Standard Notation – Part 2

In the last article (Standard Notation Part 1) I covered notes, measures, time signatures, and the ‘natural’ (letter-named) notes. Let’s start off with a quick review of those notes:

We’ve used ledger lines for the notes low E through fifth string C… we can also add ledger lines on the other side, above the staff. Just like the lower ledger lines, these will extend the musical alphabet:

We’ll be needing those ledger lines as we move into higher positions – for right now, you just need to know it can be done at either end of the staff.

Standard notation isn’t just about notes, though – it conveys all sorts of other information through special symbols. In the last lesson, I mentioned that the end of a section is often marked with a double bar:

The end of a piece is also marked with a double bar, but the second bar is thicker:

There’s also a sign where an end-of-piece double bar has two dots in front of it – that’s called a repeat sign:

That’s sort of a traffic signal in standard notation – it’s going to send you on a detour to some other place in the music. If that’s the only repeat sign you’ve come across, it means at that point you’ll go back to the very beginning, and play all those measures a second time. The second time you get to the repeat sign, you ignore it and keep going.

Sometimes the composer won’t want you to go all the way back to the beginning. In that case, repeat signs come in pairs, like in this example:

Here you’d play measure 1, then measures 2 and 3… and then repeat measures 2 and 3… and finally play measure 4. It’s a nice, compact way to write music – 6 bars of sound take up only 4 bars on the page.

You’ll also notice the time signature is 2/4. There’s no real limit on the number of beats that can be in one measure – the minimum is just one; some time signatures will call for 15 or more per measure.

Sometimes you’ll see repeat signs with numbers and brackets over them, like this:

This one’s a little different. At the repeat sign, you return to the beginning (since there’s no repeat in the opposite direction)… but the next time through, you skip any measures under the ‘1’ bracket, and go right to the ‘2’ bracket. In this case, you’d play measures 1, 2, 1 again, and then 3. There’s no limit to the number of different endings you can have – I’ve seen music with five different repeat endings, and there are probably pieces written with even more.

There are a few other directional signals you’ll see often in standard notation. The first is D.C.:

In this example, you’ve got a measure, then two measures repeated once, then one more measure with a repeat sign – and the symbol D.C. written above it. The D.C. is an abbreviation for an Italian term, ‘da capo’, which means ‘from the head’. When you see that, you go back to the beginning of the piece.

Many guitarists mispronounce da capo, because it looks so much like capo. The D.C. term is dah-KAH-po; the thing you use to change keys is a KAY-po.

You’ll often see D.C. combined with the term ‘al fine’, which means ‘to the end’. When you see that, there will be the word ‘fine’ (pronounced fee-NAY or fih-NAY-ee, meaning end) somewhere above the staff, usually over a double bar. You’d then go from the instruction ‘D.C. al fine’ to the beginning (D.C.) and play until you reach the double bar marked ‘fine’.

By the way, Italian is the standard language of music. By the end of these lessons, you’ll know a whole bunch of Italian words!

A closely related symbol is D.S., which is an abbreviation for ‘dal segno’ (doll SAYN-yo, from the sign). That’s always combined with this symbol somewhere in the music:

When you see D.S. over a repeat sign, you find the symbol, and play from that point in the music.

You can actually have a double segno sign too – and the instruction for finding that would be D.S.S. – but it’s really rare.

Finally, there’s the coda (KO-duh), which is used pretty often. Coda is Italian for ‘tail’, so it’s a piece of music that will come at the tail end of a song. Somewhere in the music will be a coda symbol,

and somewhere else will be an instruction above a repeat sign – it’ll say “D.C. al coda” or “D.S. al coda”. When you reach that instruction, you’ll go back to the beginning (D.C.) or back to the sign (D.S.), and you’ll play until you reach the coda symbol – at that point, you’ll jump to the coda section, which is written at the end of the music. Most publishers will place a second coda sign over the beginning of the coda section to help you find it quickly, and most will separate it slightly from the main body of the music, or begin the coda on a new line.

Here’s the same music I used for the numbered ending example re-written to use the coda instead:

Like the segno, you can have a second coda – noted with

but like the double segno it’s extremely rare.

Now that you know some of the navigational symbols used, let’s get back to reading!

The letter-named notes leave some gaps in the fretboard. To fill those gaps, we use the symbols # (sharp) and b (flat). If you see a sharp, the note will be played one fret higher, and if you see a flat, the note will be played one fret lower.

The bar line between measures serves as a ‘reset’ button for sharps and flats. So when you see this:

The first measure is E-F-F#-G, played open-1-2-3 on the first string. In the second measure, the notes are E-F-G… because we’ve had a bar line, the F# note has been ‘reset’ to F.

