With this lesson, we are going to begin an exploration into written music. While it is not essential to be able to read music in order to play music, the ability to do so will have great impact on your total musical understanding. The ability to read will also avail you of vast amounts of music that you may not have any other means to access, as well as, allow you to put your own ideas "down on paper".
There are two distinct forms of written guitar music, STANDARD NOTATION (or just plain "music" for short...as in , "Hey, do I really have to learn to read music?") and TABLATURE NOTATION (aka. tab). Both forms are very useful, and each has its strong points and its weak points.
First, let's take a look at TABLATURE:
I'm assuming that you already know the basics of reading tab. If not, go here. (opens in new window)
Tab's strong point is that it is easy to read. Each line represents a string on the guitar, and the numbers tell you exactly where to put your fingers. This makes tab a good choice for notating the position on the guitar neck where the music should be played.
Tab's weak point is that the notation doesn't tell you anything about rhythm. There is no indication as to how long each note should be played before playing the next note.
Now, the example above might sound like this: Tab Example
I stress might because, as I stated, tab notation does not define how long you should hold each note before playing the next. In order to provide this information, many authors go to the trouble of providing text along with the tab that is supposed to make the rhythm more clear. The problem with providing such aid is that in order to interpret the hints, you must already have a firm grasp of note values, time signatures and measures. This knowledge adds up to about 50% of what is required to read standard notation. So, it stands to reason that, in order to fully utilize tab, you need to understand how to read standard notation.
Standard notation is a fairly complex way of "writing" music. Just like playing guitar, it takes a lot of practice to learn to "read music", but my goal is not to try and give you a "complete education". Instead, my aim is to teach you "just enough to get by". The rest is up to you.
Just like tab, Standard notation has strong points and weak points. The strongest point is that standard notation shows you exactly what the music SOUNDS like (tab shows you where to play the notes only). The weakest point is probably a "toss up" between having to memorize a great many symbols and the fact that standard notation doesn't show you exactly "where to play the notes" (that's where tab comes in handy).
Let's take a look.
First, I want you to imagine a series of lines and spaces that represent all the possible notes that could ever be played. It might look something like this:
Now, imagine that, instead of showing all the lines at once, we were to take only five at a time. This is called a STAFF:
The first thing we need, is something to let us know which five lines of the original diagram we are looking at.
For this purpose, we have what is called the CLEF.
Here is what the three most commonly used clefs look like:
|Treble or G cleff|
|Tenor or C cleff|
|Bass or F cleff|
Let's insert the TREBLE CLEF:
TREBLE means high, so the treble clef is used to notate pitches in the high register. The treble clef is also called the G CLEF. This is because the line that the cleff curls around is used to denote the pitch G.
Now, let's take a look at the tenor and bass cleffs:
TENOR stands for middle, so the tenor clef is used to notate pitches in the middle range. The tenor clef is also called the C CLEF. The cleff's pointer is on the line that is used to denote C.
BASS means low, so the bass clef is used to notate pitches in the lowest register. The bass clef is also known as the F CLEF. The cleff's two dots are above and below the line used to denote the pitch F.
You won't run into the tenor clef very often (unless you want to read some cello music or trombone music), so we are going to concentrate on the treble and bass clefs.
Now, once a clef is in place, we can determine the rest of the pitches from there:
A staff with the bass cleff looks like this:
Notice, that in both cases, that the pitches go from low to high, in order, and start on the first or bottom line. Notice, also, that the spaces between the lines are also used.
The order of the pitches, from low to high, never changes, regardless of which cleff is used, but you will notice, that which particular pitches are on each line and space does change. Therefore, it is important that you commit the arrangements of the pitches, for each clef, to memory.
Now, look, again, at the treble staff, and notice that the lines, from low to high, are E G B D F. An easy way to remember this is to say, " Every Good Boy Does Fine."
If we do the same for the bass staff, we get G B D F A, or "Grizzly Bears Do Ferocious Acts.
