Musical Symbols

Lines

Stave

The staff is the fundamental latticework of music notation, on which symbols are placed. The five staff lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale; which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef. In British usage, the word "stave" is often used.

Ledger or leger lines

These extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the noteheads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines can be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.

Bar line

These separate measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Also used for changes in time signature. Bar lines are extended to connect multiple staves in certain types of music, such as for keyboard or harp, and in conductor scores, but such extensions are not used for other types of music, such as vocal scores.

Double bar line, Double barline

These separate two sections of music, or are placed before a change in key signature and/or time signature.

Bold double bar line, Bold double barline

These indicate the conclusion of a movement or an entire composition.

Dotted bar line, Dotted barline

Subdivides long measures of complex meter into shorter segments for ease of reading, usually according to natural rhythmic subdivisions.

Bracket

Connects two or more lines of music that sound simultaneously. In general contemporary usage the bracket usually connects the staves of separate instruments (e.g., flute and clarinet; two trumpets; etc.) or multiple vocal parts in a choir or ensemble, whereas the brace connects multiple parts for a single instrument (e.g., the right-hand and left-hand staves of a piano or harp part).

Brace

Connects two or more lines of music that are played simultaneously in piano, keyboard, harp, or some pitched percussion music.Depending on the instruments playing, the brace (occasionally called an accolade in some old texts) varies in design and style.

Clefs

G clef (Treble clef)

The centre of the spiral assigns the second line from the bottom to the pitch G above middle C.The treble clef is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music. Middle C is the first ledger line below the staff here.

C clef (Alto, and Tenor clefs)

These clefs point to the line representing middle C. As illustrated here, it makes the center line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the "alto clef". This clef is used in modern notation for the viola and some other instruments. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a "movable" clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line (counting from the bottom) and called a "tenor clef". This clef is used very often in music written for bassoon, cello, trombone, and double bass; it replaces the bass clef when the number of ledger lines above the bass staff hinders easy reading..

F clef (Bass clef)

The line between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C.Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a "bass clef". This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef, especially in choral music, where it represents the bass and baritone voices. Middle C is the first ledger line above the staff here.

Neutral clef

Used for pitchless instruments, such as some of those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured here. It may also be drawn with a separate single-line staff for each untuned percussion instrument.

Neutral clef

Used for pitchless instruments, such as some of those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured here. It may also be drawn with a separate single-line staff for each untuned percussion instrument.

Octave clef

Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. A treble clef with an eight below is the most commonly used, typically used for guitar and similar instruments, as well as for tenor parts in choral music.

Tablature

For stringed instruments, such as the guitar, it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard 6-stringed guitars, six lines would be used). Numbers on the lines show which fret to play the string on. This TAB sign, like the percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef. Similarly, the horizontal lines do not constitute a staff in the usual sense, because the spaces between the lines in a tablature are never used.

Notes and rests

Octuple whole note

Octuple whole note

Quadruple whole note

Quadruple whole note

Double whole note

Double whole note

Whole note

Whole note

Half note

Half note

Quarter note

Quarter note

Eighth note

For notes of this length and shorter, the notehas the same number of flags (or hooks) as the rest has branches.

Eighth note

For notes of this length and shorter, the notehas the same number of flags (or hooks) as the rest has branches.

Sixteenth note

Sixteenth note

Thirty-second note

Thirty-second note

Sixty-fourth note

Sixty-fourth note

Hundred twenty-eighth note

Hundred twenty-eighth note

Two hundred fifty-sixth note

Two hundred fifty-sixth note

Beamed notes

Beams connect eighth notes (quavers) and notes of shorter value and are equivalent in value to flags. In metered music, beams reflect the rhythmic grouping of notes.

Dotted note

Placing a dot to the right of a notehead lengthens the note's duration by one-half. Additional dots lengthen the previous dot instead of the original note, thus a note with one dot is one and one half its original value, a note with two dots is one and three quarters, a note with three dots is one and seven eighths, and so on. Rests can be dotted in the same manner as notes. In other words, n dots lengthen the note's or rest's original duration d to d × (2 − 2−n).

Ghost note

A note with a rhythmic value, but no discernible pitch when played. It is represented by a (saltire) cross (similar to the letter x) for a notehead instead of an oval. Composers will primarily use this notation to represent percussive pitches. This notation is also used in parts where spoken words are used.

Multi-measure rest

Indicates the number of measures in a resting part without a change in meter to conserve space and to simplify notation. Also called gathered rest or multi-bar rest.

Accidentals and key signatures

Flat

Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.

Sharp

Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.

Natural

Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).

Double flat

Lowers the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to modify is already flatted by the key signature.

