In musical notation, musical symbols are marks that denote the many aspects of how a musical piece is to be performed. These symbols convey information concerning many elements of music, including pitch, articulation of musical notes, duration, metre, tempo, form, and details of specific playing techniques. Having the knowledge to navigate through these symbols is beneficial when one needs to read or compose melodies.
Musical symbols include both ancient and modern symbols. Modern musical notation, which is commonly used throughout the world, is believed to have its roots in European classical music. This system makes use of a five-line staff to place the musical notes. To be able to study these musical notations, one has to be familiar with the symbols which represent the notes. This blog explores musical symbols and their meaning.
The staff is the very basis of sheet music. The notes are written on a staff made of five lines, which themselves are made of four spaces between them. Both the lines and the spaces denote ascending pitches belonging to a note which has a letter name: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. When counting the staff, it is done vertically upwards, from the lowest line to upwards. The alphabetical pattern repeats- the note above G is another A. A clef is what determines which specific pitch is assigned to which line and space.
Ledger or leger lines
The ledger lines are additional lines, which, along with the spaces they form, denote pitches above and below the staff. Multiple ledger lines can be used.
The bar lines separate the bars or measures of music, depending on an indicated time signature. Barlines sometimes extend through many staves, grouping them together when a grand staff is used. The extension also denotes groups of similar instruments in a conductor’s notes.
Double bar line
A double bar line indicates a change in the music, like a new musical section, a new time signature or a new key signature.
Bold double bar line
A bold double bar line denotes the conclusion of a composition or a movement.
Dotted bar line
Double dotted bar lines subdivide measures of the complex meters into smaller fragments for ease of reading.
Bracket and brace
Brackets connect two or more lines of music that sound simultaneously. In contemporary times, it is used to connect staffs of individual instruments, (e.g. two trumpets, a flute and clarinet, etc.) or many vocal parts.
On the other hand, a brace connects multiple parts of the same instrument (e.g. the right and left-hand staffs of a harp or a piano). In some old texts, the brace is sometimes referred to as an accolade and may vary in style and design.
The clef defines the tessitura or the pitch range of the staff on which it is placed. It is usually the left most musical symbol on staff, although a different one may appear somewhere else to denote a change in the register. In earlier times, clefs could be placed anywhere on a line on staff. But the modern notation mostly uses bass, treble, tenor clef and alto.
G clef (Treble clef)
The spiral of a G clef denotes where the G above a middle C is situated on the staff. When the G clef with the spiral is located on the second line of the staff, it is called treble clef. It is the most commonly used clef in modern musical notation.
C clef (Alto and tenor clefs)
The middle of a C clef points to the line which represents middle C. In the illustration shown here, it is centred on the third line of the staff, thus making it the middle C. When placed in such a manner, the clef is known as an alto clef. The alto clef is mainly used for the viola, but occasionally, it is used for other instruments too.
In the second illustration, the clef is shown to be centred on the fourth line. When it is done so, it is called tenor clef. The tenor clef is used for cello, bassoon, double bass and trombone, when the notes get extremely high, thus avoiding the use of excessive ledger lines.
F clef (Bass clef)
The F is placed below the middle C on the line between the dots using an F clef. As shown in the illustration here, when the F is placed below the middle C on the fourth line, it is called the bass clef. This is, by far, its most common use. In modern music notation, the bass clef appears as often as the treble clef.
Octave numbers modify treble and bass clefs. As shown in the illustration, an ‘8’ below the clef denotes that pitches will sound one octave lower than they would usually do with the unmodified clef. A two-octave shift is indicated by a ‘15’ below. To indicate pitches one or two octaves higher, these numbers are used above the clefs. The most common version is a treble clef with an ‘8’ below, typically used for guitar music or tenor voice.
The neutral clef is not a ‘true’ clef. It is usually used for pitchless instruments, like percussion instruments. The lines and spaces of a neutral clef do not denote pitches. Instead, they denote specific instruments, like different individual instruments, as in a drum set. For percussion instruments, the neutral clef may be drawn with a single-line staff.
The tablature isn’t a true clef either. The lines and spaces don’t indicate pitches. The tablature notation is usually used in place of an ordinary staff notation for certain string instruments, like the guitar. The lines stand for the strings of the instrument. Numbers on the lines denote which fret to use. The spaces between the lines aren’t used, since the lines denote the strings rather than pitches.
Rhythmic values of notes and rests
By referring to the length of a whole note, musical notes and rest values are determined.
The eighth and shorter notes’ durations are denoted by flags, but beams can be used in place of the flags to connect these notes in groups. Usually, this is done to denote a rhythmic grouping. But it can also be done to connect notes in ametrical passages. The number of beams used is equivalent to the number of flags. A single beam groups together eighth notes, two beams group together sixteen notes and so on.
To increase the length of the duration of a note by one-half, a dot is placed to the right of a notehead. Additional dots increase the length of the previous one instead of the original note. Hence, a note with a single dot is one and half its original value, while a note with two dots is one and three quarters. But more than two dots are rarely used. As for rests, they can be dotted in the same way as notes.
A ghost note, while it does have a rhythmic value, doesn’t have any discernible pitch when played. It is denoted by a cross (similar to the letter X) for a notehead. Composers mainly use this notation to denote percussion pitches.
The breath mark symbol tells the performer to leave a light space or simply, to take a breath. The tempo isn’t affected by the space. For instruments played with a bow, it indicates the lifting of the bow and starting the next note, with a new bowing.
A caesura is a pause, during which, time isn’t counted.
Accidentals and key signatures
In music, an accidental refers to a note of a pitch that isn’t a member of the mode or scale denoted by the most recently applied key signature. To mark such notes in musical notation, the sharp (♯), flat (♭) and natural (♮) symbols are used, among others. These symbols are known as accidentals.
