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Music Theory Basics

Music is a language and like any other language it has a written form. The parts that make up the written form of music and the rules for writing is are know as music theory. No matter your age or experience level, reading music and understanding music theory is a valuable skill. Not yet music literate? Now is the perfect time to learn!

Let’s dive in!

Reading music — the basics

Staff:  The musical staff is the foundation of modern musical notation.  The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces.  Each line and space represents a specific note.

Note: Short for “notation”. Depicts the pitch and duration of a musical sound.

Pitch: represents the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound.

Clef:  A clef is what assigns individual notes to certain lines or spaces.  There are several type of clefs, but the most common are the Treble clef (aka G clef) and the Bass clef (aka F clef).

Treble clef:  Treble is a term for higher sounding notes.  The treble clef gets its name because it represents the high notes.

Bass clef: Bass is a term for lower sounding notes.  The bass clef gets its name because it represents the low notes.

Note names:  In modern music, there are 7 letters that make up the musical alphabet.  A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.  The letters are used to denote the pitch of each note.  The note names are assigned in alphabetical order (i.e. B comes before C, etc.) and once you reach a G the alphabet starts over again (i.e. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C…).  This patten can repeat an infinite number of times.

Let’s put this all together with this handy chart!

Since this handy chart won’t always be available, let’s go over how to remember note names.  The best way, that I have found, is to use mnemonic devices.

On the treble clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) spell FACE.  The note names spell a word, so that’s easy enough to remember.  The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are E, G, B, D,  and F.  To remember these note names, most people make up a sentence like: Every Good Boy Does Fine.

On the bass clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) are A, C, E, and G.  The sentence All Cows Eat Grass is a handy way to remember that.  The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are G, B, D, F, and A.  I like to use the sentence Green Bananas Don’t Fool Anybody.

If this seems complicated to you, throw away the sentences and just remember two things.  The treble clef is also called a G clef because it indicates where the G is located on the staff.  If you look closely, the line that intersects the clef the most is the second line from the bottom.  That line is G. Likewise, on the bass clef is also called an F clef because is indicated where the F is located.  The F can be found between the two dots that are to the side of the clef.  This is the second line from the top.  Music scholars  believe that the current style of the clefs evolved from stylized G’s and F’s that composers and publishers included in the music.

Reading rhythms — the basics

Understanding these basics sets the stage for the next critical aspect of music theory: Rhythm. Rhythm refers to the timing of sounds and silences in music. It is what makes music move and flow. Beats are the basic units of rhythm; a regular pulse that divides time into equal segments. Think of the ticking of a clock or your heartbeat.

Let's break down some rhythm fundamentals:

Time Signature: This is found at the beginning of a piece of music, right after the clef and key signature. It tells you how many beats are in each measure. For instance, 4/4 time means there are 4 beats per measure, and the quarter note gets one beat.

Note Values: Each note in music has a duration. For example, a whole note holds for four beats in 4/4 time, a half note holds for two, and a quarter note holds for one.

Rests: Just as important as the notes are the silences in music. Rests indicate periods of silence and come in various lengths, just like notes.

Rhythm can be complex, with syncopation, triplets, and dotted rhythms adding variety and interest. Syncopation emphasizes a beat not typically emphasized, while triplets divide a beat into three equal parts. A dotted rhythm adds half the value of a note to its original length, creating a long-short pattern.

Remember, rhythm is best understood by listening and practice. Clap along to your favorite songs, paying attention to the beat and how the melody fits within it. Or better yet, use a metronome to practice different rhythms on your own. This will not only improve your sense of timing but also your overall musicality.

To visualize rhythm and its components, check out this 'Tips for Sight Reading' blog post with a chart.

As you continue on your musical journey, always remember: music theory is not just about rules; it's about understanding the language of music. With practice, you'll not only read music more effectively but also express yourself more freely through the universal language of melody and rhythm. So keep at it, and let the music play!