Lesson 1.1 - Pitch Notation

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Staff and Clef

Writing down music (called “notation”) preserves it and makes certain that it receives a fairly consistent performance.

  • Musical scores begin with several elements, including the staff and clef, which make it possible to fix pitches.

  • Pitches are musical sounds created by vibrating bodies, like strings or an air column. They are named using the letters of the alphabet, from A to G, and define the relationships between them.

  • A staff (plural: staves) is made up of horizontal lines and spaces, each of which, when associated with a clef, represents a specific pitch. A staff lets the performer determine exactly how much higher or lower a specific pitch is in relation to another pitch.

  • A clef indicates which location on a staff represents which pitch. The earliest clefs indicated the location of what is now called middle C, and are thus called C clefs. Example 1.1 shows what the C clef looks like in modern notation.

 

Example 1.1: C Clefs
Example 1.1: C Clefs

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Types of Clefs

Although C clefs may appear on any line of a staff, today only two C clefs are commonly used:

  1. Alto clef is used to notate viola music.
  2. Tenor clef is used to notate some trombone, bassoon, and cello music.

Two other clefs came into common usage centuries after the C clefs were well established. These newer clefs can accommodate the bass (lowest voice) and soprano (highest voice) at their extremes, with the alto and tenor voices within.

  • Treble or G clef indicates the location of G above middle C.
  • Bass or F clef indicates the location of F below middle C.

Bass and treble clefs often appear one above the other in the grand staff, as shown in Example 1.2. Ledger lines extend a staff either above the top line or below the bottom line, in order to accommodate pitches that exceed its range.

 

Example 1.2: Grand Staff
Example 1.2: Grand Staff

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Pitch and Pitch Class

In Example 1.3, the note E appears in various locations on the staff: high, middle, and low. When we refer to specific Es that are higher or lower than one another, each E is considered to be a distinct pitch.

  • Pitch refers to the relative highness or lowness of a sound; the concept of pitch lets us identify both the name and placement of each E in relation to other Es.
  • The term pitch class refers to all the pitches that have the same letter name. In Example 1.3, all of the Es are represented by the pitch class E, no matter how high or how low they are on the grand staff.

 

Example 1.3: Pitch and Pitch Class
Example 1.3: Pitch and Pitch Class

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The Division of Musical Space: The Interval

An interval is the distance between any two pitches. Each interval has its own unique sound quality.

As you cycle through the seven intervals based on the seven different pitch names, the eighth note begins the cycle anew (e.g., A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B…). This distance (from A to A) is called an octave. It has been universally considered to be a crucial interval because it marked an important sonic boundary. Pitches separated by one or more octaves were considered to be so closely related that they shared the same name.

Eventually, the music created by western (European) musicians used pitches that divided the octave into seven steps, each of which was given its own name, corresponding to the first seven letters of the alphabet (A through G). These steps were of two different sizes, one exactly twice as large as the other. Let’s use the keyboard to represent relationships and distances in music.

  • The smaller step is called a half step. Half steps on the keyboard occur between any two adjacent keys, such as E and F, or B and C.

  • The larger step is called a whole step, and is defined as two half steps. Whole steps on the keyboard occur between any two keys that are separated by an intervening key, such as between C and D, and A and B. Example 1.4 illustrates various half (H) and whole (W) steps on the keyboard.

  • The numbers following each letter name describe specific pitches: each octave, moving upward from C, is assigned a number. Pitches above C in that octave will have the same designation.

Example 1.4: Half and Whole Steps on the Keyboard
Example 1.4: Half and Whole Steps on the Keyboard

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Accidentals

The octave (A-G) has seven different pitch names within it, but the keyboard has twelve different keys within that octave: seven white keys and five black keys. Naming each of these twelve keys involves altering the names of the seven basic (or natural) keys by adding various modifiers that are called chromatic alterations or accidentals.

The three most common accidentals are:

  • the flat (), which lowers a pitch by one half step.

  • the sharp (), which raises it by one half step.

  • the natural (♮), which cancels a previous accidental. For example, an F following an F removes or cancels the sharp, causing the resulting pitch to be one half-step lower.

Two more accidentals are less common but still frequently used:

  • a double sharp ( Double Sharp ) raises a pitch by two half steps (or an already-sharped pitch by one half step).

  • a double flat ( Double Flat ) lowers a pitch by two half steps (or an already-flatted pitch by one half step).

Example 1.5A summarizes all five accidentals and Example 1.5B illustrates where various notated examples are played on the keyboard. Note that in example 1.5B, each of the five accidentals has been applied to the note F.

 

sharp raises a pitch a half step
flat lowers a pitch a half step
natural cancels a previous accidental or indicates an unaltered pitch
Double Sharp double sharp raises an unaltered pitch two half steps or a sharped pitch one half step
Double Flat double flat lowers an unaltered pitch two half steps or a flatted pitch one half step

Example 1.5A: Summary of Accidentals

 

Example 1.5B: Accidentals on the Keyboard
Example 1.5B: Accidentals on the Keyboard

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