Musical Notation: A guide to sight reading

Musical Notation

We write down words to pour out our thoughts and communicate and express our emotions and feelings with others even when we are not in proximity with the people we’re writing to. Musically, the same scenario also takes place. Ideas, feelings and emotional expressions are documented (notated) by a composer or arranger and transfered to a performer.
It is done in such a way that the performer can pick up a piece of music (that is notated) and sings or plays exactly how the composer wanted it to be played or sung.

In this article, we are going to bring the concept of NOTATION down to the easiest form for your understanding and pleasure.

Stay tuned as we take a ride!

What is Notation?

Notation is music written in a systematic way. It is a way of conveying a composer’s feeling through rhythms and pitches in a specific manner.

Before we proceed, there are certain crucial topics we must get aquatinted with so we can comprehend notation in its entirety.

Let’s discuss Notes.

Notes are oval in shape and are used to notate music pitches.

Note that the notation system we are discussing under this topic is not ‘SOLFA NOTATION’ but Staff notation.
Solfa notation makes use of the solfagio system (d r m f s l t d’) while the staff notation system makes use of the oval notes we afore mentioned.

There are series of the oval notes and some of them are white with no stem, some are white with stem and some are black with stems.

Let us give an outline of the notes and their names:

The first one is called the 1. Breve

  1. Semibreve
  2. Minim
  3. Quaver or
  4. Semiquaver
  5. Demisemiquaver

These notes are then inscribed on what is called stave or staff.

A staff is a five horizontal lines and four equal spaces kind of embodied rectangular on which notes (the ones we discussed above) are inscribed on to produce music.

However, music notation is not complete without the clef signs and key signatures.

Clef signs are signs written at the beginning of a staff, just before the key signature to give name to the staff.

We explained earlier that the staff is just a five horizontal lines and four equal spaces kind of rectangle. What gives a name to it is the clef sign which is situated just at the beginning of the staff.

There are different types of clef signs of which we’ll be discussing below.
They are:
a. Treble or G clef
b. Moveable Clefs (C Clefs)
c. Bass Clef
d. Neutral Clef
e. Guitar Tablature

Treble clef is otherwise known as the G clef because it’s wrapped just around the G line. The G will sound G4. It is the G just above the middle C of the piano.

This particular staff above becomes a G or treble staff because there is a treble clef sign on it.

G Clef

This staff, however, is used by treble/alto singers, and other lighter sounding instruments like the violin, soprano saxophone, flute etc.

Moveable Clefs
This clef is subdivided into two and they are:
Alto and Tenor clef.

Let’s start with Alto Clef.

Alto clef is otherwise known as the C clef because the middle C is obviously situated in the middle of it.

Movable staff

This clef, however, is not widely used because only instruments like the mandola, trombone and viola make use of this clef.

This is an example of an alto staff.

Tenor clef is also known as the C clef.
It is simply the movement of the middle C from the third line (where the alto staff middle C was) to the fourth line (a third from the middle C of the alto staff).

Just like the alto staff, the tenor staff is also not widely used as it is only used to indicate the upper ranges of instruments like the ‘cello, trombone, double bass, euphonium and other base sounding instruments.

The next clef we’ll be looking at is the Neutral Clef.
The neutral clef is basely used for percussive instruments. Each line and space of this clef are without definite pitches being assigned percussive instruments.

The guitar Tablature (Guitar Tab)
This is a staff made specifically for the guitar. It is the representation of tabs on the lines and spaces in the expense of notes.
Note that this particular staff doesn’t carry a clef but the word ‘TAB’ is boldly written in place of a clef sign or we can say the word ‘TAB’ is the clef sign allocated to this type of staff.

The tablature comes with its own features as they do not carry the traditional five lines and four equal spaces of a typical staff but it goes with the number of strings of the instrument.
I.e, if the Tablature is for the bass guitar, it will come with a four equal lines and numbers (which indicate the fret boards to be played) will be placed on the lines and if it were a but the lead guitar will come with six horizontal lines and the same process of numbers that was applied for the bass guitar tablature will be applied on the lead guitar tablature.

Let’s forge ahead!

Before we conclude on the rudiment of sight reading, we’ll have to talk extensively about the key signature.

There are 24 keys in music (12 Major keys and 12 minor keys) and knowing the key signatures for all of these keys can be wearisome but not to worry cause we’re here to simplify it and make it very easier for you to assimilate.

Note that each key signature has both Major and minor key combined which means a particular key signature is used interchangeably between a specific major and a minor key.
This means that each key signature is shared by both a major and a minor key and the concept is known as RELATIVE KEY.


Let’s look at how the key signature is derived.
It is derived from the concept of accidentals.

Visualize a real life accident. Accidentals are notes with defunct statue. For example, a note was just a normal C, when it has an accident it either turns a sharp or a flat.

There are five types of accidentals which are:

  1. Sharp (#)
  2. Flat (b)
  3. Neutral
  4. Double sharp (##)
  5. Double flat (bb)

For the purpose of this study, we’ll only be talking about the three main accidentals which are the first three listed above.

Get this acronym

For sharp series
1 sharp (#) – Go
2 sharps (##) – Down
3 sharps (###) – And
4 sharps (####) – Enter
5 sharps (##### – By
6 sharps (######) – Force
7 sharps (#######) – Charles

For Flat series
1 flat (b) – Finish
2 flats (bb) – Before
3 flats (bbb) – Eight
4 flats (bbbb) – And
5 flats (bbbbb) – Don’t
6 flats (bbbbbb) – Grumble
7 flats (bbbbbbb) – Charles

The key of each listed sharp and flat keys are gotten from the first letter of the acronyms.

Note that the key of C major and A minor are not in the line up.
This is because Cmajor and Aminor are both neutral keys and have no key signature.
This means that anytime you see a staff without a key signature, it is either the key of C major or Aminor.

Memorize the acronyms and you’ll not have any problem with knowing which key the music is on.

Let’s shed a little light on how staff are connected to produce music that are not distinct as in the case of an ensemble.

Staff are connected by brace. An example is shown below.

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