Wilbur's Music Tutorial #1
Music Basics...Terminology and Format



Reading music is much like reading a language. There are rules, exceptions, and general format guidelines that must be memorized and followed if you are to understand it. This tutorial provides the (minimum) basics, so you can begin to work your way through a piece of sheet music and understand what it's telling you. This may sound complex at first, but trust me, once you understand a few basic concepts...everything starts to fall into place.
    A quick word on what this tutorial does NOT do. It does not attempt to cover all aspects of music theory, notation, and style. A select few basic musical concepts are presented in simplified form and stated in absolutes for ease of understand. Even though exceptions exist for nearly everything....you should learn the basics rules first, developing your musical sense of order, before you begin addressing the exceptions and more complex music theory.

Music Format/Terminology

Music is written on a STAFF.   A staff consists of 5 horizontal lines running left to right across the page.


The staff is broken into segments by vertical BAR LINES cutting the staff into small pieces. The area between each vertical bar line is call a MEASURE, and in this measure is where the notes and rests go.


TREBLE CLEF:  That funny looking symbol at the very beginning of the staff is the CLEF symbol. The clef symbol indicates whether the notes following it start at middle C and go upwards (Treble Clef)...or start at middle C and go downwards (Bass Clef).
(Check out the GRAND STAFF in TUTORIAL #2 and see the notes for both Clefs)


BASS CLEF:   The Bass Clef symbol represent the lower notes on the grand staff.


TIME SIGNATURE:   is the set of numbers (Ex: 4/4) right next to the clef sign. This tells you how many beats to each measure and the time value of each note in the measure (much more on this in PART #3).


KEY SIGNATURE:   is the next group of characters that you SOMETIMES (but not always) see to the immediate right of the clef sign and BEFORE the Time Signature. This is the KEY the song should be played in. The Key Signature consists of a small group of sharps or flats and tells you if any note should be consistently sharped or flatted. The absence of any sharp or flats at the beginning tells you the song is played in the KEY of C. This example shows two sharps which tells you that the song is played in the key of D MAJOR..and that F and C will always be played as sharps. Most of the diatonic harmonica books for beginners have songs written in "C" (no sharps and no flats).


NOTES:   are marked on the staff as small oval (sometimes circular) shapes. These shapes may be a solid dark color or they may be an outline with the center left white. Notes are placed ON the lines and IN the spaces. They represent muscial sounds called "Pitches".

All notes (except for the WHOLE NOTE) have a STEM. The stems may have additional FLAGS attached to the right top portion of the stem. The combination of NOTE COLOR (solid or outlined), along with the STEM & FLAG(s), indicate the time value of the note. The graphic below shows the most common notes and their time value. The NOTE is on the top staff and its associated REST is on the bottom staff.

RESTS indicate pauses in the music. Each rest has a different shape and a specific time value: that is each rest indicates how long of a pause you should make in your music. Each note has a corresponding rest. (see above).
NOTE: It may be hard to determine from the graphic above...but a WHOLE REST hangs from the line above it. A HALF REST sits on the line below it.
(More on how to count Note/Rest time values in Tutorial #3).


Understanding Notes