Reading Music 1

  1. Early History
  2. Note Letter names
  3. The Piano Keyboard
  4. Quiz - Quiz Answers
  5. Exercises
  6. Lesson Material

    Music Notation Overview :
    Basic Theory 1 - Basic Theory 2

    Music Reading Course Complete

Learn to Read Music | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | ? ? |

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RM 1.1 - Early History

Western music notation has developed over two and a half thousand years of civilisation.
The ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, used letters of the alphabet to indicate different pitches.

mn101.gif Boethius (A.D. 470-525, an adviser to the court at the end of the Roman Empire), wrote five text books describing the music theory of that ancient era.
Boethius used the first 15 letters of the alphabet for the pitches of two octaves, which was the official working range of sounds in those days.
His books remained standard texts throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and beyond.

From the 7th Century a system of Neums was introduced for the notation of plainsong. The Neums consisted of grave ( ` ) and acute ( ´ ) accents and horizontal lines, placed over the lyrics to indicate where the melody line was going up or down.

The sign of the trill in our present system is a relic of the old Neum system.

To present accurate note pitches the device of the staff (or stave) was added.
This began as a single horizontal line, then more where added until a four line staff was standardised for the plainsong (= simple melody line without chords or harmony). This staff was probably introduced for the first time by Guido d'Arrezo, a famous music expert around 1000-1050.
The notes were written on (and in between) the lines of this staff which defined there exact pitch.

In the late 13th Century a classification of note head shapes also defined the note duration. This important step is ascribed to Franco of Cologne.

Our present notation system developed from this plainsong staff and the old letter name system introduced by the Greeks.

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RM 1.2 - Note Letter names

The great Greek scientist and philosopher Pythagoras (550 BC) defined the system of seven notes upon which first the Greek and later the Roman musical culture was based. Gradually all Western music, up to the present time, developed from this ancient foundation.

Initially 15 letter names were used to cover the official working range of Roman music ('the Boethius Notation'). Soon after that the number was reduced to only seven letter names, covering one complete octave.

A - B - C - D - E - F - G

Smaller size letters were used to cover higher octaves and larger size letters covered lower octaves.

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C - D - E - F - G

These seven letters are still used today and represent the white keys of the piano keyboard.

Audio 1.1

The distance between one letter and the same letter up or down the keyboard is called an octave. It encompasses eight letters (A - A, or C - C). The seven letters are repeated to represent successive octaves.

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RM 1.3 - The Piano Keyboard

mn105.gif The patterns of white and black keys on the piano keyboard provide, more than any other instrument, visual representations of musical elements such as intervals, chords and scales.

Every serious music student (regardless of his/her instrument) should therefore have some knowledge of where the notes are on a keyboard.
If you can afford it I recommend you purchase a simple electronic keyboard for experimentation.

The first reference point on the keyboard is the so-called Middle C.
This is the white note located approximately in the centre of the keyboard, and immediately to the left of a group of 2 black keys.
On the acoustic piano it is the C nearest to the lock of the piano lid.

Audio 1.2

The notes to the left of Middle C become progressively lower in pitch.
The notes to the right of Middle C become progressively higher in pitch.

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RM 1.4 - Quiz

  1. Who defined the 7-note music system on which Western music is based ?

  2. What signs were used to describe music in Mediaeval times ?

  3. Name three important music theorists in Roman and Mediaeval times who contributed much to music and music notation.

  4. Name two essential aspect of music which are recorded in music notation.

  5. How many letters were used to describe music in Roman times ?

  6. How many letters do we use today ?

  7. What do the white keys of the keyboard represent ?

  8. What is an octave ?

  9. An which end of the keyboard are the low notes ?

  10. Fill in the letter names within the following octaves :
    1. C - ? ? ? ? ? ? - C

    2. G - ? ? ? ? ? ? - G

    3. E- ? ? ? ? ? ? - E

    4. B - ? ? ? ? ? ? - B


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RM 1.5 - Exercises

Exercise 1.1
Exercise 1.1 : Identify the keys on the keyboard by their letter names.
ANSWERS to Exercise 1.1

Exercise 1.2
Mark the notes of Exercise 1.2 on a copy of the Keyboard Diagrams.
ANSWERS to Exercise 1.2

RM 1.6 - Lesson Materials (
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General file Keyboard Diagrams
Exercises Exercise 1.1 Answers 1.1
Exercise 1.2 Answers 1.2

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