Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lesson 1: The most basic of basics

      I'm going to start this off with a quick note(ba-dum tschhhh):  I have not taught music at the absolute beginner level like this post is, and I cannot remember a time before I knew it.  Therefore, I may miss mentioning some things that are now natural for me to do or think about, and this will probably be my weakest explanatory post.  Hopefully I'll cover everything, however if you have any questions about anything I cover, please feel free to leave a comment with it and I'll do my best to answer any and all questions.  For that matter, the question thing will go for all the blog. 

     If I don't get this post out of the way now, I'm never going to remember to talk about a lot of these things, and there's a good chance there will be a lot of very confused people later on when I try to build on these concepts.  Many of you will already know all of this, but it's probably a good idea to make sure everyone's on the same page.

     So music.  Chords and shit.  And notes maybe.  Awesome.  What are those?  Why is there a squiggly line at the beginning of the lines?  And why are there fractions?  No one said anything about math.


This is a staff.  5 lines.  4 spaces.(I realize with this color it looks like only 3 lines... do a right click-> view image and you'll see it's 5)  It's been that way for somewhere around the last half-century, and 90% of notation will be on a staff.  But the staff is only the most base part.  It's like a sheet of graph paper for graphs.  Without any sort of axis it doesn't really mean anything, since while we'd know the relationship between notes on the staff, we wouldn't know any specifics.  So we need clefs!



Oh look, those images already have the notes for each staff written in.  How convenient.  So yeah, those little squiggles are the clefs.  Basically, they give you the baseline for where at least one pitch is, and that allows us to figure out where every pitch is.  The top one is called the "Treble" clef, and the bottom is the "Bass" clef.  On the treble clef, that little circle around the diagonal line(The second line from the bottom) is a G.  On the bass clef, the two dots to the right of the main clef part are on either side of F(The 4th line from the top).  Each one of those notes written after the staff are in one-step increments.  So the space above the G line in the treble clef is an A, the line above that is B, next space C.... you get the idea.  Another way people think about it is this:

Treble Clef

Spaces: F A C E

Lines: E G B D F

Bass Clef

Spaces: A C E G

Lines: G B D F A

There are a lot of acronyms to learn these.  Those are for pussies.  LEARN IT, LOSER!

Ok, we've got to touch on one thing here too.  I'll be using note names when talking about notes in absolute fashion, as opposed to solfege.  I'll cover solfege to notes at the end, because if this is a complete beginning then it'll just be confusing.  Also, if you're interested in solfege I'll cover a little of that in a later post.  Some things solfege is really useful for.  I'll cover it more during the ear training stuff, because that's where it's best for.

Anyways, that doesn't give us many notes does it?  I mean, that's like 9 notes per staff, right?  So, welp, guess we need to write all music in slightly over an octave(The fuck is an octave?  We'll get to that).  So we need a way to go beyond the staff

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     So these notes go outside of the staff.  Once you are more than one step outside of the staff, you need to draw a smaller staff line(Or a few smaller staff lines) to give us some sort of reference points for just how far outside the staff we are.  Having all of these all the time would be really confusing.  The same basic rules apply for these, just pretend they're permanent lines.  So the first space above the treble clef staff is G, the first line is A, the space above the temporary line is B, etc.  These are called "Ledger lines".  Now we can also give another reference point for staffs to tell us which octave we're in.  Middle C, which on a piano is pretty much the C in the middle of the piano, is the first ledger line below the treble clef, and above the bass clef.

     There are other clefs, specifically all forms of "Movable C" clefs(Alto, Tenor are the most common).  We'll get to those a little later, but they're pretty rare unless you play Viola, Cello, or Bassoon.

     Ok, so that gives us note relations in terms of where they are, how about how long they are?

