High ones and low ones (part 2)

Part 1 of “High ones and low ones” was all about the shape of the music – higher notes on the stave means higher-pitched notes.

What happens when people start saying things like, “Ok, let’s take it from the top F…”?

Note letter names

There are 7 letters used in music, A-G.
When we get beyond G, we start again at A.  Easy-peasy!

If you are a soprano or alto, you will read notes on the treble clef stave (see below).

Basses use the bass clef stave. Troublesome tenors sometimes use treble and sometimes bass clef.

This is a treble clef Thumbnail for version as of 11:59, 11 June 2009 (or G clef) and this is a bass clef Thumbnail for version as of 13:38, 27 April 2006 (or F clef).
Here are the note letter names for both staves:

File:Bass and Treble clef.svg

Ex. 9a. Note letter names for treble and bass clef staves

Rather than try to remember the whole lot, we often recommend that note letter names are learnt in terms of lines and spaces.

Ex. 9b. The treble stave notes on the lines – use a mnemonic, such as Every Green Bus Drives Fast

Ex. 9c. The treble stave notes in the spaces – no mnemonic required (FACE)

Ex. 9d. The bass stave notes on the lines (Green Buses Drive Fast Always)

Ex. 9e. The bass stave notes in the spaces (All Cows Eat Grass)

(N.B. rude mnemonics are infantile and rarely amusing.)

That’s a lot to remember but – as with most things – you get better the more you do it.


Where tenors and basses share a stave, a bass clef is used.

Ex. 9f. Tenor and bass parts share the same bass stave.


Where tenors have their own stave, a treble clef is used, though they should sing an octave lower than written. Sometimes, a figure ‘8’ is attached to the bottom of the treble clef to denote this.

Ex. 9g. Here, the tenor part has its own stave and uses a treble clef, sung an octave lower than written. The ‘8’ below the treble clef denotes this.


Those dotty notes

Dotted notes, those with a dot (usually only one) immediately following, are longer by half of the value of the note type.

So, whilst a minim = 2 beats, a dotted minim = 2 + 1 = 3 beats.

Ex.8a. The dot has the effect of increasing the duration by half the note’s original value

Beam me up

Quavers (½-beat notes) and other note types with ‘tails’ are often grouped together with a beam, as below. This does not change their value in beats. If we look at a simplified version of Jingle Bells, we can see why it is common practice to ‘beam’ quavers together.

Ex. 7a. The quavers are rather cluttered, particularly in the second bar.


Ex. 7b. Beamed quavers are clearer


Long ones and short ones (part 2)

As stated in a previous post, it’s only of limited use to know that some notes are long and some short.  It’s more useful to know how many beats  to hold a note, especially if the tune you’re singing is unfamiliar.

Note values simply have to be learnt.  Here are the most common:

Ex. 6a. Common note types and values


(Observe that the direction of the stem (up or down) does not affect the value of the note, nor indeed its pitch.)



All systems go!

Do you sometimes find yourself wondering what all this talk of staves and systems is about?

A stave refers to the five horizontal lines (and four spaces) that most of the notes are written on.

Ex. 5a. Music on a stave (or staff).

A system is a block of staves which are joined together, and all sound at the same time as the music is sung / played. They are joined by a vertical line at the beginning of the system, and some staves are also joined by brackets, usually where the voices or instruments ‘go together’ (e.g. the voices or the two keyboard staves).

In this extract from an anthem for treble voices + organ (by a talented and very modest composer) there are three staves joined together – one for the voice with two morefor the organ – and so we have a three-stave system.

Ex. 5b. Four systems are shown, each consisting of three staves.

Here is an example which starts soprano + organ (three staves), becoming 4-part choir + organ (6 staves) from bar 13. There are three systems in this excerpt.

Ex. 5c. Three systems with different numbers of staves


When will this be useful?

There’s a lot of talk in rehearsals which refer to staves and systems, as a way of locating a point in the score. So now, when you hear, “Right, let’s go from the start of the bottom system on page 1,” you know what to look for.

“Where’s the bar?”

Some members get excited when we start discussing bars … until they discover that we’re not actually talking about where we’re going after the practice.