So, what if we need notes that are higher or lower than our staff allows? We use what is called LEDGER LINES. Ledger lines can extend outside of our staff, as low or high as we need them to:
Remember, both the lines and the spaces between the lines are used, and the notes are always in order (F G A B etc... or E D C B etc...).
Also, keep in mind, that, unlike TAB, the lines of the staff do not represent the strings of the guitar. They represent pitches. It's up to you to find those pitches on your guitar.
Now, if we were to look at music somewhat geometrically, we could say that it contains vertical movement, as well as, horizontal movement. The vertical movement would be the pitches rising and falling. The horizontal movement would be how those pitches are aranged over time, or RHYTHM.
In order to notate rhythm, we need some frame of reference. For this, we have what is called a MEASURE. If we divide the length of our staff into two measures, it would look like this:
A measure is defined by a BAR LINE. Because of that, often times, musicians will refer to a measure as a bar, as in, "play me a 12-bar blues".
Now, think of a measure as a section of time. We can fill up our section of time any way we see fit. We can even leave it empty if we choose. However we decide to deal with our section of time, though, we need a way to mark this passage of time. There are three tools that help us do this:
TIME SIGNATURE - The time signature is a fraction that you will find at the begining of a piece of music. Some of the more commonly used time signatures include: 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, 12/8, 2/2 etc...
The top number tells us how many BEATS will be in each measure. (This is not the same BEAT as we discussed in the tuning section. This beat has to do with how many times you tap your foot, how many clicks of the metronome, how many times the conductor hits you over the head with his little white stick etc...) If the top number is 4, for example, it means that you must play everything within a single measure in the space of four beats.
The bottom number tells us which NOTE VALUE is equivalent to one whole beat. This will make more sense in a moment.
NOTE VALUES - Notes on the staff are represented by a group of predefined symbols, as follows:
Whole note Half note Quarter note Eighth note Sixteenth note
There are notes smaller than the sixteenth note pictured above. In fact, my notation software will draw notes as small as 1/128, but we'll just deal with these five, for now.
TEMPO - To put it simply, this is how fast you tap your foot.
Now, before we attempt to apply these three tools to our staff, I want you to take a moment and imagine that you have just won one of those contests, where you get to run through a department store, as fast as you can, and whatever you can grab is yours for free.
Usually, you have a set time limit to make your run through the store. Let's call that TEMPO. You also have to consider the size of your shopping cart (TIME SIGNATURE) and the size of the packages (NOTE VALUES), in order to determine how much looting you can get away with.
If you follow this analogy, it stands to reason that, depending on the size of your shopping cart (how many beats allowed in a measure vs. which note value is equal to one beat) and the amount of time you are given (more time = slower tempo, less time = faster tempo), you could fit a lot of candy bars (small note value), or a few small appliances (large note value) in your cart, but a refrigerator might be a waste of effort (note value is too large).
On the other hand, if you go for the candy bars, you might not be able to grab all those little suckers (note value too small) fast enough to walk away with more than enough to give you a belly ache, before your time is up (tempo too fast). Oh well, maybe they'll let you keep the cart (Ain't it impressive the way the new song that I wrote uses some bitchen time signatures?).
Okay, let's see if we can put this all together.
First, we'll insert a time signature:
If we use a different time signature, we change the size of the measure:
If it's not obvious, the note values work like this:
A whole note has the same time value as two half notes. ($1 is worth two 50 cent pieces)
A half note has the same time value as two quarter notes. (50 cents will buy you two quarters)
So on and so forth...
If we have a measure with a time signature of 4/4, we can fill that measure with four quarter notes (in 4/4, a quarter note gets one beat, and there are four beats per measure), one whole note (four quarters = $1), or any combination that is equal to four beats, relative to the time signature.
All that is required to understand time signatures and note values is simple math.
Think of an apple pie (whole note). If you were to cut it exactly down the middle, you would have two pieces that are the same size that, together, are equal to the whole pie (half notes). If you cut the two pieces in half, you would have four equal size pieces (quarter notes). You could keep cutting the pie into smaller and smaller pieces, until the pieces were are too small to cut anymore. But, if your mother told you that you had better not eat any of that pie she just baked, you would have to have all the pieces together to convince her that the whole pie was still there (you just hacked it into tiny pieces in the name of art).
