The Basics of Music Notation

When one begins learning music with the goal of composing good-quality works, there are multiple elements involved.  To recap, here are the components to which I have already spoken:

Can you learn to compose music?

How to Compose Music

In this post I will be tackling the basics of music notation, as you begin your compositional journey.

Please note that this post assumes you have are able to play and sing basic melodies on your instrument and voice, both with and without sheet music.

The Basics of Music Notation

First, you will need:

1. A manuscript book

2. A pen

3. A piece of music you are learning on your instrument or voice

The first step of writing basic music notation

You should learn how to draw the following on the staff, and name what these markings mean:

  1. A treble clef
  2. A bass clef
  3. The key signatures for C, G, D, F, B-flat, and E-flat
  4. The time signatures 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, Common time, and Cut time

Practice the shape of each of these markings.  These are the main pre-note components of the music you will be using.  Draw them repeatedly.  Copy them out of the piece of music you are learning.  Once you can draw these elements correctly, or at least somewhat well, move onto notes:

  1. Shaded note head (note this is a diagonal oval, not a circle)
  2. Open note head (note that whole-note heads are different from half-note heads)
  3. Note stem.  Please note that it should reach the opposing octave or the middle line; whichever is longest – see
  4. Note flag (note the direction)

Draw notes both regular and flipped (upside-down).  Ensure that you can draw each of these notes:

  1. Whole note
  2. Half note
  3. Dotted half note
  4. Quarter note
  5. Dotted quarter note
  6. Eighth note
  7. Dotted eighth note
  8. Sixteenth note
  9. Eighth note triplet

The next component is rests.  Pay close attention to the direction, thickness, shape, and positioning of the following rests, which you should practice as well:

  1. Whole rest
  2. Half rest
  3. Quarter rest
  4. Eighth rest
  5. Sixteenth rest
  6. Dotted quarter rest (for use in 6/8)

Finally, practice writing in bar lines (normal, double barlines, and final barlines), measure numbers, and repeats.

The second step of writing basic music notation

All you have to do now is choose one line of music out of the piece you are working on, and copy it.  Pay specific attention to:

  1. How the notes are placed inside each measure.  The notes should relate to the beats of the measure.
    1. To see this, write a blank measure in 4/4 and draw vertical lines above the music, where each beat should be (these will be where each of the four quarter note beats are felt in the measure). (See figure 1a.)  The notes in that measure should be spaced according to how close or how far they sound to each beat.  If a note sounds on a beat, it should line up with where the beat is.  If a note sounds for two beats, it should start on the first of those beats and have space through the second of those beats.  The note that follows should be on the beat after that note has finished sounding.  (See figure 1b.)For more explanation, see this article:
Figure 1a. Draw lines that show each beat.
Figure 1b. Notes should line up with beats.
  1. The note names.  See how they ascend, descend, have rests, change durations, and may have accidentals (sharps, flats, or naturals outside of the key).

Once you have copied one line, try copying another two or three.  Mainly, get to know the work as an ink-on-paper entity.  The next step is understanding the music.

The composition of new music with basic music notation

Now that you have copied the work, play the passage(s) you copied on your instrument or voice.  If you are playing them on an instrument, play them once and then sing them aloud.  You can use “la” as the word for your singing.  Do this until you can read the music that is professionally made and your own copy, and can start to relate to the music.  Look at how it develops.  Look note-by-note, and then compare groups of measures.  Look at how it begins, and look at how it ends.

You are now ready to write your own variation of this work.

Choose a measure of the music and copy it to a new line on your staff paper.  Hum or sing it on “la” (do not use your instrument and do not sing any words to the tune).  Do this humming/singing on “la” a few times.  Now, start humming what comes after that measure, but not as it appears in the original music–i.e. create your own music that follows that measure.  Keep on experimenting until you have something that you can live with.  It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; you just need something to come after that measure.

The final step in this exercise

The final step is to put the tune you just hummed down on the page.

There are a couple of ways to do this, and so I will merge the best of both worlds.

The first portion covers rhythm.

  1. Go to your instrument (or piano, if you like), and play the first measure.  Then, switch to humming.  Find the pulse and keep a steady beat going in your head.  You can also tap your foot or tap your thigh to keep the pulse.  Slow it down if you are experiencing difficulty.
  2. Ignoring the pitches, write down the rhythm.  One way to eliminate pitch and just focus on the rhythm is to use “da” or “ta” to half-sing/half-speak your tune.  Then, write above the staff the note types (note values) you will use.  For example, if your tune has a quarter note, two eighths, and a half note, instead of writing them with pitches draw the notes above the staff (in the white space) as just note heads, stems, and flags. (See figure 2a.)

    Figure 2a. Write the rhythms to your tune above the staff.
  3. Do this rhythmic transcription for the entirety of your piece, and then add in bar lines (you can also add them as you go, if that helps).

The next portion covers pitch.

  1. Go to your instrument (or piano, if you like) and play the first measure.
  2. Hum the first note of your composition (the part that follows the first measure).
  3. Find that first note on your instrument or piano.
  4. Once you are certain that is the right note, write it down.  To do this, write the right pitch, right below the rhythm (so write the pitch on the staff, and give it the same rhythm as written above the staff).  Do this for all pitches, in sequence.  (See example in figure 2b.)

    Figure 2b. Write the pitches underneath the rhythms.  Keep the rhythms the same below as they are above.

The last part is to copy this music to a new piece of paper.  That’s really it.  Simple enough, I suppose?

In conclusion

To recap, you have:

  1. Understood the basics of writing basic music notation.
  2. Copied existing music.
  3. Creating your own music in your head
  4. Notating that music

Give it a title.  Put your name on it.  This is your first composition, specifically, a variation.  Variations are a very popular form and method of composing; there is no shame in taking existing music and writing variations on it.

So, congratulations!  You can keep repeating this exercise, or do this exercise but without copying a measure from preexisting music.  That is free composition; in free composition your music is entirely yours; entirely up to you.

Let me repeat this, as this is important: you now have your first composition.  It is likely a few bars long, and not Beethoven’s 9th, but there is absolutely no shame in that. You should be proud of your work.  Remember that the process of doing something is more valuable than the product in most cases.

By doing this exercise, you have taken great steps towards mastery of:

  1. Theory
  2. Ear training
  3. Notation
  4. Engraving
  5. Singing
  6. Playing
  7. Creativity

Let’s keep this going!  More posts to follow.

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