What Does a Musical Score Mean? First Movement

For a summary of this lesson skim to the bottom

This is a new blog series meant to educate anyone who has ever marvelled at how some people can read music. What does it mean? Why is it organized the way it is? What do pianists see when they look at their scores? My goal is to make sheet music more understandable and less intimidating. I’m confident you will find it’s as easy as ‘do, re, mi!’

The other day I finished a composition using the music writing program, Musescore. One feature of the program is that you can listen to a midi version of the music you are writing right on the computer at anytime. A cursor moves through the music accurately showing which beat you’re on as you hear it play, not unlike the bouncing ball you may remember from sing-along cartoons back in the day. I thought nothing of it until a family member said this really helped them understand how music worked. As someone who has spoken the language of classical music all his life, it’s easy to forget that many people have simply never been exposed to it and see musical scores no differently than ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics :-S

So today, I thought I’d ‘decipher’ a piece of sheet music, a.k.a. a ‘score’, for you so that you may get a basic idea of how the mysterious realm of music notation operates. ‘Notation’ means how music is written down; all the signs and symbols used to communicate composers’ ideas visually. You’ll learn about the kinds of things a professional pianist would observe as she magically translates what she sees into beautiful sound!

For today’s example we’ll study the famous ‘Minuet in G’ by Christian Petzold. “Who’s Christian Petzold?” you might ask. This piece was attributed to J.S. Bach because he included it in his Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena. Though Bach assembled these easy keyboard works we’ve learned he did not compose all of them. So Herr Petzold gets to be immortalized which is a pretty sweet deal for him.

Now, what in the heck do all those lines and symbols mean?

Well first of all in the Western Classical tradition music is read from left to right no different than a book. Below there’s a loooong blue arrow that represents time. Events happen in time. Who was it that said “Art is how we decorate space; Music is how we decorate time”? Post below if you know! Music is a temporal art and requires human memory with its sense of continuity in order to exist.


The red arrows represent pitch. Pitch simply means the frequency or rate of vibration a string vibrates. Pitch can be expressed in Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second. For example, the ‘A’ roughly in the middle of the keyboard happens to cycle 440 times per second. Something that vibrates very quickly has a higher pitch than something that vibrates slowly. We instinctually associate high frequencies with physical things in the environment, like birds singing or celestial bodies like the stars. Conversely, low sounds evoke a sense of heaviness like the marching of an elephant.

Looking at the example above you’ll notice two groups of five horizontal lines. Each group is called a ‘staff’. The piano is one of the few instruments that plays on more than one staff because pianists have both hands free to play. That large bracket on the left that encompasses both staffs (called a ‘brace’) shows that they both belong to the same instrument. So all together it gets the illustrious name of ‘grand staff’. The lines of the staffs (or ‘staves’) are ladders in which notes climb up and own. Higher notes are on the top staff and lower ones on the bottom. We’ll cover more of these elements next time 🙂

Going back to the loooong blue arrow, I’ve already said that the horizontal axis represents time. What gives music a sense of life is the ‘heartbeat’ behind it. Like pitch, rhythm is also based on a rate of cycles per unit of time. If you have a clock that ticks then go grab it. While pitch is determined by cycles per second, the beat is determined by cycles per minute. With your clock in hand, how many ticks do you hear in a minute? Unless it’s running low on battery power it will be 60 because there are 60 seconds in a minute. In music we use ‘BPM’ or ‘Beats Per Minute’ to determine how fast or slow our piece will go. Say ‘tick, tick, tick’ in sync with each second on your clock and make sure you do not rush. 60 BPM is a common, albeit rather slow ‘tempo’ (tempo is a fancy Italian word for speed). Now double that number. Now you have 120 Beats Per Minute. This is a standard marching speed and is twice as fast as our previous tempo. Now, I challenge you to say two ‘ticks’ for each second that passes on your clock. Make sure you say them at equal intervals so your beats are even.

If you’ve ever been to someone’s house who owns a piano, you may have noticed a funny looking contraption sitting on top of it that can be wound up. This is called a metronome. A metronome ticks like a clock but it can be set to different speeds of ticking, some slower and some much faster than a clock. It’s used by students and professionals to help play evenly or work up to a faster speed incrementally when a piece is particularly challenging.

