Notation of Pitch

This is a lesson in a series on music theory. This lesson and others can be found at

This lesson covers the basics of pitch notation using standard notation.

Standard notation is a form of writing down music; it is the form most commonly seen today.

Standard notation is written on a staff, made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces (between the lines).

Notes are ways of signifying the duration (length) of a tone. When written on a particular line or space they tell you to hold that particular tone (associated with the line or space ) for that duration. (More on durations and note values in an upcoming lesson).

We can show which range of pitches we wish to write down on a staff by using a clef. Several clefs are used in front of a piece of music to describe how to interpret notes found on the staff. They include:

Treble clef (used for guitar, voices, piano, and most treble instruments); also called g-clef.

Bass clef, also called f-clef (used for bass guitar, voices, piano, and many bass instruments).

Neutral clef used for percussion.

C-clef (tenor clef, etc.) used by some string instruments (violin, cello, etc.)

Pitches are represented (abstracted) by letters and accidentals. In the western system we are using, we use the 7 letters: A,B,C,D,E,F,G plus the accidentals sharp(#), flat(b), double-sharp(x), double-flat(bb), and natural( ) to represent the pitches that we use.

Now, the smallest distance between two pitches in the system we use we can call a half-step. The notes represented by B and C ( and between E and F) have a distance of a half-step (1/2).

The letters are used consecutively from A to G, and then repeat. The two tones/pitches which have the same names are either the same pitch , or are octaves of each other.

An octave is the distance between two closest pitches pitches which can be said to have a ratio of 2:1 (when considering their frequencies).

Looking at the treble clef to see how the notes are represented on the staff:

so that the note

would be a C, because it falls on the space that represents the note C.

Ledger lines are used to extend the staff above and below the range already given.

note: the note on the 1st ledger line below the treble staff is called "middle C".

The grand staff is often used for piano, it combines the treble and bass clefs (staves).

We previously mentioned 1/2 steps. The distance between the equivalent of 2 adjacent 1/2 steps can be called a whole step (W). Consecutive pitches not previously described under 1/2-steps have a whole step between them.

Movement occuring (between notes) by half-steps is referred to as chromatic. Movement occuring of half-steps and whole-steps is said to be diatonic. [Diatonic comes from the greek for "through the tones"]

We can make the notes halfway between the whole steps using accidentals (sharps, flats, etc.)

A sharp raises the pitch a half-step (C# is a half-step higher than C).

A flat lowers the pitch of a note by a half-step (Db is a half-step lower than D).

A natural sign is used to make it clear that the note is not sharped or flattened. (C_ is equal to C, not C# or Cb).

A double sharp (x) raises the pitch of a note by a whole step (Cx is a whole step higher than C).

A double flat (bb) lowers the pitch of a note by a whole step (Dbb is a whole step lower than D).

An accidental affects all other notes of same pitch-class within the same measure or bar (see below), unless another accidental is applied later to the measure. Sometimes accidentals are in the key signature (signifying the pitch should be affected throughout the piece unless another accidental changes it for the measure, or there is a change of key. More on keys in a future lesson).

Two names used for the same tone , such as C# and Db are said to be enharmonic equivalents.

Although some notes can be expressed in the staff, many can not. You can write notes that are higher than the staff on the staff by using an octave sign (8, 8va, 8ve) such as

The staff can be divided into measures to show equal units of time called measures or bars, seperated by bar lines.

Next lesson is on rhythm and rhythmic notation.

Christopher Roberts

click here for worksheets/quiz on this material.

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Next lesson - Basics of rhythm and rhythmic notation (theory, pt.3)
Previous lesson - Intro to theory (theory, pt.1)

Last updated January 30, 2003
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