signature

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Names of Notes On Musical Staff

Western music utilizes twelve musical notes. They are as follows:

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

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.

The notes appear in the following way on a musical staff:

Music staff

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The treble clef shows the 12 notes moving upward from C4 to C5. It uses sharps instead of flats. The bass clef shows the 12 notes moving downward from C4 to C3. It uses flats instead of sharps.

Musical notation is a broad topic and one that music students spend many years mastering. Whether you are a composer or a performer, musical notation is a conduit that allows musicians to communicate with each other.