Some composers will give the metronome marking. A composer may write an 80 BPM marking which means a moderate, or walking speed tempo. However, most classical composers do not give this number and instead will use a (usually Italian) term to indicate how fast they want it. It’s up to the player to interpret how fast he should play when it says ‘allegro’ (fast) at the beginning. Unless a metronome marking is given, there is no exact way of knowing how fast to play, only the performer’s informed guess.

For our study piece today lets decide on a tempo of 60 BPM. This is our practice tempo as it is most likely much too slow for a performance. After all, a minuet is a dance, so it needs enough lightness that the listener wants to dance along.

Now that you’ve got a sense of what the beat is, how is it shown in the score?

We’ve already briefly discussed the horizontal lines, aka the musical staffs, but what do the vertical ones represent? They are called ‘bar lines’ and divide the beats up into equal groups. Observe below:


Each heart represents one beat or one second on the clock if our tempo is 60 BPM. You’ll notice that the beats are organized by colour: one red heart followed by two blue ones. The bar lines divide the beats into groups of 3 in this case. Beats are commonly divided into groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 12. But don’t worry about all that now – if you can count to 3 then you’ll do just fine today 🙂

The lovely red hearts not only show how the beats are divided, they also show which beat will be emphasized in the counting. The red heart is called the ‘down beat’ which should be played louder than the rest. This keeps the music from sounding rhythmically monotonous, just as you emphasize certain words and syllables when you speak.

Now I’m sure you’re dying to known what the numbers 3 over 4 mean. These numbers make up what’s called the ‘time signature’. It tells the player how the beats are organized in the piece. The top number tells us how many hearts fit into one ‘bar’. A bar, a.k.a. a ‘measure’, is the space between two bar lines. Because it’s a 3, that means there are 3 beats in every bar.


The beats are not normally kept track of by coloured hearts, but numbers rather. Since there are 3 beats in a bar, we count them ‘1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc…’ always resetting at the start of the next bar. Musicians will say they “feel this music in 3.” Although piano is played sitting down, rhythmic pulse is always felt in the body, one of the reasons why it can become so addictive I think!

And what of the other number, 4 on the bottom? The 4 represents which note value gets the beat. Huh? I will get more into detail about this another day, but for today the ‘quarter note’ gets the beat. One tick on the clock means one quarter note; two ticks means two quarter notes etc. Just as pitch is represented by how high or low the notes are placed on our vertical axis, duration, the horizontal axis, is represented by how the notes are shaded or stemmed. For example, on the top staff directly below the first red heart, you see a black note with a line below it pointing down. Lets call this line a flag pole today; so here is an upside down flag pole. But you’ll see there is no flag on the pole.

So, black note + flagless pole = quarter note. A quarter note gets one beat, or one tick on the clock.

With me so far? You’ll notice that some notes are white. Some have dots. Some are connected to other notes. These are all notes of different duration or different lengths. Some are longer, some are shorter. For example, directly below our quarter note on the bottom staff, there are three notes on top of one another that are hollow; they are not black but also have flag poles without flags. These are called ‘half notes’ and they get two beats or two ticks. They are twice as long as a quarter note. If you continue looking along the bottom staff, you’ll notice other notes that look like half notes but they have dots beside them. These notes are called ‘dotted half notes’ and they are worth three beats. Since they are worth three beats, there is only room for one of them per bar.


Well I hope that demystifies some of the symbols of the musical score for you. To review what we learned today:

  • The vertical axis represents frequency and pitch;
  • The horizontal axis represents time;
  • The groups of five horizontal lines are called staffs; put them together and you get a grand staff;
  • The vertical lines are called bar lines and they divide the beats into repeated groups, respective of the top number on the time signature in this case 3 beats per bar;
  • You keep track of the beats by counting them as they are grouped, with emphasis on the first beat, a.k.a. the downbeat;
  • The speed or tempo is established by how many beats occur in a minute a.k.a. Beats Per Minute (BPM);
  • Notes can have different values, lengths, or durations. Quarter notes are 1 beat, half notes are two beats, dotted half notes are three beats, etc.;
  • The time signature tells us how the beats are organized. In this case there are 3 beats in every measure and the quarter note has the value of one beat.

That’s it for today!

Next time we will delve further into the mysterious world of rhythm in the Second Movement.

Please post a comment below if you have any questions.

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