Music Symbols2017-04-05T08:02:38+00:00

LINES

STAFF

Staff

The staff is the fundamental latticework of music notation, upon which symbols are placed. The five stave lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale – which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef.

LEDGER

Ledger

Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

BAR LINE

Bar Line

Used to separate measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Bar lines are extended to connect the upper and lower staffs of a grand staff.

DOUBLE BAR LINE

Double Bar Line

Used to separate two sections of music. Also used at changes in key signature, time signature or major changes in style or tempo.

CLEFS

TREBLE CLEF

TREBLE CLEF

The centre of the spiral defines the line or space upon which it rests as the pitch G above middle C, or approximately 392 Hz. Positioned here, it assigns G above middle C to the second line from the bottom of the staff, and is referred to as the “treble clef.” This is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music. Middle-C is the 1st ledger line below the stave here. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-G.

ALTO CLEF

ALTO CLEF

This clef points to the line (or space, rarely) representing middle C, or approximately 262 Hz. Positioned here, it makes the center line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the “alto clef.” This clef is used in modern notation for the viola. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a “movable” clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line and called a “tenor clef”. This clef is used very often in music written for bassoon, cello, and trombone; it replaces the bass clef when the number of ledger lines above the bass staff hinders easy reading.

BASS CLEF

BASS CLEF

The line or space between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C, or approximately 175 Hz. Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a “bass clef.” This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef, especially in choral music, where it represents the bass and baritone voices. Middle C is the 1st ledger line above the stave here. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-F (which used to be written the reverse of the modern F)

OCTAVE CLEF

OCTAVE CLEF

Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. A treble clef with an eight below is the most commonly used, typically used instead of a C clef for tenor lines in choral scores. Even if the eight is not present, tenor parts in the treble clef are understood to be sung an octave lower than written.

NOTES & RESTS

DOUBLE WHOLE NOTE

DOUBLE WHOLE NOTE

Also called a “Breve”
Duration: 8 beats

WHOLE NOTE

WHOLE NOTE

Also called a “Semibreve”
Duration: 4 beats

HALF NOTE

HALF NOTE

Also called a “Minim”
Duration: 2 beats

QUARTER NOTE

QUARTER NOTE

Also called a “Crotchet”
Duration: 1 beat

EIGHTH NOTE

EIGHTH NOTE

Also called a “Quaver”
Duration: 1/2 beat

WHOLE REST

WHOLE REST

Also called a “Semibreve”
Duration: 4 beats

HALF REST

HALF REST

Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

QUARTER REST

QUARTER REST

Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

EIGHTH REST

EIGHTH REST

Also called a “Quaver”
Duration: 1/2 beat

SIXTEENTH REST

SIXTEENTH REST

Also called a “Semiquaver”
Duration: 1/4 beat

BEAMED NOTES

BEAMED NOTES

Beams connect eighth notes (quavers) and notes of shorter value, and are equivalent in value to flags. In metered music, beams reflect the rhythmic grouping of notes. They may also be used to group short phrases of notes of the same value, regardless of the meter; this is more common in ametrical passages. In older printings of vocal music, beams are often only used when several notes are to be sung on one syllable of the text – melismatic singing; modern notation encourages the use of beaming in a consistent manner with instrumental engraving, and the presence of beams or flags no longer informs the singer.

DOTTED HALF NOTE

DOTTED HALF NOTE

Placing a dot to the right of a notehead lengthens the note’s duration by one-half. Additional dots lengthen the previous dot instead of the original note, thus a note with one dot is one and one half its original value, a note with two dots is one and three quarters, a note with three dots is one and seven eighths, and so on.

BREAKS

BREATH MARK

BREATH MARK

In a score, this symbol tells the performer or singer to take a breath (or make a slight pause for non-wind instruments). This pause usually does not affect the overall tempo. For bowed instruments, it indicates to lift the bow and play the next note with a downward (or upward, if marked) bow.

CAESURA

CAESURA

Indicates a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted. In ensemble playing, time resumes when conductor or leader indicates.

ACCIDENTALS

FLAT

FLAT

Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.

SHARP

SHARP

Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.

NATURAL

NATURAL

Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).

DOUBLE FLAT

DOUBLE FLAT

Lowers the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to be modified is already flatted by the key signature.

DOUBLE SHARP

DOUBLE SHARP

Raises the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to be modified is already sharped by the key signature.

TIME SIGNATURES

TIME SIGNATURE

TIME SIGNATURE

The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the crotchet or quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes). You would pronounce this as “Three Four Time”, and was referred to as a “perfect” time.

