Found Files - Sheet Music



Understanding the Basics of Pitches 


For all of the previous lessons we have focused on reading the rhythms of music, but as you know, music is also about pitch. Sometimes a note is high, and sometimes it is low.


One comment as an aside: some people are said to be tone deaf-- in other words, they can't seem to sing a melody, observing the difference between high notes and low notes. As far as I'm aware, these people don't have difficulty recognizing melodies when they are played for them, so this is most often a case of poor listening, rather than an inability to perceive the tonal differences.








So to start to understand reading music, let's go back to our staff lines, as demonstrated above. You'll notice that there are many places to put notes: they can be stuck on a line, or they can be squeezed between two lines in the 'space.' You could think of it as a kind of ladder with super long rungs. The notes which have climbed to the top of the ladder are "higher" in pitch than the notes which are down at the bottom of the ladder.


Remeber our study of "Jingle Bells?" Here's the version we used earlier for exercise on reading notation rhythms:


[staff of jingle bells]


Every note is on the same line here, (to demonstrate only the beat of the song). But this is how we sing this song:


[staff of new jingle bells]


This one has the same rhythm, but the notes move up and down on the staff lines for the last phrase, "Jin-gle all the way"


The "gle" is higher than the "jin" before it and the "all" is lower than both of these notes. "The" is up one step from the "all" and the "way" is back on the original note we started with.


Many people who claim to read music have just learned that notes which are far apart on the clef are also a lot higher or lower from each other... they make guestimates as to what note to sing based on how far it is from the previous note. This system works fine if you're standing next to a strong singer, but if you want to learn to read on your own, you'll need to study the scales in more detail.


Scales? We're not talking about fish, and we're not talking about systems of measuring weights. A scale is the term we give to a group of notes which follow each other sequentially.


For example: Doh Re Me Fah So La Tee Doh


We've all heard this scale before (The Sound Of Music, right?), but many of us may not understand it's purpose. It was developed to be a universal scale which can be used in any key. Melodies can be described to people based on this scale, like this:


Me Me Me, Me Me Me, Me So Doh Re, Me


This is, of course, the Jingle Bells melody in the form of the Doh Re Me scale. (We'll get into keys later, so don't worry about that now.)


I prefer to think of pitches using numbers... it's just more concrete for me than "doh and re." Here's a chart that shows the Doh Re Me scale in numbers instead:


Doh Re Me Fah So La Tee Doh

1   2  3  4   5  6  7   8


Using numbers, I would represent Jingle Bells this way:


3 3 3, 3 3 3, 3 5 1 2, 3


The final, and most common way of representing the notes for Jingle Bells would be as actual named notes:


E E E, E E E, E G C D, E


The named notes are a way of telling a singer or instrumentalist exactly where to start the song, so that everyone plays it in the same key. (Again, we'll get to keys later).


Let's look at the names of notes on this standard staff:


[picture of treble clef on staff, with names of notes written on the lines]


Each line or space has it's own name in the above example. If I see a note on the top line, I'll know to play that note, an 'F' on my instrument.


Here's a piano representation of notes, and how these notes are shown on a staff.


Note that a piano has 88 notes, but our staff line has only 5 lines. Counting the spaces above, below, and between the lines, we are only able to represent eleven notes on this staff! What now?


This is where clefs come in. When you are comfortable with these notes, read on to find out more about how clefs solve the many note problem.



Clefs And Staves with Five Lines Only


Some instruments play really low notes (like a Tuba, for example), and some instruments play really high notes (like a picolo). A piano can play a very broad range of notes! So how to we represent this gigantic range on a staff line?


There are two common ways to show notes that extend beyond the 'ladder' or the staff lines. 


1. Ledger lines

2. A New Clef 


Ledger Lines


A Ledger line is the name we give to little extensions of the lines above and below a clef. With the common treble clef, the top line is an F, and so the space above it is a G. But what about one more line above the G? How would we represent that? Simple! We just extend the ladder for that note... like this:


[a picture of high a on a clef]


The same is true for lower notes. On the treble clef, the bottom line is an E. Therefore the space below it is a D-- one note down. So how do we represent the C below the D? Easy! We simply extend the ladder of notes by drawing a short line and putting the note on that line. Here's what a middle C on the treble clef looks like:


[ a picture of middle c on a g clef]


Now what if I played tuba, and all my notes were down really low-- a treble clef with lots of ledger lines would be really hard to read. Here's an example of what a tuba's part might look like if written on the treble clef:


[ a picture of a g clef with many low ledger lines ]


A New Clef


So far we have only described notes on a standard treble clef, otherwise known as a G clef. What's a G clef? Well, first, study this picture:


[a picture of a G clef where the clef looks like a G]


Now compare it to this bass staff (officially known as an F clef):


[a picture of a bass clef where it lools like an F]


If we think of clefs as ladders of notes, then the various ladders have different starting points. The instruments which play down low would prefer that most of their notes are not in ledger lines, since many ledger lines get hard to read. So we move the starting point of the clef to a more appropriate place:


[ the same notes above for a tuba, but on the bass clef ]


Here are two lesser known clefs, a tenor clef and an alto clef, called C clefs:


[ a picture of C clefs ]


A piano plays a wide range of notes, so we can notate this by joining a treble clef and a bass clef together with lines. This is also done for vocal parts, string ensembles, and other groups of instruments. When notes are to be played at the same time, they are piled up together.


