Notation is a visual representation of sound.

Notation is a mechanism for providing visual information about sound. It complements audio information. Understanding notation means being able to read music.

Nearly every chapter in the guide includes audio and notation so you can both hear the sound and see it at as well.

Notation is helpful but not essential to writing music. Notation may even be one of the things that puts people off writing music. Long screeds of notated music can prove intimidating especially if you have never come across this sort of thing before. Listening to music is an alternative to reading a score. An audio recording provides aural information and, for many people, that is enough to be able to interpret what is going on.

The benefit of notation is that it provides visual information about music. In fact, that is its sole purpose. A person with experience of notation can read music, interpret the information, and understand what is going on. A singer can read notation and sing, a musician can read and play. That is all notation does. It proves visual information to help interpret music.

Notation can be done while writing a piece of music or at the end when the piece is finished. From the perspective of a music writer, it helps, but it is not essential, to notate while writing. The benefit is that you can then interpret your own music. You may be able to see patterns in the sound that are not apparent while listening, sounds that are missing, sounds that are present and should not be there. This information helps in developing the music further, patterns can be repeated, sounds can be modified and changed into something different. This is the benefit of notation, it provides information to you as well as to everyone else.

Staff notation displays information about pitched sound. A waveform and a spectrogram display information about unpitched sound. Other types of notation are introduced throughout the guide.

There is no single best way to notate pitched and unpitched sound together. Many attempts have been made over the years to devise a unified notation and many of these efforts are visually striking, as much art as music. Hopefully a notation system will emerge in the future which will display all types of sound in a single format.

Staff notation

Audio: staff notation (0:02)

Staff notation
Figure: staff notation

staff notation plays a note with a frequency of 440Hz. It is the note A, also called concert pitch. The staff notation figure shows the score in staff notation.

Staff notation is used to display information about pitched sound.

A staff contains five horizontal lines. Notes are written on the lines of a staff or in the space between two lines. Vertical placement of a note on a staff indicates its exact pitch. The range of pitches on a staff is determined by the clef. In staff notation the top staff has a treble clef and the bottom staff has a bass clef. Notes in the treble staff are higher in pitch than those in the bass clef.

The treble staff contains a single note, note A, representing audible sound. The bass staff contains a rest, representing silence. A vertical line, a bar line, marks the end of a short section of music, two bar lines mark the end of a complete piece of music.

Concert pitch is the reference pitch used to tune musical instruments. It has a frequency of 440 Hz. It is the note A in the treble staff in staff notation.

A score is a visual representation of pitched sound. There are two main formats: full score and short score. Full score format displays each individual voice or instrument in its own staff. It is used in live performance when each singer and musician needs to have their own individual score to sing or play. Short score format displays two or more voices or instruments in the same staff. Short score format is used throughout the guide. It is the most flexible option to use whilst writing music and can always be converted to full score format once a piece is finished.

A common misconception is that a score is only for piano music. This is not surprising as a lot of music is written for the piano. The instrument that plays the score in staff notation could have been a piano, but it is not, it is a computer-generated sine wave. The guide uses lots of different instruments to play the scores.

A score can contain all sorts of mysterious symbols and cryptic words. Many of them are explained throughout the guide. This really useful list of musical symbols together with this glossary of musical terms provide everything else you need to decipher the runes.

Pitch notation

Audio: pitch notation (0:02)

Pitch notation
Figure: pitch notation

pitch notation plays a melody with four notes using sine waves. The notes are A3, C3, E3 and A4 and their respective frequencies are 220, 261.626, 329.628 and 440Hz. The pitch notation figure shows the score.

A note is named with a capital letter from A through to G.

Scientific pitch notation is used to distinguish between notes with the same name but different frequencies. The note name is followed by a number which represents the octave of that note. For example, the note A3 has frequency 220Hz. The note A4, concert pitch, has frequency 440Hz.

Middle C is the note with frequency 261.626 Hz. It is called middle C because it sits midway between the treble and bass staves in staff notation. It is also the note in the middle of a keyboard.

This frequency chart contains a handy list that cross-references a note to its frequency.