Note values

The wide open one without any sort of stick(referred to as "Stems") are Whole notes(Upper left).  In 4/4 time(I'll get to that), they get 4 "beats", and take up a whole measure.  The open circles with stems are Half notes(Lower left).  They're half as long as whole notes.  The closed ones are Quarter notes(Upper right).  Who can tell me how long they are in relation to whole notes?  The one with a little flag on its end is an eighth note(Lower right).  The one with 2 flags is a sixteenth note(Middle far right).  With any of these, if they have a dot after them, they add half their value to the end.  So a dotted half note is 3 beats in 4/4.  A dotted quarter is one and a half beats in 4/4.

     Ok, we've covered what notes are what in the staff, and how long they are.  I've been referring to "4/4" time, what the hell is that shit?

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4/4  Were you to speak it it would be "Four-four".  But they look like fractions there kind of right?  That's exactly what they are!  So that means... "One", right?  Well not really.  The top number is the number of beats per measure, and the bottom note is what note gets the beat.  So in 4/4 there are 4 beats per measure, and the 1/4 note gets the beat.  So a whole note takes 4 beats and takes the full measure.  A dotted half gets three and takes 3 quarters of the measure.  A half note takes up half the measure and gets 2 beats.  Etc, etc, etc.  In 3/4, a whole note wouldn't fit in the measure.  A dotted half takes up the whole measure, taking 3 beats.  Which is how many are in the measure.

Now, if you're confused about what a "measure" is, a measure is an organizational tool.  So in 4/4, every chunk of 4 beats is a "measure"  On the staff, a vertical line is drawn between measures.  Basically, they allow you to tell where you are in small chunks of time, and make music readable.  Also, in a lot of tonal stuff, gives a strong beat, for instance, 1 and 3 in 4/4 are strong.  1 is strong in 3.  Stuff like that.

For simple examples of this, a simple 4/4 piece would be something like, since I'm watching Scrubs while writing this, the Scrubs theme song.  You can count along with this "ONE two three four ONE two three four" pretty easily.

And a nice 3/4 piece would be, well, any Waltz.  To use an example I'm sure many of us are familiar with, Waltz for the moon, from Final Fantasy VIII.  Here you can clearly hear the "ONE two three ONE two three" sound.

Some time signatures are a little different though.  6/8 is a common one, that has six beats per measure, but instead of the quarter note getting the beat, the eighth note does.  So a dotted half note, which is 3 quarter notes, or 6 eighth notes still would take up the whole measure.  6/8 is also a fun time signature because it's a "Compound meter", as opposed to a "Simple meter" like 4/4.  6/8 is normally felt in 2 beats, each one three eighth notes.  Technically, when 6/8 is thought of in 2, the "beats" are referred to as "Meta-beats".  No one ever says this unless they need to be super incredibly clear.

The easiest way to understand this is listening to "America", from West Side story.  You can clearly hear how the strong beats shift from "ONE two three FOUR five six" to "ONE two THREE four FIVE six"  So we would count the 6/8 part as "ONE two three FOUR five six" with the feeling in 2, and the 3/4 part as "ONE and TWO and THREE and".  

Speaking of which, we should deal with how to count things, since I just talked about that like it was a given.  Basically, you count the beats as numbers.  So on beat one, you say "One".  Beat two is two.  Three is three, four is four.  Awesome.   Note the "and" for America up there though.  When counting notes shorter than the beats, we need a way to keep the beats separate from the faster notes.  So we tend to use "and" to do eighth notes, so "One and two and", as well as "y"(pronounced "eee") and "a"(pronounced "uh") for sixteenths/triple notes.  So another way to count the 6/8, just keeping the meta beats in mind, would be "ONE and a TWO and a"  And if we had sixteenths in 2/4(Two quarter notes per measure) we would count "One-y-and-a Two-y-and-a" Also, sometimes you'll hear someone say "The and of two" or something similar to talk about a notes rhythmic position.  What that would mean is that the note happens when you would say "and" after "two"  So it would be "one and two AND"

I know that's all a little confusing on paper 'till it clicks, but it does all make sense in the end.  One good tool for playing around with this is something like http://advanced.bestmetronome.com/ where you can see it has preset for 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 with a different sound on beat one, so that you can hear the differences.

