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Modern musical symbols

Music Sound

Modern musical symbols

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This is intended to be a comprehensive guide on the various symbols encountered in modern sheet music.

Contents

Lines

Staff
The background structure of a musical score. Lines and spaces correspond to different notes on the diatonic scale. For example, on the treble staff, the lowest line is E above middle C (E4 in note-octave notation). The space above it is F4, and so on. A common use of the staff is the grand staff, which combines bass and treble staffs into one system, joined by a brace.
Ledger lines
Used to extend the staff if any note heads fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads.
Bar line
Used to separate two measures.
Double bar line
Used to separate two sections of music.
Dotted bar line
Subdivides measures.
End bar line
Marks the end of a song.

Notes and rests

Note and rest values are not absolutely defined, but are proportional in duration to all other note and rest values. For the purpose of definition, the duration of the quarter note will be known as R, for "reference length."

Note Duration Rest
Longa
Also known as a "quadruple whole." This value is archaic.
Duration: R × 16
Breve
Also known as a "double whole."
Duration: R × 8
Semibreve
Also known as a "whole."
Duration: R × 4
Minim
Also known as a "half."
Duration: R × 2
Crotchet
Also known as a "quarter."
Duration: R
Quaver
Also known as an "eighth."
Duration: R / 2
Semiquaver
Also known as a "sixteenth."
Duration: R / 4
Demisemiquaver
Also known as a "thirty-second."
Duration: R / 8
Hemidemisemiquaver
Also known as a "sixty-fourth."
Duration: R / 16
Quasihemidemisemiquaver
Also known as a "hundred-twenty-eighth or "semihemidemisemiquaver."
Duration: R / 32
Beamed notes
Beams connect and emphasize quavers and shorter note values.
Dotted note
Putting dots to the right of a note head lengthens that note's duration. One dot lengthens the note by one-half, two dots by three-quarters, three dots by seven-eighths, and so on. Rests can be dotted in the same way as notes.
Multi-measured rest
Indicates how many measures to sustain a rest.

Durations shorter than the 128th are not unknown. 256th notes occur in works of Vivaldi and even Beethoven. An extreme case is the Toccata Grande Cromatica by early-19th-century American composer Anthony Phillip Heinrich, which uses note values as short as 2048ths; however, the context shows clearly that these notes have one beam more than intended, so they should really be 1024th notes.

Pauses

Breath mark
In a score, this symbol tells the performer to breathe in (or make a slight pause for non-wind instruments). This pause does not affect tempo.
Caesura
Indicates a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted. In ensemble playing, time begins again when so indicated by the conductor. Commonly known as "railroad tracks."

Bold text

Clefs

Clefs define the pitch range, or tessitura, that the staff after them represents.

G clef
The centre of the spiral defines the line or space it rests on as the note 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 known as a "treble clef."
C clef
This clef points to which line or space represents middle C, or approximately 262 Hz. Positioned here, it makes the centre line on the staff middle C, and is known as an "alto clef."
F 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 known as a "bass clef."
Neutral clef
Used for pitchless instruments, such as those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured here.

Clefs (not neutral 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.

Accidentals and key signatures

Accidentals modify the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same position on the staff.

Double flat
Lowers the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by two semitones.
Flat-and-a-half
Lowers the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by three quarter tones.
Flat
Lowers the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by one semitone.
Demiflat
Lowers the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by one quarter tone.
Natural
Cancels any previous accidental on that level.
Demisharp
Raises the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by one quarter tone.
Sharp
Raises the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by one semitone.
Sharp-and-a-half
Raises the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by three quarter tones.
Double sharp
Raises the pitch of all forthcoming notes on that level by two semitones.

Key signatures define the principal triad of all notes that follow them. If no key signature is used, the default key is C major/A minor. The key signature examples shown here are used with the treble staff.

Flat key signature
Lowers the pitch of all forthcoming notes on the levels the accidentals fall on. Different keys are denoted by differing numbers of accidentals; for example, if only the first two flats are used, the key is Bb major/G minor.
Sharp key signature
Raises the pitch of all forthcoming notes on the levels the accidentals fall on. Different keys are denoted by differing numbers of accidentals; for example, if only the first four sharps are used, the key is E major/C# minor.

Time signatures

Time signatures define the meter of the notes that follow them. Music is marked off in sections called measures, and time signatures tell you what the duration of those measures is. They do NOT tell you to accent the first note in a measure. The same music marked off in measures of a different duration will sound precisely the same if properly played, but since music can be marked off in an infinite number of ways, it makes sense to mark it off in a way that conveys information about the way the piece actually sounds, and those time signatures tend to suggest, but only SUGGEST, prevailing groupings of beats or pulses.

