1.2 Notes And Notation

1.2.1 The piano staffs

A (piano) staff is made of 5 vertical lines. Notes are written either on the lines or between the lines. The higher you go up the keyboard the higher the notes are written on staff. It also works in the other direction. The lower you go down the keyboard the lower the notes are written on the staff.

At some point the 5 lines are not enough so you have to draw an “extra tiny line” for each new note that either goes above the fifth line or below the first line. These extra lines are called ledger lines.

Piano is usually played with two hands and each hand “occupies” a certain register on the piano. The register is determined by clef placed in front of each row of 5 lines. The “normal” clef called a treble clef. The “dot” from which the clef starts lands on the second line from bottom to top (on the G key which explains why the table clef is sometimes called a G clef). In order to not put tens of ledger lines under the first line when going into the lower part of the piano, the bass register uses the bass clef which resembles an ear. The “dot” lands on the third line from bottom to top (on the F key signifying the name F key for the clef as well). When writing and reading piano scores the treble clef is placed above the bass clef as a default setting. Usually the right hand plays what is written in the treble clef and the left hand what is written in the bass clef. Look at the illustration below for reference.

When we get into the extreme ends on the keyboard (highest and lowest notes) we use a marking called an 8va (=ottava). It means that the notes written are played either an octave above or an octave below than written. If the 8va marking is above the section (= 8va alta) then we play the notes an octave higher than written. If the 8va marking is below the section (8va bassa) then we play the notes an octave lower than written. There are also the ultra rare 15ma (=quindicecima) markings that signify the notes being played 2 octaves above or below than written. This is the case for the keys at the very end of the keyboard and is very rare. Look at the illustration below for reference. Notice how much easier it is to read the second set of notes is compared to the first one.

The position of middle C on the treble staff is on the first ledger line below the lowest line. On the bass clef it is on the first ledger line above the highest line. In the illustration below (that shows the “C” note in different octave ranges) the middle C is in the fourth bar (box) from the left. Notice how the C alternates from being on the line to being between the lines with each octave.

1.2.2 The 12 unique notes

Below is an illustration of the 12 unique notes and how they are written on the staff. We might have to re-visit this illustration again as we learn more things about theory. We can notice that the C major scale (all white keys = C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C) is written on the staff by alternating notes on the line and between the line. For the other notes (black keys) we add some signs before the notes to alter them. These are called accidentals and we cover them during next segments. We can also notice that there are two different ways to name he black keys. This has to do with something called enharmonic equivalents and we cover that as well during the next segments.

1.2.3 Enharmonic Equivalents

You might have noticed the 12 notes are written twice with some of the notes staying the same and some of them have ben changed. This has to do with a thing called enharmonic equivalent. It just means that the same key (as in a physical piano key) can be written in several ways on a staff paper. The key is still the same but the function of that key relative to the other keys may be different.

A whole book can be written on enharmonic equivalents and we need to keep the lessons practical. For now it is good to know that some notes have two options of being written and they both represent the same physical key on the piano. It is very simple to find out which keys have an enharmonic equivalent by thinking from the opposite perspective. All the black keys (5) have one and can be written in two possible ways.

In addition to that, C,B, E and F have ones as well (B#,Cb,Fb and E#) but those are extremely rare to see outside of music theory. So we can omit them and mark C,B,E and F as unchangeable. The rest of the keys (D,G and A) are also unchangeable. So out of the 12 unique notes 5 (the black ones) have an enharmonic equivalent each and 7 (the white ones) are unchangeable. That is pretty simple to remember. Look at the 12 unique note illustration again for reference.

1.2.4 Accidentals – sharps, flats and naturals

You might have noticed the “hashtag” (#) sign and the “small b” (b) sighs that are put before or after a note. Those are called accidentals. They are put before the note in notation and after the note if it presented as a letter or a chord. Look at the 12 unique note illustration below to see the difference.

Any note can be raised or lowered at any given time. In notation that is done by putting accidentals before a note. Accidentals are simply a specific sign placed in font of a note to indicate that it is modified. The most common accidentals are the sharp sign (#) the flat sign (b) and the natural sign (♮). A “#” means the note raised by a semitone. (A semitone is one physical piano key. For example if you play a G with a # (that is G#) you play the next physical key after G which is G#) A “b” means the note is lowered by a semitone.

If a note is already altered (raised or lowered) and needs be returned to its unaltered (=natural) state a natural sign (♮) is used in front of the note. A natural sign (♮) “cancels out” any accidentals.

There are also rare cases where a double-sharp sign (x) and a double-flat sign (bb) are used. A “x” means the note raised by two semitones. A “bb” means the note is lowered by two semitones. The illustration below shows you also how to pronounce notes with flats, sharps and naturals.

Let us look look at the 12 unique notes illustration again and try to see where some notes have a sharp sign (are sharpened) and some have a flat sign (are flatted).

1.2.5 Key centers

A key center (or just a key) is metaphorically a strong gravitational pull in music. In a way a key center is like the a black hole and notes and chords that are close by tend to gravitate towards it. Both melodies and harmonies tend to resolve themselves into that key. These things become clearer when we look more closely into chord pairs, progressions and improvisation.

Each key center has a specific amount of flats and sharps. In order for us not to write them every time they occur we simply put them in the beginning of the staff. Each key has its own amount of sharps or flats. The key centers can have any amount ranging from 0-7 sharps or flats. That means that there are 15 key centers altogether (7 sharps + 7 flats + C major that has no sharps nor flats)*. Below is an illustration of all the possible key centers. Notice the order of sharps and flats when writing them on the staff.

*(That means that the rare enharmonic equivalents (Cb,Fb,B#,E#) do not have a key signature and exist only as individual notes and even then mainly in theory books. If they had theoretical key signatures the signatures would have to contain double-sharps or double-flats which is impractical.)

(c) 2019 Sibil Yanev