Basic Music Notation

Welcome to the Basic Music Notation online learning module.

This lesson is broken into five topics that cover the foundational knowledge you will need to notate a simple song on a treble staff. These topics are:

Topic 1—Treble Staff

Topic 2—Notes

Topic 3—Rests

Topic 4—Time Signatures

Topic 5—Notation

Each of the first four topics include instruction and a short practice activity. The first three topics may be completed in any order. After you have completed all four topics, you will move on to Topic 5, which includes the Notation Final Assessment, where you will be asked to evaluate the notation of a simple song using skills and knowledge from all of the topics.

Treble Staff

Vocabulary

Let’s begin by learning the vocabulary you will need to understand music notation.

This is a treble clef

It sits on a staff, which is made up of five lines and four spaces:

The staff gets broken up into measures, like this:

In a later topic, we’ll learn about how this is done. For now, let’s take a look at how to label a staff.

Labeling a Staff

Each line and space corresponds with a certain pitch. Pitches are labeled by letter. There are seven letters in music, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

Note names are labeled alphabetically from the bottom of the staff up.

The bottom line is always E. Start there:

That makes the lines E G B D F…

And the spaces F A C E.

Hint: Here is an easy way to remember space notes: FACE rhymes with SPACE!

Example

So, a sequence C G B A would look like this:

A sequence D E F A would look like this:

In this way, we can translate songs from note pitches onto the page.

Time for a practice activity!

Practice Activity

Practice activities are not graded. Think of them as opportunities to check what you know!

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of the treble staff. If you get stuck, feel free to revisit the topic content on the menu bar to your left.

Question 1

  • A
  • B
  • E
  • G

Observe this diagram of a treble staff.

Which of the following notes is shown above?

Question 2

  • B
  • C
  • F
  • G

Observe this diagram of a treble staff.

Which of the following notes is shown above?

Question 3

  • A A F C
  • E G E C
  • B F F A
  • C B D C

Observe this diagram of a treble staff.

Which of the following note sequences is shown above?

Question 4

  • A D F E
  • B C G D
  • D F E B
  • C A G C

Observe this diagram of a treble staff. 

Which of the following note sequences is shown above?

Question 5

Observe this diagram of a treble staff.

Using the numbers on the diagram, match each number with the corresponding note name. Place one letter (A, B, C, D, E, F, or G) in each blank. Every letter A–G will be used at least once. Some letters appear twice.

1           

2           

3           

4           

5           

6           

7           

8           

9           

Notes

Symbols

Let’s start by learning the symbols used to represent notes.

One way to tell them apart is by knowing that something is added every time they get smaller.

A whole note is the plainest: 

A half note adds a stem: 

A quarter note gets filled in:

An eighth note has a tail:

If you ever get stuck on which note is which, visualize this metamorphosis! 

Note Duration

As you might have guessed by the note names, note duration is relative. A half note lasts half the amount of time that a whole note does, and so on. Counting time in music is a lot like doing fractions—but don’t worry, they are simple fractions!

The absolute value of a note changes based on the time signature (we’ll learn about those later!). For now, let’s call a quarter note = 1 beat.

In that case, a half note = 2 beats, a whole note = 4 beats, and an eighth note = ½ a beat. This is summarized in the chart below.

Note Type Beats
Whole 4
Half 2
Quarter 1
Eighth ½

What if quarter note = 2 beats? Think about what the other three note values would be. Can you mentally fill in this chart?

Note Type Beats
Whole  
Half  
Quarter 2
Eighth  

Click "Next" for the answer.

Answer:

 

Note Type Beats
Whole 8
Half 4
Quarter 2
Eighth 1

How close were you?

Time to practice!

Practice Activity

Practice activities are not graded. Think of them as opportunities to check what you know!

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of notes. If you get stuck, feel free to revisit the topic content on the menu bar to your left.

Question 1

  • Eighth note.
  • Quarter note.
  • Half note.
  • Whole note.

Consider the following symbol:

Which note is pictured above?

Question 2

  • Eighth note.
  • Quarter note.
  • Half note.
  • Whole note.

Consider the following symbol:

Which note is pictured above?

Question 3

Select the quarter note:

Question 4

Of the following symbols, which indicates the longest note?

Question 5

The following symbols have been placed in random order.

Select the choice below that orders these notes from SHORTEST in duration to LONGEST in duration.

Rests

Symbols

While notes are used to describe sound—what pitch a sound is and how long it lasts—there are often pauses in music where no notes exist. These pauses are called rests.

These the symbols used to represent rests.

Hint: Think you’ll have trouble keeping the whole and half rest symbols straight? Imagine it this way: the whole rest looks like a “hole” in the ground:

The half rest looks like a "hat":Whole = hole, half = hat!

Rest Duration

If you have already learned about notes, you’ll see similarities between the way we find out how long those last and how we demarcate rests.

In other words, more fractions!

For learning sake, let’s call a quarter rest = 1 beat.

In that case, a half rest = 2 beats, a whole rest = 4 beats, and an eighth rest = ½ a beat.

