Music notation is the symbol used in written music. Music notation, or music notes, lets players know which letter to play and how long to play it. Remembering your music or having other musicians play it is also essential.

There are other ways of writing down music. Rhythm notation is used for drums and percussion instruments, while bass and guitar players can read guitar tablature – also known as ‘tabs’ – instead of standard Music Notation. But today, we will look at Western notation, where notes are written on the staff.

Origins of musical notation

Music has been a feature of most cultures for thousands of years, but the earliest examples of written music using musical notation were written around 1400 BC in modern-day Iraq. Although the note was much different from the sheet music we’re used to seeing today, it shows that humans have always been interested in finding ways to represent and preserve music by writing it down.

However, it was in the 11th century that staves with multiple lines were introduced. Guido D’Arezzo, an Italian music theorist, was the first to submit a standard form for all notes and a four-line team with more lines added in the 12th and 13th centuries. Finally, thanks to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, sheet music was more widely available and allowed more people to learn to read music.

What is the staff in music notation?

Music notation is written on sets of five lines known as the staff (pl. staves). It can be understood like a graph, with information on the horizontal and vertical axes. The horizontal axis tells us about rhythm: how long notes are played for and when. The vertical axis tells us about what pitch the notes we play are. Letters are placed higher and lower on the staff, with specific line spaces indicating the angle. Sometimes messages go higher or lower than the staff. In these cases, ledger lines can be added.

What are staff notations?

The staff itself gets divided up with vertical lines. These can mean different things, as you can see below:

What are clefs in music notation?

The clef appears on the staff at the beginning of a line of music to tell you what pitch the proceeding notes are. The meaning of notes in the lines and spaces (mentioned above) depends on the clef. So, a note on the first line in the treble clef is E, but in the bass clef, a note on the first line on the staff is G.

The picture on the right shows the treble clef, and the image on the left shows the bass clef.

What are the names of the musical notes?

Children will need to learn to recognize the different types of musical notes to read musical notes. In English-speaking countries, the messages are named with letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. They have no particular start or end – there isn’t a ‘first’ note – but they are always in that order.

Children usually learn to read music notes by learning mnemonics. These go from the bottom of the staff to the top.

  • Treble clef lines: Every Green Bus Drives Fast — the notes are E, G, B, D, and F.
  • Treble clef spaces: The notes in the triple clef spaces spell FACE – remember ‘FACE in the space.’
  • Bass clef lines: GreatBigDogsFightAliens. The notes are G, B, D, F, and A.
  • Bass clef spaces: All Cows Eat Grass. The notes are A, C, E, and G.

What are accidentals in musical notation?

Each note can also be ‘sharp’ or ‘flat.’ These are in between the notes named above. To sharpen a note is to play it one semitone higher, and to flatten a note is to play it one lower. This means that the same note can be referred to in different ways. For example, ‘C♭’ is a B because B is the note of a semitone below C, and C can be referred to as ‘B♯’ because it is one semitone higher than B naturally (♮).
The ‘natural’ symbol (♮) means that the note is played without being sharp or flat. You will see the natural symbol if a message was marked dull or sharp earlier in the bar and needs to be ‘reset’; or if the note appears as part of the key signature. These symbols are all known as ‘accidentals.’

What are key signatures in musical notation?

Key signatures appear at the beginning of a line of music before the time signature. There will be several sharps, flats, or none in this space. The sharps or apartments will be on different lines and areas of the staff – just like musical notes – and will tell us that these notes are to be played sharp or flat (depending on the symbols in the key signature). This will apply throughout the piece of music unless there is an accidental on the staff by a particular note or a new key signature is indicated.

How duration is shown in musical notation

What are the different types of musical notes?

Each musical note is worth an amount of time in the music, measured in beats or fractions of beats. Together, they make a rhythm.

Each musical note also has its symbol. These are:


The semibreve is worth four beats and is written as an oval-shaped zero. The oval-shaped part of this musical notation symbol is called the note head.


Minims are worth two beats. This musical notation’s symbol is like a semibreve with a line (stem) from the right-hand side.


The crotchet is worth one beat. To draw one, do the same as you would for a minim but with the note head filled in.


Quavers are worth half a beat. It’s written like a crochet but with a tail coming out the side of the stem. Sometimes quavers are ‘beamed’ together. These are shown with their tails joined across the top.


Semiquavers are worth a quarter of a beat. This is written just like a quaver but with two tails coming out of the stem. Just like quavers, semiquavers can be beamed together. Semiquavers and quavers can also be beamed together.

What are the different types of musical rests?

Rests are just like notes in that they indicate how long something happens, but rests indicate a moment of silence in the rhythm or melody.

Time signatures

Time signatures refer to the number and types of notes in each music bar. A specific number of music notes are allowed in each bar. The time signature determines the number of letters allowed in the bar.

Time signatures are composed of two numbers: a top number and a bottom number. We can have 2/4 time, 4/4 time, and 3/8 time, to name a few.

The top number tells us how many beats are in a bar. The bottom number tells us the type of beat. For example, ‘2’ means a minim beat because a minim is half of a semibreve, ‘4’ implies a crotchet beat because it is a quarter of a semibreve, and ‘8’ means a quaver beat.

Take the 2/4 time signature as an example. The ‘2’ on the top means two beats in a bar. The ‘4’ means that we have a crotchet beat. So in 2/4 time, you have two crotchet beats in a bar.

Other music notation

Many other musical notations can appear in written music, but you don’t need to know these to get started with reading and understanding musical notation. For the curious, these can include:

Staccato is indicated with a dot above or below a note. It means to play the marked notes in a spiky, detached way. On the piano, this is done with a bouncy, jabbing movement.

Slurs show that the phrase should be played smoothly and as one ‘sentence’.

Ties are marked with the same line as a slur but mean something different. For example, an offense will cover a group of other notes, but a tie will appear above or below two of the same note. This means that the note is held for the duration of the total value. e.g., a tied crotchet and minim would be held for three beats.

Ermata means that the marked note is held for longer than usual. But how long for? That is up to the musician and the conductor in larger ensemble pieces. The answer is that it is held for as long as the musicians feel it is necessary for the emotional resonance of the note. Rests can also be marked with a fermata.

Ornaments in music are the same as any other type of ornament – they decorate the piece but aren’t necessary to complete the main melody and aren’t an essential part of the rhythm. They include trills, upper and lower mordents, and grace notes like acciaccatura and appoggiatura.

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