If you have seen sheet music before, you will know musical notes are written on a series of lines and spaces. These lines and spaces are called a stave (staff)*. The modern stave has five lines and four spaces. Each represents a note on the white keys of a piano keyboard.
* Throughout this course I will include the US names alongside the European terminology where necessary, as different examining boards follow different protocol.
A clef is a symbol that indicates the pitch and name of notes written on the stave. Clef is French for key. We use three main clefs in contemporary (modern) music, but there are several more.
The three we most often use are:
We also have a neutral clef for percussion; it is not a clef, per se, but a standard convention indicating the musical notes that follow it are to be played by an instrument of no fixed pitch.
Guitarists may be familiar with TAB. Tab, or tablature, appears similar to a regular stave but has an extra line. Instead of reflecting note names, the lines on a TAB stave represent guitar strings. The note heads are replaced by numbers, representing the fret to be pressed (more on TAB in a later lesson).
The Grand Stave is used for keyboard instruments, with a stave for the left hand below and a separate one above for the right hand. Theoretically, the Grand Stave is a single, eleven-lined stave, but that would be far too difficult to read. Instead, we eliminate the middle line and are left with two five-line staves.
The higher stave, or treble stave, is for notes higher in pitch than those on the lower stave. We play these with the right hand. Notes here are prefaced with a treble clef, also known as the G clef. The line which the body of the treble clef curls around is a G.
The lower stave, or bass stave, is for notes lower in pitch than those on the higher stave. We play these with the left hand. Notes on the left hand stave are prefaced with a bass clef, also known as the F clef. The line between the two dots of the clef is an F.
Notes are labelled like the modern English alphabet, but the musical alphabet is very simple as it only has seven letters. It runs from A to G and then starts over, as shown in the keyboard and stave diagrams below.
Eventually, we run out of space to place high and low notes. We can fix this by adding leger (ledger) lines to notes pitched higher and lower than the stave.
Introduction to Music Theory
Music has always been around, long before music theory. So why bother learning it?
Music theory is the rules and conventions of musical language, much like those of any spoken language, like Spanish or German. Just as many people in the world are able to communicate without reading or writing, numerous self-taught musicians learn to play instruments without knowing music theory. However, becoming fluent in language and comprehension improves your ability to communicate thoughts and feelings.
Knowing music theory is similar. It will help you develop and master your musical skills, try new styles and instruments, and become confident in your abilities. As you work through this course, you might find that you actually know more music theory than you realised; you just didn’t have the words to describe what you know and feel.
It would be lovely to be able to pick up any instrument and just play without any prior learning, but most people can’t do that. We need some basic information first about how to understand the language of music (plus how to translate this knowledge to playing our chosen instrument). When we put these elements together, we accumulate a wide range of knowledge enabling us to become better players, readers, and singers.
Analysing music and its forms enabled composers to transcribe what they created long before we had the facilities to record audio. By writing notes on sheets, with additional directions, they knew musicians could reproduce the compositions as they were meant to be played.
If we want to play Classical music it is essential we can read notated music. While not essential for studio session musicians, the ability to sightread sheet music gives us a huge advantage in certain genres over musicians who play by ear. The musically fluent player is able to quickly scan a piece of sheet music and hear it in his head. The best session musicians who play by ear still understand key centres and how to move between tonalities, which is especially important when improvising over a chord sequence, e.g. playing a metal guitar solo or blues saxophone interlude.
Songwriters and composers need to know music theory. Music producers, too, can greatly benefit a fundamental understanding of musical language when working with artists in the studio. Knowing how music is put together will enable you to become a better producer.
All popular music follows certain patterns and forms, and the songwriter who understands how to analyse what makes a song a hit can emulate and develop his own strong material. Catchy vocal melodies are based on scales and arpeggios, and other repetitive riffs that belong in the key of the song. If a songwriter understands how chords are built and which chords work with one another, it makes the job of creating a new song much easier and more enjoyable, especially when writing to a brief and to a deadline.
Becoming a great musician takes discipline and hard work, but it is worth it and it is also a lot of fun. As with all pursuits, our results as musicians are rooted in our efforts. When we understand the basic elements of music theory, such as counting beats, rhythm and a steady pace, harmony, key signatures, time signatures, time values of written note and rest types, we become better musicians.
In this course, we will start with the basics and build upon this foundation to take your understanding of music to a higher level. Even if you have some musical experience but never learned to read music, developing this additional knowledge will add extra skills to your toolbox.
So, let’s begin! If you would like to join my music theory course, please send me a message on the Contact page for more information.
Emma L.M. Sweeney