Welcome to the third instalment of this series. Here we are demystifying, decoding, and deconstructing just what those crazy-looking musical scores mean. If you’ve always wondered how musicians can make sense of all those hieroglyphics then you’ve come to the right place. If you’re just coming aboard then please check out the first two articles: Movement 1 and Movement 2.
You may at this point really be wondering what a movement is. In classical music, specifically in symphonies and sonatas, a movement is a part of a larger work. Mozart’s famous Piano Sonata in C Major K545 is in three separate parts or movements. If you listen to the whole thing (it’s quite short) you’ll notice that the speed or tempo of movements I, II, and III (we use Roman numerals to number them) is respectively fast-slow-fast. In this very common form we start briskly with excitement; then have a slower, more contemplative contrasting middle movement; and finally end the piece with a quicker tempo, usually in a more playful, optimistic character. It’s not unlike the three acts of a play or a film.
Movements don’t always have to be grouped in threes. Sometimes a work will be comprised of many movements as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ which has five, the first of which you may recognize from Loony Tunes cartoons.
Back to the Staff
Today we’re going to explore how to identify notes on the staff. For a quick review on what pitch and staff mean please consult the First Movement.
The musical staff is comprised of five lines and four spaces. On each of these lines we can fit a note. It matters a great deal whether a note is placed on a line or a space. It can be the difference between sheer beauty or a CACK! Also, remember that the piano reads from two different staffs (or staves). In fact, that’s one thing that makes piano scores special because most instruments usually only read from one staff. Standard organ scores however have three unique staffs, two for the hands and one for the feet!
As a side note, there is no requirement for piano music to strictly be on two staffs. I’ve seen piano scores where the composer has written for both hands on only one staff. On the other end of the spectrum, when there are too many notes to fit comfortably on two staffs some composers such as Alexander Scriabin or Sergei Rachmaninoff have been known to use as many as four to avoid crowding! See the example below to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Composers aren’t trying to show off or intimidate (well most of them) but rather make their scores as clear to read as possible by spreading everything out. In a way it’s the difference between a blocky single-spaced paragraph versus one with double spacing.
Fortunately, here we’re only concerned with the standard two staff model (phew).
You’ve probably heard of the musical alphabet. In North America we use letters to represent pitches. Other countries such as France use syllables like do’ re’ mi’ etc. which you may remember from The Sound of Music. Regardless of what we call them, we need to have a way of actually talking about notes with other people. Instead of saying, “Okay play that note on the second line of the treble clef for two beats,” we can instead efficiently say, “Play that half note G!” Letter names are also the foundation of understanding and explaining music theory such as scales and how chords are built.
Fortunately, the musical alphabet only consists of the first seven letters of the regular alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Each letter is assigned to a line or a space. When we run out of letters we simply go back to A. So in Western music A comes after G. (There is no H except in German where H represents our B and their B is our B-flat. Useful for trivia night!)
The letters move upwards alphabetically, line, space, line, space, line. You may wonder, how does one keep track of the proper letter name for each line or space in the real world? Well, I’ll pass on the following time-tested mnemonic devices used by music piano teachers to help you remember which note goes where. I think of these little tools as training wheels for note reading. Eventually you won’t need them. You just know. But for now:
Read these simple little ditties from the bottom up. Learn the lines and spaces separately. Like training wheels, you want to be rid of them as soon as possible and ride like the big kids do. I suggest committing these to memory as soon as you can to expedite your reading skills. The are but a few examples as there are many variations depending on who you study with or where you live. Review them while brushing your teeth or waiting for the bus.
Now, challenge yourself with the exercises below. Use your respective mnemonic to figure out each note. Click on the image to open a downloadable PDF. The answers are under the image.
On page 2 you’ll see that a few notes don’t fit on the staff like the ones above. While the five lines and four spaces of the staff are where most notes fall, there are also many notes that can be written above or below the staff – after all the piano has 88 keys and most of them don’t correspond with notes directly on the staffs! These are called ledger line notes. A ledger line is simply an extra line added to make the staff a bit bigger. Ledger line notes can sometimes have many lines. I’ve seen ones with six or seven! Unlike the staff they are not restricted by five lines. All that said, I’ve found that composers generally stick with three or less because they have a fancy way of getting around it.
Here are a couple of strategies to determine the proper name of a note on a ledger line.
To figure out what note is falling on a ledger line you can continue saying the musical alphabet up from the last note you DO know. For example, if you see a note three ledger lines above the treble clef you start counting up from the note F. This is because F (for Fun) is the highest note on the treble staff. You have to be very careful not to accidentally skip a line or a space. Using a pencil to put dots in place of each letter is one way to keep track of where you are. (click on images to enlarge)
A little tool I use personally is something I like to call “FACE-ing the music”. As you learned here the four spaces of the treble clef spell FACE. You can actually apply this all over the place to make it faster to label notes on ledger lines.
With this method you start from the last line you do know in either the treble or bass clef and work your way up or down. Instead of saying every note in the musical alphabet until you arrive at the one you’re labelling, just skip over the lines or spaces depending on where you are. While you learned that FACE spells out the notes on the spaces of the treble clef it can be used lines in other places.
In the example we just explored you started counting up from top note F. This time use that F to begin spelling FACE above the treble clef. You will now be spelling on the lines (see 1. below). Spell F-A-C-E using just the lines and you’ll arrived at your note twice as fast! I find this works all over the place, even for notes not part of the word FACE (see 2. below). Since every letter of the word is adjacent to a letter not part of the word it can easily connect you to the note you’re trying to figure out. It can launch into the depths or into the stratosphere much quicker. You can even use it backwards (see 3. below) if you don’t mind spelling backwards (after all Mozart was known to talk backwards!).
Now for a real-world example. This one you may recognize. It’s the tune English-speakers know as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. This is Mozart’s setting of the tune, a form known as Theme and Variations. Here is the theme only but I encourage you to listen to all 12 fantastic variations! In the excerpt below label every note on the page in both clefs. Use the various tools we’ve discussed in this article to figure them all out. After the except is a link to the answers.
How did you do???
- Today you learned about identifying the notes on the staff;
- You can use mnemonic devices such as “FACE” or “All Cows Eat Grass” to decipher the notes on the staff;
- Ledger lines are lines used above and below the musical staff when a pitch does not fall on it because it’s too high or low;
- To help read ledger line notes you may simply count forwards or backwards through the musical alphabet;
- You can also “FACE the music”, a quicker way to figure out the notes on ledger lines using FACE.
Until next time! As always feel free to contact me with any question you may have. Next time we will explore flats and sharps!