We pinpoint a particular location in the score often by referring to bars and bar numbers, and it’s a good idea to understand what these are.

Bars and bar lines

Music is usually divided into ‘packets’ or bars containing an equal number of beats (counts).  For example, there might be 4 beats in a bar, or 3 beats in a bar. When we get to the end of a bar, there is a vertical line through the stave, called… you guessed it: a bar line.

Ex. 4a. Bars and bar lines.

How do I find a bar?

Bar numbers often occur at the start of each line of music, so that bars can be quickly identified, without the clutter you’d get from numbering each one.

Ex. 4b. This excerpt shows bars 5-16 from a song. Bars 5, 9 and 13 are numbered.

So now, when you hear the instruction, “Ok, from bar eleven;  3… 4… 1…” you’ll be ready to sing from “Like a house of cards.”

Silent ones

Another thing you need to know when performing music is – paradoxically perhaps – when not to sing or play. We have seen how the note type tells you how long to hold it, and how its position on the stave will tell you how high or low it should be; we need to know when and for how long to rest, or remain silent.

Here are some of the main ones.

Ex. 3a. Examples of rests.

As ever, these don’t need to be learnt straight away – you end up picking a lot of it up as you go along.  Just get used to what they look like.

In fact, the bigger clue that you’re not singing is the fact that there are no words!

Look at this example, and sing it through to yourself. Notice how there is a short gap after ‘the,’ and see how there is a rest there.

Ex. 3b. A short rest.

In this example, the rest period goes on longer. Sing and count out the beats aloud in bars 11-12 to get the gist. Try listening to the original (opening chorus going into first verse) – you can find it on YouTube – and counting the rest beats silently.

Ex. 3c. A longer rest.

High ones and low ones (part 1)

As well as telling you how long to hold notes, the musical score also tells you how high or low to sing.  This is specific – the position of a note on the stave (the five lines and four spaces) correlates to the pitch of the note.  The notes are given one of seven letter names, A-G, with some modifications so that there are 12 possibilities in total.


Look for the shape

If you’re reading that first paragraph through for the second time, and still thinking, “Stop right there!” don’t despair.

We don’t really need to learn all that stuff immediately (though it’s honestly not at all as complicated as it sounds).  The pattern of notes on the stave gives us a beautifully simple ‘overview’ of the shape of the melody we’re singing. Take a familiar tune, as in the example. Follow the notes as you sing and notice how they follow the pitch, like a sort of musical ‘graph.’

Ex. 2a. Follow the direction of the melody (up, down or same) as you sing.

Now give it a try using this well-known tune, with the words removed. Sing it through, moving up and down as per the relative position of the notes and see if you can work it out. (Post below if you got it, but please don’t post the answer, so others can have a go.)

Ex. 2b. Can you work out the tune?

Long ones and short ones (part 1)

Ex 1a. Different note types, each having a different value.

By ‘long ones and short ones’ I mean duration.

Look at the following example – all syllables last for one count or beat except “star” which is longer, lasting two beats. Sing it and pat the beat on your knee as you do.

Ex 1b.

What does this mean for me?

The exact value of each note type, measured in beats, can be learnt, but generally speaking: be ready to hold the white ones for longer than the black ones.

I will post later about each of the note types and their respective names and values but, in the meantime, look at the following example – you can immediately see which are the long notes.

Ex 1c. (From Les Misérables)

The three main purposes of musical notation

Conductors hate it when singers say: “Just give me the words and I’ll remember the tune – I’ve always been good at remembering tunes.”

No, no, no!  There are lots of reasons why this is not ideal – too many to go into right here, so see me at the rehearsal if you want the boring stuff.

And if you’re reading this, you presumably want to learn a bit more about reading the ‘dots,’ so that’s a good sign, I guess!

These are the three most important things the musical score will tell you:

(a) High ones and low ones,

(b) Long ones and short ones,

(c) Silent ones.

And anyone can get to grips with these basics in the space of a few rehearsals.

Yes, the words are really useful (that’s why they’re printed in the score); and yes, singing without a score is often desirable. But we do need to know our way round a score if we are going to sing well.