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Music Notation Basics Part II - Key Signatures & Accidentals


Welcome to Part II of our Music Notation Basics Series. The Series provides a foundation in the very basic aspects of written music, hopefully with just a little something more. It is for those members who have asked for material that allows them to start at the beginning.

In Part I we presented the music staff, how the bass and treble clefs are related, and how we label notes. We introduced some language that may not have been familiar, and gave you a few basic working definitions of words such as pitch, tone, staff and note.

Part I presented a vertical view of the music Staff—an 'up and down' view—and how we use it to imply pitch. I planned for Part II to expand a bit on Part I topics, but to mostly focus on a horizontal view--one that showed how we use the staff (and notes) to depict time. This two-dimensional theme of 'staff as graph' is shown below.

But, there were still many basics I didn't cover in Part I, so the topics that relate to how music behaves in time will be deferred until Part III. So, this article continues with more material related to pitch:

- Moveable C & percussion clefs.
- Key signatures and how they relate to major and relative minor scales.
- Three new accidentals.
- How accidentals are used to override a key signature.
- Transposing & so-called 'transposing instruments'.

So that covers what I wanted to say about pitch-related notation. I'm going to encourage others to contribute later on what I'd call 'pitch ornamentation' notations—things like bends, slides, vibrato and so on. Maybe we'll give those topics a guitar spin, or maybe we can use examples from other instruments—the guitar isn't the only instrument in the world that can do this stuff, you know!

Moveable C & Percussion Clefs

In Part I we mentioned the bass and treble clefs and how they were born from the splitting of the Grand Staff. I did not mean to imply these were the only two staves in music. Just like any piece of graph paper, the staff can refer to any set of notes you choose—you simply need a symbol to place on the staff that shows what note a selected space or line on the staff refers to. As you learned in Part I, that is exactly what a clef does…it tells you what note the composer intends for some specific line of the staff.

Long ago, musicians selected a clef that specifies the location of Middle C. Now, we already learned that Middle C was the leger line just below the treble clef (and the leger just above the bass clef). That's true, but so long as I tell you first, I can put any note any where I choose to. So, if I tell you Middle C is the 2nd line on the staff (from the bottom), don't you automatically know what the rest of the staff represents? Of course you do.

The 'moveable C' clefs are examples of how I can use the staff as a piece of graph paper. Just like the F clef and the G clef 'point to' F and G respectively, the moveable C clef points to Middle C—and I can place it anywhere I want on the staff. Two common C-clef placements are shown below.

The first moveable C clef above is the alto clef, and the second one is the tenor clef. Notice that the clef is centered on and highlights a particular line of the staff. Whichever line the clef is centered over is automatically assigned as Middle C.

Now, this would not be Music if there were no exceptions. Musicians want to use the staff even when pitch has little meaning—to write only ideas of rhythm. What we need is a 'clef' that tells you, “There is no up-down (pitch) meaning implied by this staff”. For instruments where it is felt that pitch is not too important, for selected percussion parts for example, several clefs are commonly used. I've shown these below.
I hope this gives you a bigger view of the staff than you had after reading Part I. When you see a staff notated with a clef you have not seen before, you know what it means or can at least ask better questions about it. There are many other clefs. I have covered some of the common ones to give you a good idea of why they exist, and I have described the two main ways they are all used. Let's move on.

Key Signatures >>