It's the same with our measure. We have to put enough notes in it to fill up all the beats. It doesn't matter how big or small the pieces are. They just have to add up to a whole pie.
So, what do we do with something like 6/8? The formula is the same. We just have a different size of pie dish. 6/8 means that you have 6 beats in a measure and the 1/8 note is equal to one beat. So we could fill up our measure with six 1/8 notes, or three 1/4 notes, or one 1/2 note and two 1/8 notes etc... But, watch out for the refrigerator! A whole note is worth eight 1/8 notes. That means that it is too big to fit in a measure that will only hold six 1/8 notes, and nobody wants to get stuck hanging on to a refrigerator.
So what's the deal with all this note value and time signature stuff anyway? The note values tell us how long to keep a note ringing, after we play it, and the time signature defines what size of note values we can use to fill up our measure.
That sounds good "on paper", but what does it all mean in the "real world"?
Below is a measure in 4/4 time that is filled with quarter notes:
Just like TAB, Standard notation is read from left to right. If you see notes arranged horizontally, as in the example above, they are played in succession. If, however, the notes are stacked vertically, you would play them simultaneously (all notes that occure on the same part of the beat are played at the same time).
Now, each note must be played for it's full value (we'll deal with empty spaces later), which means that you have to let each note ring until you play the next.
I want you to play the above example. Here's how:
Start by tapping your foot at a nice comfortable TEMPO. Once you have a tempo established, begin to count your foot taps out loud. Count 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 etc... What you are doing is sectioning out your beat to match the top number of the time signature. Be sure to say the number at the same time as your foot is tapping, not before or after.
Now, recall that the lines of a treble clef staff are Every Good Boy Does Fine, bottom to top. That makes the note I have put on our staff an A note. For now, use the A note at the second fret of your G-string ( we'll figure out how to determine which A that space represents later).
While you tap your foot and count, play the A note one time each for 1 2 3 4. Be sure to let each note ring until you play the next and that you play each note right in time with your foot tapping and counting.
What you just played should sound like this.
You may have played it at a different tempo, but the quality and eveness of the notes is what are important.
Let's try some different note values:
Remember that a half note is equal in time to two quarter notes, so you have to hold each one out for two full counts. In other words, you play the first note when you count one and let it continue to ring all the way through until you play the next note, on the third beat. This second note has to ring until you count through the forth beat, and ends when you get to one again. If we were to put a whole note on the staff, you would have only one note (whole note = four quarter notes) that you would play on the first beat and let it ring for all four counts.
Before we take a look at how to play notes smaller than the quarter, we need to have a quick note-anatomy lesson.
Below is a diagram of the eighth note:
And here's our note value chart, again:
The whole note is nothing more than the note head itself and is not filled in. (some people refer to these as footballs) The half note has an unfilled note head, like the whole note, but it has a stem. The quarter note looks just like the half note, except the note head is filled in.
Now, the distinguishing characteristic of notes that are smaller than a quarter, is the flag. Each flag divides a note value in half. So, one flag gives us an eighth note, two flags gives us a sixteenth note, three flags would be a thirty-second note, four flags a sixty-fourth note etc...
Let's look at some eighth notes on our staff:
Now, in lesson one (opens in new window), I had you practice your picking hand to a metronome. You started by playing one note on every beat. Those are quarter notes. Then I had you switch to playing two notes, evenly-spaced, for every beat. Those are eighth notes. I, then, had you play four evenly-spaced notes per beat. Those are sixteenth notes.
When several notes, smaller than a quarter, are written in succession, an interesting change takes place. Instead of having to draw all of those flags, someone came up with a handy shortcut, the BEAM. The above example would actually be written like this:
The first example is beamed to match the beat, and is more correct. The second example has never made any sense to me, but it is widely used (guess people who write music are lazy too).