Double sharp

Raises the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to modify is already sharpened by the key signature.

Flat key signature

Lowers by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of flats in the key signature, starting with the leftmost, i.e., B♭, and proceeding to the right; for example, if only the first two flats are used, the key is B♭ major/G minor, and all B's and E's are "flatted" (US) or "flattened" (UK), i.e., lowered to B♭ and E♭.

Sharp key signature

Raises by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, and all octaves thereof, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are defined by the number of sharps in the key signature, also proceeding from left to right; for example, if only the first four sharps are used, the key is E major/C♯ minor, and the corresponding pitches are raised.

Demiflat

Lowers the pitch of a note by one quarter tone. (Another notation for the demiflat is a flat with a diagonal slash through its stem. In systems where pitches are divided into intervals smaller than a quarter tone, the slashed flat represents a lower note than the reversed flat.)

Flat-and-a-half (sesquiflat)

Lowers the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. As with a demiflat, a slashed double-flat symbol is also used.

Demisharp

Raises the pitch of a note by one quarter tone.

Sharp-and-a-half (sesquisharp)

Raises the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. Occasionally represented with two vertical and three diagonal bars instead.

Time signatures

Specific time – simple time signatures

The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the crotchet or quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes). For example, 34 is pronounced as "three-four time" or "three-quarter time".

Specific time – compound time signatures

The bottom number represents the note value of the subdivisions of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 8 represents the quaver or eighth-note). The top number indicates how many of these subdivisions appear in each measure. Usually, each beat is composed of three subdivisions. To derive the unit of the basic pulse in compound meters, one must double this value and add a dot, and divide the top number by 3 to determine how many of these pulses there are in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of two dotted crotchets (dotted quarter-notes). This is pronounced as "Six-Eight Time".

Common time

This symbol represents 44 time. It derives from the broken circle that represented "imperfect" duple meter in fourteenth-century mensural time signatures.

Alla breve or Cut time

This symbol represents 22 time, indicating two minim (or half-note) beats per measure. Here, a crotchet (or quarter note) would get half a beat.

Metronome mark

Written at the start of a score, and at any significant change of tempo, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 crotchets, or quarter notes, fit into one minute of time. Many publishers precede the marking with letters "M.M.", referring to Maelzel's Metronome.

Note relationships

Tie

Indicates that the two (or more) notes joined together are to be played as one note with the time values added together. To be a tie, the notes must be identical – that is, they must be on the same line or the same space. Otherwise, it is a slur (see below).

Slur

Indicates to play two or more notes in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath. In certain contexts, a slur may only indicate to play the notes legato. In this case, rearticulation is permitted.Slurs and ties are similar in appearance. A tie is distinguishable because it always joins two immediately adjacent notes of the same pitch, whereas a slur may join any number of notes of varying pitches. In vocal music a slur normally indicates that notes grouped together by the slur should be sung to a single syllable.A phrase mark (or less commonly, ligature) is a mark that is visually identical to a slur, but connects a passage of music over several measures. A phrase mark indicates a musical phrase and may not necessarily require that the music be slurred.

Glissando or Portamento

A continuous, unbroken glide from one note to the next that includes the pitches between. Some instruments, such as the trombone, timpani, non-fretted string instruments, electronic instruments, and the human voice can make this glide continuously (portamento), while other instruments such as the piano or mallet instruments blur the discrete pitches between the start and end notes to mimic a continuous slide (glissando).

Tuplet

A number of notes of irregular duration are performed within the duration of a given number of notes of regular time value; e.g., five notes played in the normal duration of four notes; seven notes played in the normal duration of two; three notes played in the normal duration of four. Tuplets are named according to the number of irregular notes; e.g., duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc.

Chord

Several notes sounded simultaneously ("solid" or "block"), or in succession ("broken"). Two-note chords are called a dyad or an interval; three-note chords built from generic third intervals are called triads. A chord may contain any number of notes.

Arpeggiated chord

A chord with notes played in rapid succession, usually ascending, each note being sustained as the others are played. It is also called a "broken chord" or "rolled chord".

Dynamics

Pianississimo

Extremely soft. Very infrequently does one see softer dynamics than this, which are specified with additional ps.

Pianissimo

Very soft. Usually the softest indication in a piece of music, though softer dynamics are often specified with additional ps.

Piano

Soft; louder than pianissimo.

Mezzo piano

Moderately soft; louder than piano.

Mezzo forte

Moderately loud; softer than forte. If no dynamic appears, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.

Forte

Loud. Used as often as piano to indicate contrast.

Fortissimo

Very loud. Usually the loudest indication in a piece, though louder dynamics are often specified with additional fs (such as fortississimo – seen below).

