1.MTwo Axes

It has been said that Standard Notation was the first ever graph. In its vertical axis it tells you which notes to play. In the horizontal axis, it tells you when to play them. As far as possible, it is a graphic representation of the music's essential facts.

the pitch axis

Let's start with a quarter-note or crotchet (that's two names for the same thing). It doesn't mean anything on its own . . .

. . . but if you place its oval note-head in the second space of a five-line stave dressed with a treble clef sign (that's the wiggle) it represents something absolutely specific - the A above middle-C. Most instruments and voices can play that note . . .

A on electric piano, guitar, oboe & koto.

essential terminology

the rhythmic framework

Here are a few crucial definitions before we move on -

Most music is built around a steady pulse. The speed of the pulse (the tempo) will vary from piece to piece and is measured in beats per minute (bpm).

A beat is the amount of time from one pulse to the next.

(People use the terms beat and pulse inconsistently. Most refer to the pulse as 'the beat', for instance. However, the context always makes the meaning clear; phrases like 'the beat' and 'on the beat' are really referring to the pulse and the positioning of notes in relation to the pulse. When we hear 'a beat' or 'two and a half beats' it will always be referring to the length of a note).

The pulse usually includes regularly spaced accents or stresses. Some music has an underlying 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, for instance ("Good King Wen - ces - las looked out), while other music has 1 - 2 - 3 - 1 - 2 - 3 (God save our Gra - cious Queen . . .). There are many other possibilities.

These repeating cycles of stresses are called bars and 'one' is where the most significant musical events tend to happen - changes of harmony, important notes in the structure of the melody and so on.

If the regular stress in the music occurs on every 4th pulse, we say that there are '4 beats in a bar.' You could also say that the music is in 'quadruple metre' or simply 'in 4-time'. If the stress occurs on every 3rd pulse, we can say that there are 3 beats in a bar / that the music is in triple metre / 3-time. And so on . . .

Bars & beats are the fundamental units of musical time-measurement.

the rhythm axis

To perform a rhythm, you have to position and measure each sound against a framework of bars and beats and you need to define that framework before you start. How many beats are there in a bar? How fast is the pulse?

Here is the most familiar 'rhythmic framework', a steady pulse with a regular accent every four beats -

4 beats in a bar @ 120 beats per minute -

The empty framework that you just heard is displayed in three ways. Point at the orange spots for more detail about time-signatures, bar-lines and tempo markings . . .

Bar-lines divide the stave into bars.
The note that follows the barline is on count 1 of the bar and is stressed (played a little louder than the other notes).

The time-signature always contains two numbers and states the metre.
The top number tells you how many beats there are in a bar - in this case 4.
The bottom number tells you what kind of note lasts for one beat, in this case a quarter-note (crotchet).

It's common to find a tempo marking at the start of the piece - this one is telling you to play 120 quarter-notes (crotchets) a minute.

In Standard Notation it is the kind/shape of note that tells you how long each note lasts.

Here are 4 As. They are all quarter-notes. Now that they are in a pitch context and a rhythm context they each have pitch and duration and a position in musical time. Each of them is an A (because all the note-heads are in the second space) and each lasts for one beat (because the bottom number of the time signature says so). Each of them starts on a pulse and lasts until the next one . . .

My Image

They're finally something we can play. Time to fetch an instrument . . .


In the piece below, the time-signature is 4/4. That means that there are 4 beats in a bar (top number) and that a quarter-note/crotchet lasts for one beat (bottom number). The underlying count will therefore be 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 etc., with a stress on each 'one'.

My Image

Each of the 4 bars is filled with quarter-notes (crotchets). They're all 'A's and they all last for one beat, so -

Count : 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 etc. and play a new A with each count.

Do that along with the metronome track on the left.
You get two bars in so start playing when you hear the bell - if you're doing it right, you'll finish when the track does.


It should have sounded something like this (played on C, Bb & Eb instruments).