The important thing to know is, beams are exactly like flags. One beam is used for eighth notes, two for sixteenth notes, three for thirty-second notes etc...
Let's look at an example of eighths, sixteenths, and thirty-seconds:
Here's the above example, played twice, on the piano, with a metronome to keep the beat.
So, what about sharp and flat notes? How do we notate those?
The lines and spaces of the staff do not account for sharps and flats. For that, we have to re-introduce three symbols:
You will find these three symbols used two different ways.
The first way is called the KEY SIGNATURE (usally refered to as simply KEY).
Let's take a look:
or, with flats:
The key signature works like this. Whichever line or space the symbol is on, that note will be sharped or flatted, every time you play it, for the entire piece of music.
Let's look at a more simple key signature:
In the key signature, we find a # sign on the top line of the staff. That line represents the pitch F (remember, Every Good Boy Does Fine). So, the key signature is telling us that every F in this piece of music will be an F#. That goes for, not only, any notes on the same line, but, also, for any other F in any other octave. They will all be played F#.
All four of the notes in the above diagram are F#. (You have to count the lines and spaces from any note that you know. We know that the first note is F, so if we count lines and spaces up to the second note, we get F G A B C D E F. The third note is on the space between the E line and the G line. You shouldn't have any trouble figuring that one out! If we count from the bottom line of the staff to the fourth note, we get E D C B A G F.) If we were to add more ledger lines for higher F's and lower F's, they would be sharp also.
If we add more sharps to the key signature, then those notes would be sharp as well. It works the same if we were to use flats.
The second way that these symbols are used is as ACCIDENTALS. Accidentals are used as a way to temporarily change the key signature.
Suppose we were to play one measure of notes with a certain key signature:
The notes in order are G A B C D E F# G. (Make sure you understand this, because I will stop cueing you after this lesson.)
Now, let's say that, in the second measure, we want to play F instead of F#. We would add a natural sign as an accidental:
The natural sign in the second measure cancels out the sharp sign in the key signature. So, in the second measure, we would play A B A G F E D C.
A couple of points about accidentals are in order:
Accidentals only affect the line or space they are written on. If we were to play any other F, higher or lower, we would play F#.
Accidentals only affect a measure from the note they are written next to until the end of that measure. In other words, if we had any F's in our second measure, but they were before the accidental, those notes would still be F#. Only notes after the accidental are affected. If we have any F's in the third measure, they will also be F#. If we want to alter the F# in the third measure, we have to put in another accidental.
Accidentals can be applied to any note in any octave. In other words, we could have put a # sign on the C or a b sign on the A etc... The only reason that I used a natural on the F, was to show you how an accidental cancels out that line or space of the key signature.
There is no insurance policy that I know of that covers the use of accidentals in standard notation. You will have to pay for the damage yourself. (I suppose you could try Lloyd's of London. They seem to be willing to insure just about anything.)
You now have enough information to try a couple of exercises.
Below, is a short little melody using notes of the C major scale:
Here's what it sounds like, but try to play it before you listen: Exercise One
It's not the most exciting melody that one could hope for, but that's not the point. You have to start simple. I had the luxury of learning to play the trumpet during grade school. At the time, you had to learn to read music from the very start. Now, the trumpet isn't as easy as the guitar to play, so nice and simple music was welcome. What I'm getting at is this. There is no "fun" or "exciting" way to learn to read music. The fun starts once you can do it.
Now, instead of giving you page upon page of boring exercises, I'm hoping that a combination of your own motivation and enough exposure through these lessons will suffice.
It's important that you investigate as much written music as possible. Any music store will usually carry sheet music and piano books, and any grocery store usually carries a few guitar magazines. You should be looking for the things that we cover, like key signature, time signature, note values, pitches etc...
Be sure and review the points on the use of accidentals. (For example, how would you play the 5th note in measure 3?)
Now, don't just follow the TAB in these exercises. Take a good look at the standard notation and try to understand the points we have covered.
By the way, here's what the second one sounds like: Exercise Two