[ apicture of treble and bass clef for piano, with some chords ]






An interval is the distance between any two notes. If the space between the two notes is the same, for example, if three spaces are between the two notes, or four spaces between the two notes, then this interval will sound the same.


Here are the most widely used intervals:


major second [picture of notes]

minor third  [picture of notes]

major third [picture of notes]

perfect fourth [picture of notes]

perfect fifth [picture of notes]

major sixth [picture of notes]

minor seventh [picture of notes]

major seventh [picture of notes]

octave [picture of notes]


To aid in sight-reading, you should memorize the way intervals sound. The trick to starting this, is to think of songs which have these intervals in them. Here are some songs which I use for these intervals:


major second - easy - just a scale between Doh and Re.

minor third - "Oh Can - a - da" (between Oh, and Can) (with a Midi example)

major third [picture of notes] "A-las, and did my Saviour bleed" (with a Midi example)

perfect fourth [picture of notes]  "Rise Up oh Men of God" (with a Midi example)

perfect fifth [picture of notes] "Taps"  (with a Midi example)

major sixth [picture of notes] "St. Elmos Fire" (with a Midi example)

minor seventh [picture of notes] (with a Midi example)

major seventh [picture of notes] (with a Midi example)

octave [picture of notes] "Let it Snow" Well the Weath-er out-side (with a Midi example)


Come up with your own melody-pieces which contain these intervals, and try to memorize them so that when you hear the interval, you know what it is instantly.



In Between The Scales - Flats and Sharps


Here's a C scale on a treble clef:


[ picture of a c scale on a treble clef ]


On a piano, this scale would be all the white notes, but none of the black notes, from middle C up 8 notes to the C above middle C.


But what about all those black notes? If the ladder has every space used up, but there are playable notes even between these notes, how do we represent that?


This is when we start to use sharps and flats. A sharp makes a note go up one half step, and a flat makes a note go down one half step. Here are a Bb and a G# as an example:


[ a treble clef with a middle line Bb and a top space G# ]


If you're near a piano, try to find the B, as shown below on the keyboard, and then play the black note directly below that B... this is a Bb.


Find the G on your piano as well-- the note directly above the G is a G sharp.


Now find an E...what would E sharp sound like? Notice that in the illustration below, there is no black note directly above (to the right of) the E... so an E sharp is also known as an F.


[ illustration of a keyboard E and E sharp ]


The same is true of a C flat.


[ Illustration of a C and C flat ]


When a note has no sharp and no flat, we call it a natural note. There is only one scale that has only white notes (natural notes)-- no sharps nor flats. This scale is called the C scale. All other scales have sharps and flats.




Getting Past Pitch Basics - Keys and Key Signatures


If we are reading the C scale, which has only natural notes, then there is no need for a key signature. But if the key we're in has sharps or flats in it, then our music can get cluttered quite quickly. Here's Jingle Bells moved up a whole step (from the key of C which we used as an example above) to the key of D below:


[ Jingle Bells in D, with accidentals instead of a key signature. ]


If we add additional harmony notes (chords) then it would look like this:


[ Jingle Bells and chords in D, with accidentals instead of a key signature. ]


If we had to write the sharp next to the F and the C every time it appeared, our music would be more difficult to read. Since these two notes will always be sharp in the key of D, we'll place the symbols at the beginning of the staff, like so:


[ a key signature in D, with Jingle Bells in D ]


We know that this key is called D because the scale of D has two sharps, C# and F#. An easy way to demonstrate which keys have which number of sharps or flats is to memorize a chart, called the circle of fifths (below). D is the name chosen for this key, because the root note, (the Doh, in Doh Re Me) is D. If you started to sing Doh Re Me on an F#, then you would be singing the scale of F#. Here's what F# looks like with accidentals:


[ Scale of F# with accidentals ]


And with a key signature:


[ Scale of F# with key signature ]


Some smart guy once figured out that if you put your keys in a circle, with the numbers of flats and sharps, it makes a cool chart, named a circle of fifths:


[ an image of a circle of 5ths ]




If we're playing a song in D, which has a C# and an F#, then what do we do if we want to play a note outside of the scale? For example, an F, (which is normally sharped in D) or an A# (which is normally an A natural in the key of D)? This is when we use something called an accidental.


Here's an F natural in the key of D. Notice the symbol used to naturalize a sharped note?


[ picture of F natural in the key signature of D ]


Here's A sharp in the key of D:


[ picture of A sharp in the key singtuare of D ]








How to Practice Effectively


When practicing, the tendancy for most people is to play over things they do well. But if you are going to improve in the shortest amount of time, you should pick one or two areas in which you are struggling, and repeat the excersices over and over until it's second nature.


Counting Rhythms
Time Signatures
Reading Exercises
Reading Syncopation
Accents and Markings
Basics of Pitches
Flats & Sharps
Key Signatures
Clefs & Staves
DS, DC, & Repeat Signs
How to Transpose Music
The Circle of Fifhs
Reading Exercises- Tips


Music Dictionary


Note Blaster
Piano Key Race
Save the City

Lessons Coming Soon:

Reading Rests
Practicing Effectively