Teach Yourself Music Theory – 1.) Reading a Score

One of the most debated parts of music is the use of Western notation as well as the need to understand it. Even though this is the most common form of writing down music, most famous musicians tend not to know how to “read” it. Thus, it has come up for query as for the necessity to learn how to use this form of notation, as it doesn’t appear to have direct affect on success commercially or communication-wise. While the need may be up for question, excuses are certainly not. There is nothing standing in your way from learning how to read music and use it to compose, but yourself. Think of this as a language opportunity; and the more languages you know, the better you are when communicating your ideas to other musicians. It would be a shame for you to work hard to get into a recording studio, only to not be able to tell the players what you want in sound. So let’s start with the fundamentals:

When looking at a score, or the physical musical notation for a piece of music, you will see a bunch of dots and lines. Each dot symbolizes a pitch, which is a particular tone that you hear. In this common practice of Western notation, the pitches are grouped into musical tone letter names of – A B C D E F G… repeating back to A and continuing on to infinity!

Take a look at a keyboard. All the white keys on the piano match the letter names mentioned above. You’ll also see that the groupings of white keys around the black keys are always 3-4-3-4… with the group of 3 being C D E and the group of 4 being F G A B constantly repeating. And now it is time to introduce our friend: middle C. Middle C is also called C4 because it is the fourth C (counting from the left) on a keyboard. This will serve as a placeholder in many situations, as seen coming up next.

Now, these pitches are organized on a staff consisting of five lines and four spaces. The higher the pitch/dot is placed on the staff, the higher it sounds to the ear when you play it. And the opposite is true as well: the lower the pitch on the staff equals how low it will sound acoustically. So, now you might be wondering as to which line or space represents what pitch letter name – and the answer to that question is that it all depends of the clef. A clef is a symbol found to the far left end of any staff that tells the pitch representation.

First one is the treble clef, or otherwise known as the “g-clef.” It has that name from looking like a cursive “G” and having the swirl wrap around the line where G will be. Notice where C4 is in relation to this clef. Typically, treble clefs are used for high voices. So how about the low sounds? For that, we have the bass clef, also known as the “f-clef.” Once again getting its name from its shape, the two dots of the clef hug the line where F will be. Last, but not least, is the “movable” c-clef. The shape of this clef looks like two backwards “C”s connecting to each other in the middle – and the line on which they touch tells us where middle C is. Easy to remember. Reason why it is called a movable clef is because the clef can be on any line! If it was on the first line at the bottom, it would be a soprano clef; second line above, a mezzo-soprano clef; third middle line, alto clef; fourth line, tenor clef, and fifth top line, baritone clef. Alto clef, however, is by far the most commonly used.

One last final clef is the choral tenor clef, which looks like a treble clef, but with an “8” at the bottom of the tail. This tells us that the music sounds to our ear an octave, or eight letter names, lower than how it is visually written.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.

Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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