When a set of sharp (♯), flat (♭), or rarely, natural (♮) symbols are used, they are referred to as key signatures. These symbols are placed on the staff at the beginning of a section of music. It is the key signatures that denote which notes are to be played as flats or sharps in music.
Accidentals play the role of modifying the pitch of the notes that come after them in the same staff position within a measure.
It lowers the pitch by one semitone.
It raises the pitch by one semitone.
It renders the flat or sharp null.
It lowers the pitch by two semitones.
It increases the pitch by two semitones.
There isn’t a universally accepted notation for microtonal music. Depending on the situation, varying systems are used. One common notation to indicate quarter tones is writing the fraction ¼ next to an arrow, which can be pointing either up or down.
Some other forms of notation are:
A demiflat brings down the pitch by one quarter tone.
A sesquiflat lowers the pitch by three quarter tones.
A demisharp increases the pitch by one quarter tone.
A sesquisharp increases the pitch by three quarter tones.
A harmonic flat brings down the pitch of one note to a pitch so that it matches the indicated number in the harmonic series of the bottom of the chord.
The majority of music has a rhythmic pulse, which has a uniform number of beats. Each segment of the pulse is equal to one measure. Time signatures denote the number of beats in the measures (the numbers on the top) and also indicate what kind of note denotes a single beat (the number at the bottom).
Simple time signatures
In the example shown above, the length of three quarter notes is a measure.
Compound time signatures
The compound meter creates an additional rhythmic grouping inside each measure.
The metronome mark is used to define the tempo of the music. Each beat is assigned a duration.
When two notes having the same pitch are tied together, they are played as a single note. The sum of the time values of the tied notes is what the length of this single note will be. While the symbol for both a tie and slur appears to be the same, a tie can only merge two notes of the same pitch.
Only the first note of a slurred group is articulated. This means that, while playing bowed instruments, the notes are played in a single bow movement. As for wind instruments, the notes under the slur aren’t tongued. They are played in one continuous breath. In vocal music, a slur usually denotes that notes below the slur should be sung to one single syllable.
Glissando or Portamento
In music, a glissando is an uninterrupted glide from one note to another, including the pitches in between. Some instruments like the trombone, cello, timpani and electronic instruments can make this glide uninterrupted. On the other hand, other instruments like harp, piano and mallet instruments blur the pitches between the start note and endnote.
A tuplet is a group of notes that usually wouldn’t fit into the rhythm space occupied by them. While the most common version of a tuplet is a triplet, other versions are possible too. These include seven notes in the space of eight, five notes within the space of four and so on. Tuplets are named in accordance with the number of the grouped notes, like duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc.
Several notes sounded simultaneously is what makes a chord.
An arpeggiated chord is formed when a chord with notes is played in rapid succession. The notes are usually ascending and each note will be sustained as the others are being played. The arpeggiated chord is also known as a broken chord or rolled chord.
Dynamics indicate the relative intensity of a musical line. They are the expressive elements of music. Given below are some of the symbols used.
Pianississimo- Extremely soft.
Pianissimo- Very soft.
Piano-Soft, but louder than pianissimo
Mezzo piano– Moderately soft, but louder than piano.
Mezzo forte– Moderately loud, it is softer than forte.
Forte– Rather loud.
Fortissimo– Very loud.
Fortississimo– Extremely loud.
Sforzando– Sforzando indicates an abrupt and fierce accent on a single chord or sound. It literally means ‘forced.’
Crescendo– A crescendo indicates a gradual increase in loudness.
Diminuendo-The opposite of crescendo; it indicates a gradual decrease in volume.
Niente– Niente literally means ‘nothing.’ A Niente may be employed at the beginning of a crescendo to denote ‘start from nothing’ or at the end of a diminuendo to denote ‘fade out to nothing.’
Articulations denote the length, style and volume of attack of individual notes. They include accents.
A staccato shows that the note should be played shorter than actually notated. This is usually half of the value, hence leaving the rest of the metric value silent.
Staccatissimo or Spiccato
A staccatissimo denotes that the note should be played even shorter than the staccato. This is normally applied to quarter or shorter notes.
The tenuto is an indication that the note must be played at its full value, or sometimes even a little bit longer. It may also denote a degree of emphasis, particularly when it is combined with dynamic markings to convey a change in loudness.
Fermata or pause
A fermata denotes that a chord, note or rest is sustained longer than its actual written value. It usually appears on all parts of an ensemble. It is the conductor or performer who decides how long the fermata is held for.
An accent denotes that a note must be played louder than the surrounded unaccented notes.
A marcato marking denotes that the note should be played with more force than a not with a regular accent mark.
The pitch patterns of individual notes are modified by ornaments.
A trill, also referred to as ‘shake’, is a rapid alternation between a specified noted and the next higher note within its duration. This symbol, when succeeded by a wavy horizontal line, denotes a running or extended trill.
The principal note and the next higher note are played in rapid succession, then returned to the principal note for the remainder of the duration. In some cases, the mordent starts on the auxiliary note, hence the alternation between the two notes may keep running.
The principal note and the note below it are played in rapid succession, and then returned to the principal note.
Gruppetto or turn
When a gruppetto or turn is placed directly above the note, it denotes a sequence: upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and returning to the principal note. When the turn is placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first and then succeeded by the above-mentioned pattern.
Music has evolved over time. It plays many roles in society. As culture has evolved, so does the music that is associated with it. Many musical symbols that may have been used centuries back aren’t used in the modern age. But while musical symbols and notes may evolve, the world’s love for music only grows stronger.