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Musical notation


Musical notation is used to describe the basic characteristics of musical sound. It helps us to write down our musical thoughts. The notation was formed many centuries ago when there were no other formats for storing sound information so its main concepts are readability and playability.

Two main characteristics of musical sound are the frequency and the duration of a musical note. We can recognize the frequency of a note by its place on five primary lines of the staff and its additional ledgers, by one of the possible clef signs at the beginning of the staff, by one of the key signatures and by accidental signs. We can recognize the duration of a musical note by the sort of its notehead, stem, and flags, by one of the time signatures and by tempo markings.

Also, musical notation describes the loudness (dynamics) of sound, articulations, and ornamentation: Trills, Pralls, Mordents.

Besides, some symbols are used in musical analysis: Roman numerals which indicate different scale degrees and chords built on them figured bass that shows chords inversions, etc.

Staff and barline

All marks of musical notation are recorded on the staff. The staff consists of five horizontal lines with spaces between them. We can also add ledger lines. The staff is divided into parts by several types of barlines. The standard barline divides the staff into measures. The double barline divides the staff into two sections of composition. The bold double barline with two dots marks a section that has to be repeated. The bold double barline closes composition.



The frequency is the most important characteristic of musical sound. It determines the "highness" or "lowness" of the sound. Because of the difference between frequencies, we can write melodies, chords, and entire compositions. Instead of numbers in musical notation the frequency is defined by the placement of musical notes on the staff.

The clef symbol is placed at the beginning of the staff. It is used to define the position of notes placed on the staff. There are several types of clefs: the treble clef, the C-clef and the bass clef. The treble clef or so-called G-clef starts on the second line of the staff. It is used for high instruments and high voices (soprano). The range of the treble clef goes from E4 on the first line to F5 on the fifth line. The C-clef lies on the third line (alto) or the fourth line (tenor). It is used for regular voices. The range of the alto clef goes from F3 to G4 on the fifth line. And the range of the tenor clef goes from D3 to E4 on the fifth line. The bass clef or so-called F-clef starts on the fourth line. It is used for low instruments and low voices (bass). The range of the bass clef goes from G2 to A3 on the fifth line. When the treble clef and the bass clef are joined by a brace, they form the grand staff. It is used for keyboard instruments. The range of the grand staff goes from G2 to F5. Of course, you shouldn't forget about ledgers which extend the staff.

Accidental symbols are another type of modifier of frequency. Accidentals affect all same notes in a measure. There are several types of accidentals. A sharp raises the note by one semitone while a flat lowers it by one semitone. A natural cancels other accidentals. A double sharp raises the note by two semitones and a double flat lowers it by two semitones.


However, C-clefs are also used in instrumental music their main purpose is for vocal parts of alto and tenor voices. For example, we can find a lot of them in Palestrina's chorals, madrigals, canons, and other contrapuntal works. Nowadays composers usually use the treble clef and the bass clef. So if we want to transcribe a piece of music which is originally in some C-clef for modern arrangement we need to compare it with the treble or the bass clef.

When soprano and alto voices are placed on the same staff the soprano part takes up-stem notes and the alto part takes down-stem notes. When tenor and bass voices are placed on the same staff the tenor part takes up-stem notes and the bass part takes down-stem notes.


Key signature

In the diatonic system, there are two basic scales: the major scale and the minor scale. Those scales can be built with every note using particular rules - a system of intervals. Therefore, some notes will be raised or lowered with accidentals. A key is a set of accidentals that belong to a specific major scale or its relative minor.

The key signature appears at the beginning of the staff after the clef. If there is no key signature, the key of composition is C major or in its relative A minor. If we move our tonic from C by a perfect fifth, each new key signature will have one new sharp - C: no accidentals; G: one sharp; D: two sharps; A: three sharps and so on. But if we move our tonic by a perfect fourth, each new key signature will have one new flat - C: no accidentals; F: one flat; B (flat): two flats; E (flat): three flats, etc.



The duration of a note is marked by the following symbols: noteheads, stems, flags. Duration types are whole note, half note, fourth, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth note. The duration of rest corresponds to a particular note value.

Additionally, there are modifiers of duration. The dot placed on the right of a notehead adds half to the duration of the note and it is called a dotted note. In triplets durations of notes are reduced to 2/3 of their original duration. The tie joins the durations of two connected notes into one.


Time signature

The time signature is placed after the key signature. It defines the schematic number of notes with a particular duration in a measure. This is called a meter. There are two main types of meter: a simple meter and a compound meter. The simple meter can be duple (2/2, 2/4, 2/8), a triple meter (3/2, 3/4, 3/8) or a quadruple meter (4/2, 4/4, 4/8). 4/4 is also called the common meter. You can get the compound meter by multiplication by three: a compound duple (6/2, 6/4, 6/8), a compound triple (9/4, 9/8) and compound quadruple meter (12/4, 12/8, 12/16).



The tempo is marked above the staff. It represents the speed of a composition or a specific part of it.

The precise tempo indicates how many notes of the particular duration must be played per minute. For example, when the tempo equals to 120 bpm, the duration of a fourth note will be half a second.

The relative tempo indicates a range of notes number that must be played per minute and is marked by words such as largo, adagio, andante, moderato, allegro, presto, prestissimo, etc.

TempoTime signature
2000.00 ms3000.00 ms1333.33 ms
2.00 sec


Musical ornaments are melodic figures that serve to enrich rhythm, harmony, and melody of musical composition. They bring enhancement and fullness to the sound.

The Trill ornament is a quick prolonged repetition of two notes (the neighbor note and the main) which lie one or two semitones (i.e. whole tone) apart. Sometimes it can be started with a dissonant tone above the main note so it will be resolved at the next step. And, of course, the Trill can be started with the main note.

The Prall ornament represents an alteration between the main note and the neighbor note one or two semitones above it with the concluding return to the main note. There are a lot of variations of the Prall: Prall Prall, Up Prall, Down Prall, Prall Up, Prall Down.

The Mordent ornament is an alteration between the main note and the neighbor note one or two semitones below it with the concluding return to the main note. There are several types of the Mordent: Prall Mordent, Up Mordent, Down Mordent.