COMMON TIME

COMMON TIME

This symbol is a throwback to fourteenth century rhythmic notation, when it represented 2/4, or “imperfect time”. Today it represents 4/4.

CUT TIME

CUT TIME

This symbol represents 2/2 time, indicating two minim (or half-note) beats per measure. Here, a crotchet (or quarter note) would get half a beat.

NOTE RELATIONSHIPS

TIE

TIE

Indicates that the two (or more) notes joined together are to be played as one note with the time values added together. To be a tie, the notes must be identical; that is, they must be on the same line or the same space; otherwise, it is a slur (see below).

SLUR

SLUR

Indicates that two or more notes are to be played in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath. In certain contexts, a slur may only indicate that the notes are to be played legato; in this case, rearticulation is permitted.

TUPLET

TUPLET

A number of notes of irregular duration are performed within the duration of a given number of notes of regular time value; e.g., five notes played in the normal duration of four notes; seven notes played in the normal duration of two; three notes played in the normal duration of four. Tuplets are named according to the number of irregular notes; e.g., duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc.

DYNAMICS

PIANISSIMO

PIANISSIMO

Very soft. Usually the softest indication in a piece of music, though softer dynamics are often specified with additional ps.

PIANO

PIANO

Soft. Usually the most often used indication.

MEZZO PIANO

MEZZO PIANO

Literally, half as soft as piano.

MEZZO FORTE

MEZZO FORTE

Similarly, half as loud as forte. If no dynamic appears, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.

FORTE

FORTE

Loud. Used as often as piano to indicate contrast.

FORTISSIMO

FORTISSIMO

Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

SFORZANDO

SFORZANDO

Literally “forced”, denotes an abrupt, fierce accent on a single sound or chord. When written out in full, it applies to the sequence of sounds or chords under or over which it is placed.

CRESCENDO

CRESCENDO

A gradual increase in volume. Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the passage.

DIMINUENDO

DIMINUENDO

Also decrescendo. A gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended in the same manner as crescendo.

ARTICULATION MARKS

STACCATO

STACCATO

This indicates that the note is to be played shorter than notated, usually half the value, the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.

ACCENT

ACCENT

The note is played louder or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.

TENUTO

TENUTO

This symbol indicates that a note should be played for its full value, or slightly longer; it may also indicate a slight dynamic emphasis. It may be combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (“portato” or “mezzo staccato”).

MARCATO

MARCATO

The note is played somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge).

FERMATA

FERMATA

Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

ORNAMENTS

MORDENT (lower)

MORDENT (lower)

Rapidly play the principal note, the note below it, then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In much music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.

TURN

TURN

When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. By either placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates the order of the auxiliary notes is to be reversed.

APPOGGIATURA

APPOGGIATURA

Also known as a Grace Note. The first half of the principal note’s duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).

REPETITION & CODAS

TREMOLO

TREMOLO

A rapidly-repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency at which the note is to be repeated (or alternated). As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate.

REPEAT SIGN

REPEAT SIGN

Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.

SIMILE MARKS

SIMILE MARKS

Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. In the examples here, the first usually means to repeat the previous measure, and the second usually means to repeat the previous two measures.

VOLTA BRACKETS

VOLTA BRACKETS

A repeated passage is to be played with different endings on different playings; it is possible to have more than two endings (1st, 2nd, 3rd …).

DA CAPO

DA CAPO

(lit. “From top”) Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music from its beginning. This is followed by al fine (lit. “to the end”), which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda (lit. “to the coda (sign)”), which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.

DA SEGNO

DA SEGNO

(lit. “From the sign”) Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.

SEGNO

SEGNO

Mark used with dal segno.

CODA

CODA

Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).

TEMPO MARKINGS

Presto — very fast (168–200 bpm)
Allegro — fast and bright or “march tempo” (120–168 bpm)
Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
Moderato — moderately (108–120 bpm)
Andante — at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
Adagietto — rather slow (70–80 bpm)
Adagio — slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (66–76 bpm)
Grave — slow and solemn
Largo — Very slow (40–60 bpm)
Largamente/Largo — “broadly”, very slow (40 bpm and below)
Larghissimo — very very slow (20 bpm and below)

CHANGE IT TEMPO MARKINGS

Accelerando — speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
Meno mosso — less movement or slower
Mosso — movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme
Rallentando — slowing down, especially near the end of a section (abbreviation: rall.)
Ritardando — slowing down (abbreviation: rit. or more specifically, ritard.) Specific abbreviation is riten. Also sometimes ritenuto does not reflect a tempo change but a character change instead.)
Rubato — free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes
Stretto — rushing ahead; temporarily speeding up
Stringendo — pressing on faster