Reading Music Notation

Guitarists use tablature, which is useful because you can write tabs using any word editor, and put them up online, unlike music scores. However, information on the note played and the timing of the note is not presented. By relying solely on tabs, guitarists often don't learn what notes they're playing, and think of music in terms of fingerings and numbers on the fretboard, rather than the the actual notes. This makes learning scales and chords difficult.

Hence, one of the first steps in learning some music theory is to know the language music theory is written in. I don't have a full theory course using music notation in this site, but its useful to start somewhere. This post may be rather heavy, so take your time about it. One last thing, scroll down to the end of this post to download Hosanna by Hillsong United, in music notation format.

Reading the Notes
It might be instructive to take a look at what notes are before proceeding. Briefly, there are twelve notes, repeated over and over again at higher intervals, in any piece of (conventional) music. I suspect that music is largely based on the way the notes are placed on a piano, with the white keys named: C D E F G A B (do re mi fa...). These notes are written as follows:
The horizontal lines are called 'bar lines', and notes can be written on them, or in between them on the spaces. There isn't enough space for all the notes you need, so additional dashes are drawn as and when they are needed.

This may be tough to remember, so one common trick is to take the notes within the spaces, because they spell 'FACE':
The squiggly symbol on the left, in piano terms, roughly means 'the right hand', which means the higher pitched notes. It is called the 'treble clef'. This is the range which the guitar mainly falls in, so we'll stick to this range.

The above notes are found on the piano's white keys. The black keys, otherwise known as C#, Db, D#, Eb, and so forth, are labeled using symbols:
Here, the 'F' note has a # (sharp), making it an F# instead of an F. The G major scale is played here.
Here, the 'B' note has a b (flat), making it a Bb instead of a B. The F major scale is played here. It would be terrible troublesome to flat all the Bs in a song in F major, and the 'b' symbol is instead placed at the front, next to the treble clef, on the line or space where the note is supposed to be:
The same applies for sharps too.

Rhythm Notation
The first notation you need to know is what 'time signature', or what 'beat' the song uses. The two numbers next to the treble clef indicate this:
A 4/4 timing tells you that the song uses 4 quarter beats per bar, i.e. a regular 4 beat tempo. A 3/4 timing tells you that the song uses 3 quarter beats per bar, i.e. a 3 beat tempo. The number at the bottom tells you the length of the note referred to by the topmost number, which states the number of such notes per bar. Other 'time signatures' like 3/8 also exist, but you won't come across them much in sung music.

Music scores not only tell you what is played, but also how long each note is sustained. The following gives a fairly good sample of what to expect, and is to a large extent self-explanatory:

Take each bar to equal the length of what is known as a 'whole note', which is the first note (from the left) on the top line. Following that are two half notes (since two halves add up to one), four quarter notes. Faster notes are shown in the first bar of the second line: 8th and 16th notes - check that they add up to one (4x1/8 + 8x1/16 = 1).

The very last bar has something trickier... dotted notes. A dot next to a note means you have to increase the length of the note by one and a half times. Check that the last line adds up to 1!

There is also something known as 'triplets':
In the above, three notes are squeezed into the duration of a quarter note - with a eighth note its usually two, but now its three, that's why the eighth note notation is used. Similarly, three quarter notes are squeezed into the duration of a half note.

Lastly, silences are marked out by what we call a 'rest':
From left to right, we have a whole rest, a half rest, a quarter rest, a 8th rest, and a dotted rest, which follows the same rules as dotted notes. 16th rests are shown on the right (looks like a plant). As usual, check that the timing add up to 1 in each bar.

Its not a very good exercise, but its all I have: download the score & tabs of Hosanna by Hillsong United (thanks Dave!), and pay attention to the notes and their timings as you play the song. My Hosanna video might help you out too... don't rush this though.. give yourself over a week to go through the entire thing, and then spend another week going through it again and again.


Erick said...

thank you so much for this. i really appreciate all you do. i have used your website as a resource countless times. thank you...very very much.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kenny. I love your site! Thanks for making all of this information avaiable for free! God Bless you!

Do you happen to know what Program was used to print out the tab/notation for Hosanna that you link to here? I'd appreciate your help, if you know.

Thanks again! Keep it up!

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