Dots, lines and squiggles


There are several ways to write music. Guitarists will probably be familiar with tab notation and chord charts. Contemporary composers will often use graphic scores. Though some of these notation systems will be discussed in the intermediate or advanced sections, the one we’ll be using throughout is modern stave notation.

Almost everything mentioned here will be explained in more detail in other sections. The purpose of this page is to make you familiar with the fundamentals so that you have an idea of the vocabulary and what it refers to.


What is music notation?

The score below gives you an idea of what music notation looks like. It is composed of several elements; the stave, a clef, a key signature, a time signature, notes and annotations.


Example 1

W. A. Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, first movement, bars 1-4.

Eine Kleine exerpt.JPG


The stave

A stave is a system of five lines, counted from the bottom up. Each line and space between a line represents a particular pitch. As you can see in the picture above, there are four lines of stave, one for each member of the string quartet.

A stave is also commonly called a staff. If you see either of these two words, it just refers to the series of five lines.



A clef is the very first thing written on the far left of the score. In this example there are two treble, an alto and a bass clef used. These are used to indicate the pitch of the notes, which will be explained in more detail in the Clefs page.


Key signatures

The next thing to be written on the notation after the clef is the key signature. This is a series of sharps or flats, never a mixture of the two. The example above has one sharp, which means that every F throughout the piece will become an F sharp. Because it only has one sharp, it is in the key of G major.


Time signatures

Time signatures indicate the pulse or beat of the music, for example waltzes have a distinct three beat pulse. They are usually shown as a set of two numbers, written similar to a fraction, or as a C like in the example above.



The notes are the various dots written on the stave. They tell us two main things; pitch and rhythm.



Annotations give us lots of other details, and there are a wide range that can be used. For example, the above example has an f written at the beginning of the piece under each line of stave, which tells the performers to play loud. It also give an allegro direction, which means to play fast.





Csaky, T. et al. eds., 2006. GCSE Music, Newcastle upon Tyne: Coordination Group Publications Ltd.

Mozart, W.A., 1955. Eine kleine Nachtmusik in G, K.525 E. F. Schmid, ed., Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag. Available on IMSLP at:,_K.525_(Mozart,_Wolfgang_Amadeus) (Accessed 24 March 2016).

Ng, Y.Y., 2012. Music Theory for Young Musicians: Grade 1 2nd ed., Selangor: Poco studio.

Taylor, E., 1989. The AB Guide to Music Theory: Part 1 9th ed., London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Ltd.

Taylor, E., 2008. Music Theory in Practice: Grade 1, Oxford: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Ltd.


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