Here is a handy chart to keep the relative values straight:

Rest Type Beats
Whole 4
Half 2
Quarter 1
Eighth ½

What if a quarter note = ½ beat? Think about what the other three rest values would be. Can you mentally fill in this chart?

Rest Type Beats
Whole  
Half  
Quarter ½
Eighth  

Click "Next" for the answer.

Answer:

 

Rest Type Beats
Whole 2
Half

1

Quarter ½
Eighth ¼ 

How close were you?

Time to practice!

Practice Activity

Practice activities are not graded. Think of them as opportunities to check what you know!

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of rests. If you get stuck, feel free to revisit the topic content on the menu bar to your left.

Question 1

  • Eighth rest.
  • Quarter rest.
  • Half rest.
  • Whole rest.

Consider the following symbol:

 

 

 

Which rest is pictured above?

Question 2

  • Eighth rest.
  • Quarter rest.
  • Half rest.
  • Whole rest.

Consider the following symbol:

 

 

 

Which rest is pictured above?

Question 3

Select the whole rest: 

Question 4

Of the following symbols, which indicates the shortest rest?

Question 5

The following symbols have been placed in random order.

Select the choice below that orders these rests from LONGEST in duration to SHORTEST in duration.

Time Signatures

Checkpoint

Before moving on to Topic 4—Time Signatures, be sure you have completed:

Topic 1—Treble Staff

Topic 2—Notes

Topic 3—Rests

If not, please use the menu bar to your left to explore these topics before beginning Topic 4.

Symbols

A time signature is a symbol that sits on the staff directly to the right of the treble clef. It looks like two numbers stacked on top of each other.

Each number means something different:

  • The top number tells you how many beats are in a measure, or a certain segment of the staff. In this case, there are four beats per measure.
  • The bottom number tells you which type of note or rest is equal to one beat. In this case, one beat = a quarter note/rest.

Interpretation

How do we know what the bottom number means?

Think of it this way. Imagine the time signatures written this way, where we don’t know (or yet care) what the top number is: 

Do these look familiar?

Making sense?

Example

Let's do another example with the following time signature. 

Written on the staff, this would look like:

Remember: just because a quarter note = 1 beat, that doesn’t mean we are limited to using only quarter notes. Here is another correct example of two-four time:

This diagram uses eighth notes to replace one quarter note. Because 1/8 + 1/8 + ¼ = ¼ + ¼, it all still adds up to two beats per measure. You can use any combination of notes and rests as long as they add up to the correct time number of beats!

Hint: The charts we used when learning about notes and rests are helpful when trying to figure out what substitutions are appropriate.

Are you ready to practice?

Practice Activity

Practice activities are not graded. Think of them as opportunities to check what you know!

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of time signatures. If you get stuck, feel free to revisit the topic content on the menu bar to your left.

Question 1

  • Beats per measure.
  • Notes per measure.
  • Which type of note equals one beat.
  • Which type of rest equals one quarter note.
What does the upper number on a time signature indicate?

Question 2

  • Beats per measure.
  • Notes per measure.
  • Which type of note equals one beat.
  • Which type of rest equals one quarter note.
What does the lower number on a time signature indicate?

Question 3

For the following question, consider this diagram of a treble staff.

Which type of rest is equal to one beat?

Question 4

  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 8

For the following question, consider this diagram of a treble staff.

How many beats should be in each measure?

Question 5

For the following question, consider this diagram of a treble staff.

Which of the following sequences could be correctly placed on the above diagram, according to the time signature?

Notation

Checkpoint

Before moving on to Topic 5—Notation, be sure you have completed:

Topic 1—Treble Staff

Topic 2—Notes

Topic 3—Rests

Topic 4—Time Signatures

If not, please use the menu bar to your left to explore these topics before beginning Topic 5.

Review

It’s time to put everything you learned in Topics 1–4 together.

  • Recall that a treble clef sits on a staff, whose lines and spaces correspond to note names.
  • Notes are placed on the staff according to which pitch is chosen and how long it is meant to last; rests are placed on the staff to indicate the length of pauses between notes.
  • A time signature indicates how many notes and rests can be in each measure.

On the next page, you will be asked to use your knowledge of these rules to evaluate a notated song. This activity will evaluate your understanding of basic music notation and be sent to your instructor for individualized feedback. 

If you get stuck, feel free to revisit content from any topic on the menu bar to your left.

Final Assessment

In this problem, you will be asked to assess a fictional classmate, Suzy's, music notation project. 

Suzy notated a simple song according to the following instructions:

  • The song must be in four-four time, with the correct number of beats in each measure.
  • The following notes must appear in order (though may be interspersed with rests):
    • E C B A G F E A D B

Help your instructor grade Suzy's work below by identifying and explaining FOUR mistakes that Suzy made. You will earn 1 point for each mistake identified and 1 point for a correct explanation, for a total of 8 points. Please refer to measure numbers in your explanations; each measure is numbered in blue for your convenience.