Specific time
The bottom number stands for a note value, and the top number tells you how many of these note values fit in each measure.
Common time
This symbol is a throwback from sixteenth century rhythmic notation. It once meant the equivalent of 2/4 and now means the equivalent of 4/4.
Cut time
Indicates 2/2 time.
Metronome mark
Written at the start of a score, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the score by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 crotchets, or quarter notes, fit into one minute of time.

Articulations

Tie
Indicates that the two notes joined together are to be played as one note. This can also indicate a note sustained over two or more measures.
Slur
Indicates that the two notes are to be played in one physical stroke or one uninterrupted breath.
Legato
Notes covered by this sign are to be played with no gaps. Sometimes indistinguishable from a slur.
Glissando
A steady glide from one note to the next.
Ligature
Also known as a phrase mark.
Triplet
Condenses three notes into the normal duration of two notes. If the involved notes are beamed, the brackets on either side of the number can be omitted. This can be generalized to a tuplet, where a certain number of notes are condensed into the normal duration of the greatest integer power of two notes less than that number, e.g., six notes played in the normal duration of four notes.
Chord
Three or more notes played simultaneously. If only two notes are played, it is called an interval.
Arpeggio
Like a chord, except the notes are played one at a time in sequence. Also known as a rolled chord.

Dynamics

Dynamics are how the volume of the song varies while it is performed.

Mezzo-piano
Half as soft as piano.
Piano
Soft.
Pianissimo
Very soft.
Mezzo-forte
Half as loud as forte.
Forte
Loud.
Fortissimo
Very loud.
Sforzando
Literally "straining", denotes a strong, sudden increase in volume.
Crescendo
A gradual increase in volume. Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the playing of those notes.
Diminuendo or Decrescendo
A gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended the same way as crescendo.

Accents

Accents specify how individual notes are performed. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note.

Staccato
Buffered by a short silence before and after the note.
Staccatissimo
Buffered by a longer silence before and after the note.
Marcato
The note is played louder than the surrounding notes.
Left-hand pizzicato or Stopped note
A note on a stringed instrument where the string is plucked with the left hand (the hand that usually stops the strings) rather than bowed. On the horn, this accent indicates a "stopped note" (a note played with the stopping hand shoved further into the bell of the horn).
Snap pizzicato
On a stringed instrument, a note played by stretching a string away from the frame of the instrument and letting it go, making it "snap" against the frame. Also known as a Bartók pizzicato.
Natural harmonic or Open note
On a stringed instrument, denotes that a natural harmonic is to be played. On a valved brass instrument, denotes that the note is to be played "open" (without lowering any valve).
Tenuto
This symbol has two meanings. It can mean prolong the note slightly or it can mean give the note a slight accent. Combining a tenuto with a staccato yields a "portato."
Fermata
An indefinitely-sustained note.
Sull'arco
On a bowed string instrument, the note is played while drawing the bow upward.
Giů arco
Like sull'arco, except the bow is drawn downward.

Ornaments

Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes.

Trill
A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher tone or semitone within its duration. Also called a "shake." When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill.
Mordent
An insertion of the semitone below the specified note within its value (this particular case can be called a "lower mordent"). Without the vertical line, the inserted semitone is above the specified note, and the ornament is known as an upper mordent.
Turn
Also known as a gruppetto, combines an upper mordent and a lower mordent, in that order, into the specified note's value. If the symbol is reversed, the lower mordent is played first.
Grace note
Also known as an appoggiatura, it means 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).
Slashed grace note
Also known as an acciaccatura, it means the principal note's duration begins with the pitch of the grace note for only a very small part of the principal note's value.

Octaves

Ottava alta
Notes under the dashed line are played at the next higher octave.
Ottava bassa
Notes above the dashed line are played at the next lower octave.
Quindicesima alta
Notes under the dashed line are played two octaves above normal.
Quindicesima bassa
Notes above the dashed line are played two octaves below normal.

Pedal marks

Pedal marks are used by pianists.

Engage pedal
Tells the pianist to put the sustain pedal down.
Release pedal
Tells the pianist to let the sustain pedal up.
Variable pedal mark
Denotes frequent use of the sustain pedal. The lower line tells the pianist to keep the sustain pedal depressed for all notes it appears under. The inverted "V" shape indicates the pedal is momentarily released, then depressed again.

Repetition and codas

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 signs
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 song.
Simile marks
Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated.
Volta brackets
Denote that a repeated passage is to be played in different ways on different playings.
Da capo
Tells the performer to repeat playing of the song from its beginning. This is followed by al fine, which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda, which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.
Dal segno
Tells the performer to repeat playing of the song starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.
Segno
Mark used with dal segno.
Coda
Indicates a forward jump in the song to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda or D.C. al coda.

See also

References


Home | Up | Articulation | Copyist | Metre | Audio file format | Modern musical symbols | Note | Note value | Sheet music | Swung note

Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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