Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.
Yesterday you learned a bit about reading rhythms (and hopefully you’ve been practicing). Today, you’ll learn the basics of how to tell which notes are which on paper.
First, let’s start with the staff.
The musical staff is simply five horizontal lines used to mark particular pitches on paper. Just like each letter of our alphabet stands for a certain phonetic sound, each line or space on a staff stands for a certain pitch.
Now, the thing is that you have to know which clef you are in to know which lines and spaces are which notes. The swirly symbol on the staff above is a treble clef, or the G clef. (The swirl circling the second line from the bottom marks the pitch “G.” ) The symbol on the staff below is the bass clef, or the F clef. (The second line from the top – the one between the two dots- is the pitch “F.”)
What do I mean by G and F? Just as each phonetic sound in our language has a letter to represent it, each pitch in the musical language has a letter to represent it. The musical alphabet goes from A-G and then repeats again.
Next, let’s figure out how to put these notes on the staff. Various mnemonics have been imagined to help folks remember the names of the lines and spaces.
Here’s the note names on the treble clef:
Here’s the note names on the bass clef:
Some favorite mnemonics for the bass clef are “All Cows Eat Grass” and “Grizzly Bears Don’t Fly Airplanes.” Clever, right?
To me, however, it seems almost simpler to think of lines and spaces in alphabetic succession. For example, we know that in the bass clef, the line between the two dots is F. So the space above the F is G. (Now remember that the musical alphabet starts over after G!) The line above G is A. The space above A is B. And so on and so forth, in alphabetical order.
This chart makes that idea a little clearer:
Make sense? (If it doesn’t, please let me know!)
You’re ready to start quizzing yourself now. Try the Note Identification Game and other great exercises from MusicTheory.net. If you’re doing this with kids (or you like colorful displays that play the notes), try the Note Name Game on Classics for Kids.
Next, you must learn where these notes lie on any given instrument. It can feel tedious at first, but don’t worry- with time, note reading becomes second nature.