Fortississimo

Extremely loud. Very infrequently does one see louder dynamics than this, which are specified with additional fs.

Sforzando

Literally "forced", denotes an abrupt, fierce accent on a single sound or chord. When written out in full, it applies to the sequence of sounds or chords under or over which it is placed.

Crescendo

A gradual increase in volume.Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the passage.

Diminuendo

Also decrescendoA gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended in the same manner as crescendo.

Forte-piano

A section of music in which the music should initially be played loudly (forte), then immediately softly (piano).

Articulation marks

Staccatissimo or Spiccato

Indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making the note very short. Usually applied to quarter notes or shorter. (In the past, this marking's meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent and not staccato. These usages are now almost defunct, but still appear in some scores.) In string instruments this indicates a bowing technique in which the bow bounces lightly upon the string.

Staccato

This indicates the musician should play the note shorter than notated, usually half the value; the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.

Tenuto

This symbol indicates play the note at its full value, or slightly longer. It can also indicate a degree of emphasis, especially when combined with dynamic markings to indicate a change in loudness, or combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (portato or mezzo staccato).

Fermata (Pause)

A note, chord, or rest sustained longer than its customary value. Usually appears over all parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo. It can be placed above or below the note. The fermata is held for as long as the performer or conductor desires, but is often set as twice the original value of the designated notes.

Accent

Play the note louder, or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.

Marcato

Play the note somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge). In organ notation, this means play a pedal note with the toe. Above the note, use the right foot; below the note, use the left foot.

Ornaments

Trill

A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher note (according to key signature) within its duration, also called a "shake". When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill. In modern music the trill begins on the main note and ends with the lower auxiliary note then the main note, which requires a triplet immediately before the turn. In music up to the time of Haydn or Mozart the trill begins on the upper auxiliary note and there is no triplet.In percussion notation, a trill is sometimes used to indicate a tremolo. In French baroque notation, the trill, or tremblement, was notated as a small cross above or beside the note.

Trill

A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher note (according to key signature) within its duration, also called a "shake". When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill. In modern music the trill begins on the main note and ends with the lower auxiliary note then the main note, which requires a triplet immediately before the turn. In music up to the time of Haydn or Mozart the trill begins on the upper auxiliary note and there is no triplet.In percussion notation, a trill is sometimes used to indicate a tremolo. In French baroque notation, the trill, or tremblement, was notated as a small cross above or beside the note.

Upper mordent

Rapidly play the principal note, the next higher note (according to key signature) then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In most music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended. In handbells, this symbol is a "shake" and indicates the rapid shaking of the bells for the duration of the note.

Lower mordent (inverted)

Rapidly play the principal note, the note below it, then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In much music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.

Turn

When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. Placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates an inverted turn, in which the order of the auxiliary notes is reversed.

Turn

When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. Placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates an inverted turn, in which the order of the auxiliary notes is reversed.

Turn

When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. Placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates an inverted turn, in which the order of the auxiliary notes is reversed.

Appoggiatura

The first half of the principal note's duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).

Acciaccatura

The acciaccatura is of very brief duration, as though brushed on the way to the principal note, which receives virtually all of its notated duration. In percussion notation, the acciaccatura symbol denotes the flam rudiment, the miniature note still positioned behind the main note but on the same line or space of the staff.

Octave signs

Ottava

8va (pronounced ottava alta) is placed above the staff (as shown) to tell the musician to play the passage one octave higher.When this sign (or in recent notation practice, an 8vb – both signs reading ottava bassa) is placed below the staff, it indicates to play the passage one octave lower.

Quindicesima

The 15ma sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to mean play the passage two octaves higher. A 15ma sign below the staff indicates play the passage two octaves lower.

Repetition and codas

Tremolo

A rapidly repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency to repeat (or alternate) the note. As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate, but it is a common convention for three slashes to be interpreted as "as fast as possible", or at any rate at a speed to be left to the player's judgment.

Tremolo

A rapidly repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency to repeat (or alternate) the note. As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate, but it is a common convention for three slashes to be interpreted as "as fast as possible", or at any rate at a speed to be left to the player's judgment.

Repeat signs

Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.

Simile marks

Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. In the examples here, the first usually means to repeat the previous measure, and the second usually means to repeat the previous two measures.

Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings, or 1st- and 2nd-time bars)

A repeated passage is to be played with different endings on different playings; it is possible to have more than two endings (1st, 2nd, 3rd ...).

Da capo

(lit. "From top") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music from its beginning. This is usually followed by al fine (lit. "to the end"), which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda (lit. "to the coda (sign)"), which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.

Dal segno

(lit. "From the sign") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.

Segno

Mark used with dal segno.

Coda

Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).