Now one final subject for today is chromatic modifiers.  What we've been looking at so far has been only the white notes on a piano, the notes that are in what is known as "Natural" position.  We would also call this the "Diatonic" form, in C major.  What that means is that the relations between the notes are unaltered by what are known as "Accidentals".  What accidentals are is they are chromatic modifiers, or modifiers of only a half step(The same distance between E and F.  Roughly a frequency ratio of 16:15.  Also, a single fret on guitar), also known as a semitone.

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These are the three types of accidentals.  The first is a "Sharp", which raises the pitch by one half step, the second a "Flat", which lowers the pitch by one half step, and the third a "Natural", which restores a pitch to its natural position(Some of you may note that there are also double sharps and double flats.  We'll get into those... quite some time in the future).  Essentially, if you see a C#(when written in notation, the accidental is written before the note, but when speaking or writing chord symbols, the accidental is after the note.  So we would say "C Sharp" instead of "Sharp C"(There are times when "Sharp C" is appropriate, but that's a whole grammar thing we don't need to get into)), then you take what a C and make it one half step higher.  On a piano, for instance, you would go to the black note right above the C.  On a guitar, you would go one fret higher.  Also, accidentals last to the end of the measure.  Once you see a "Bar line"(The line denotating the end of the measure), the accidental no longer is in effect.

In different keys though, writing every modified note would be a giant pain.  So we have what are known as "Key signatures", which we can put at the beginning of a piece or a section to basically say, for instance, in the key of G, that every F will be an F#

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Here's an example.  This is A Major, and we can figure out what notes are sharp, because the accidentals are over where the note would be.  So that first sharp sign is right on the top line of the treble clef staff, so it's an F.  Then we also have a C and a G sharp.  So until we see another key signature or the piece is over, every time we see a C, it's a C#.

Now there's a big chart I have here, that has every key signature and what key it is.

Circle of Fifths.

holy crap.  That's a lot of fucking stuff.  Again, do a "view image" to see the whole thing.  If you want to practice reading key signatures though, that's a good thing to look at.  Try to figure out which notes in which key are changed.

Next lesson when dealing with pitch relations I'll talk more about exactly what makes a Key a key, and how to figure out what key you're in from the key signature.  But for now, just know that if you see accidentals at the beginning of a piece right before the first measure, it's the key signature, and it means alllll the notes are changed in the way the signature says.

Anyways, that's the very bare bones of reading music.  I'll be going pretty fast with this sort of stuff from now on, so if you were sketchy on any of this stuff, hopefully this helped clear it up.  Next article I'll write will be on simple note relations.

And as a P.S. I'll touch on solfege to notes.  If you were using "Fixed do" solfege, that is to say, the first ledger line below the treble clef is Do regardless of what key you're in, then this is pretty easy, basically you're just learning new names.  Do is C, Re is D, Mi is E, Fa is F, Sol is G, La is A, Si(or Ti) is B.  If you've learned movable Do solfege, or solfege where whatever key you're in, the tonic note, or the first scale degree, is Do, then basically you can just follow along and keep solfege as a completely different thing, because solfege is then just a measure of relations, while this is a measure of absolutes.

so again, any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to clear it up, and I'll see you all again next post.


  1. Fuzz here.

    I haven't played many 6/8 songs in my time, or payed attention while listening to the few on my iPod, so every time I get into it I have to relearn the feel of it. I had a bit of trouble detecting it in the linked video.

    I watched this one instead:


    I think the simpler music + the dancing helped me get that feeling of 6/8 much faster, so if anyone had a little trouble getting it, I'd recommend watching this video.

    Plus, West Side Story, so you should watch it anyway.

    Great posts Khavall, looking forward to the next one.

  2. F is the fourth line from the bottom, not from the top (bass clef)