At times, we’ll want to use a note like F#, and then use F without the sharp – which is called F natural – before we get to a bar line. To change a sharp or flat back to a natural before a measure is over, we use a natural sign, which looks like this:

Here’s a measure with F-F#-F#-F, and a second measure with B-Bb-B-Bb:

A couple things about this measure… in the first measure, the third note doesn’t have an accidental. It’s still an F# note, because the sharp for the second note keeps on working until the bar line – unless we use a natural sign, which doesn’t happen until beat four.

Next, the second measure… the B note is the open second string. Bb has to be one fret lower than that, so you’ll need to move to the third string, third fret to play it.

We usually use sharps going up and flats going down… that keeps the music clear by minimizing the number of naturals we might need. Here’s the entire chromatic scale in the first position going up:

And going down:

Accidentals are used often in minor keys, because the harmonic and melodic minor scales use notes ‘outside’ the key. Here’s the C major scale:

The A natural minor scale uses the same notes, but with A as the root:

The other two minor scales alter tones… the harmonic minor raises the seventh note:

And the melodic minor scale raises the sixth and seventh notes going up, but not going down (the natural signs aren’t required because the bar lines cancel the sharps, but I’ve included them as a reminder):

So far we’ve only done one note at a time. That’s fine for noting many solos, but it doesn’t do much for rhythm parts. The solution is to put more than one note head on a stem, like this:

The first beat includes a C note (first fret, second string) and an E note (open first string), so you’d play those two strings together. The next beat has the open B and E strings played together, and the third beat has a five-string open C major chord.

So notes can have one head for a single note, two for a double stop, or three to six for a chord. Beginning readers find it rather hard to navigate chords… but that’s because they try to read one note at a time. You don’t actually have to read each note in a chord – the real trick is to recognize what chords go with each key.

You’ll notice that C major chord doesn’t have any accidentals, so all of the notes must be in C. Working with just basic chords, each major key will have one 7th chord, two major chords, and three minor chords – here are the chords in the key of C major:

Now I’ll show you a trick for instantly (or at least quickly) recognizing the basic chords without accidentals. See how most of those chords have three notes grouped closely together – one in every space or line? Those three notes form a triad – the basis for the chord. When you see that, the lowest note of the three is the root of the triad. So when you see this:

You’re dealing with a C chord type – that’s the lowest note in the set of three. Now, if you know the basic chords in C, you can pretty quickly pick out the triads. The one to be careful of is the G/G7 chords – the top note will tell you the difference:

That means you’ve got most of the basic chords in C down ‘at sight’ – spend a little time working at remembering the Dm chord and you’re all set for this key in open position. I’ll show you more tricks as we get into higher positions and more complicated chords.

The key of A minor is really just as easy – chords in A minor, at least in simple songs, usually use only the G# accidental, and usually only in the E rooted chord. If you’re in Am, and you see a chord with a sharp and an E root, it’s usually E7.:

Chords are often combined with bass notes. The result is music with two voices – one is the melody created by the bass line, the other is the rhythmic accompaniment of the chord strums. To keep things clear, the music is written as two separate lines, typically with stems in opposite directions – when there is a bass note, there’s a rest in the chord strum, like this:

You’re probably wondering why the bass notes wouldn’t simply be written as quarter notes… if they were written that way, they’d only get one beat, so you’d need to dampen them at the second beat in each measure. Here we’re letting the bass notes ring, and if we didn’t use the rest to show it’s two separate lines, you’d end up with five beats worth of notes in each measure.

One last thing for this lesson – key signatures. If you’re going to apply a sharp or a flat to the same note throughout an entire piece of music, and that note will rarely appear without the accidental, it’s easiest to just write it once, in the beginning.

Let’s say you’re working in the key of G. The G major scale is G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G, so you’ll probably have almost all of the F notes in the piece raised to F#. In the very beginning – after the clef, but before the time signature – you write F# on the top line:

This sharp (or sharps, or flat or flats) is called a key signature. The advantage to using a key signature is that you won’t clutter up the music with a lot of accidentals – instead of writing this:

You’d have this:

Since all the F notes are now F#, some of the chords you’ve learned will be a little different… the main chords in the key of G are:

The really tricky one here is the D major – it’s written identically to the D minor chord in the key of C! With a bit of practice, though, you’ll recognize these odd chords right away, and the triad rule still holds for the open position key of G:

Reading in key signatures takes some practice, because you have to remember to sharp or flat all the indicated notes. We’ll take the keys one at a time, and I’ll put a practice piece at the end of each lesson for you to work on.

Since the holidays are drawing near, have fun with my little arrangement of Jingle Bells:

Also check out… Standard Notation Part 1