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western Musical notation—Page 3

broad characteristics of Modern Western Musical notation

Up to now, The Muse has explored the general character of modern Western notation systems. Here, The Muse describes the basic and most essential elements of the Western music notation system as they might appear on a typical, specific piece of Western music. This is a fundamental exposition; the subject is too large and complex to treat in this venue in its entirety.

The Muse begins this exploration with an examination of a specific score. Below is the score of the famous traditional popular melody, Auld lang syne, from Old Songs for Young Voices, collected by Agnes L. Money and published 1898. Words are from the immortal poem by Robert (Bobby or Rabbie) Burns. This score exhibits a moderate amount of notational complexity.

To help clarify the connection between Western notation and Western music, The Muse suggests that take the following steps:

  • Click the image of the media player below to listen to Auld lang syne.
  • As the music plays, follow the lyrics on the page of sheet music below.
  • Now, play the song again while you read the description of Western notation that follows the score (below on this page). Look for notations on the score that correspond to points made about notation in the description of Western notation, below.
  • Check back and forth between the notation description and the score until you are satisfied that you understand the connection between what you're hearing, seeing on the score, and reading about the description. Play the song as many times as you need.

play the Jean Redpath version of the song now—


viewing & Listening options

As you read about Western notation and listen to the music, you may find it difficult to make comparisons between what you read about Western notation and the score because you can't see both of them on your computer monitor at the same time. Or score notation or lyrics may be too small to see clearly. You may find it necessary to scroll up and down between them repeatedly.

If you are reading this on a computer equipped with a large monitor or more than one monitor, you have the option to reduce or eliminate these difficulties by opening the score in a new window and arranging it on your monitor.

  • Arrange the Auld lang syne score in a new window: click here.

It helps to minimize your media player so it doesn't block your view.



Description of Western Notation

play the Jean Redpath version of the song again

Sorry, you can't hear this music because Java is not enabled on your computer or browser.

About Auld lang syne Notation—General

  • Modern Western notation uses a five-line staff on a page of music, one line under another, to provide a field on which to represent music that is to be played or read. Pitch is indicated by placement of notes on the staff and duration is shown with different note values and additional symbols such as dots and ties.
  • Notation on a staff is read from left to right and top to bottom.
  • A staff of written music normally begins with a clef, which indicates the particular range of pitches encompassed by the staff. Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the standard five line staff are represented using ledger lines, which display a single note with additional lines and spaces.
  • Unless otherwise indicated, the key signature follows clef on the staff. It indicates the key of a piece by specifying certain notes to be flat or sharp throughout the piece.
  • A time signature is next, following the key signature.
  • Measures (spaces between vertical bars) divide the piece into regular groupings of beats, and the time signatures specify these groupings.
  • If needed, text directions to musicians, called markings, are placed above or below the staff wherever they are needed. Markings are usually derived from standard Western notation musical nomenclature. They specify such items as tempo, dynamics, and other musical characteristics the composer wants to achieve.

About Auld lang syne Notation—Details

  • This sheet music is arranged for piano. It contains three rows of three staves each. Top stave contains the vocal or melody line. Center stave contains chords to be played with the right hand. Third stave contains chords to be played with the left hand.
  • Top and center staves in each row each contain a treble clef at the left. Bottom staves in each row contains a bass clef at the left.
  • The note symbol (resembles the letter "b") denotes a flat symbol. This music is written in the key of B-flat. It follows the clef symbol on each stave of each row.
  • Kinds of notes (whole, half, quarter, etc.) are indicated by note shapes.
  • the 4/8 symbol that follows the flat symbol denotes meter (beats per measure) and what kind of note receives one beat.
  • No textual directions, otherwise known as markings, appear on this page.
  • If music is vocal, lyrics are usually written below the notes on the staff where they are to be sung. Breathing directions (markings) are sometimes added where breaths are to be taken. In this case, there are no breathing directions; additional lyrics are supplied at the bottom of the page.
  • There are no tempo markings (speed at which the music should be played) on this score. If present, tempo markings would most likely appear early, probably on the first stave in the first row.



more about western notation

The Muse's description of Western notation is intentionally left simple. In its full bloom, Western notation is too sophisticated and complex to explore in depth on these pages. The material presented here is intended as an introduction and overview only. Anyone seeking to learn more about musical notation systems should consult the references in the ETAF Recommends section, below on this page, or should seek formal training.

  • You may wish to further explore notation systems by visiting The Muse's page called Welcome To The Musical Score: click here.

more about modern western notation

This feature is continued on the next page.

  • Visit the page that follows to further explore modern musical notation of the Western Tradition and related subjects: click here.

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