Basic Music Theory 2

  1. Bar lines and Time Signatures
  2. Accidentals
  3. Key Signatures
  4. Dotted notes
  5. Articulation
  6. Dynamics and Tempo
  7. Repeat Signs
  8. Notation for Drums
  9. Quiz and Quiz Answers
  10. Downloading Bay
    Music Notation 1

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BT 2.1 - Bar lines and Time Signatures

Most music has a regular pulse called beat.

Beats generally group themselves into regular patterns of either two, three or four. To show these patterns the music is divided by bar lines into bars ('measures').

bar lines

A double bar line separates different sections of music within the piece.
A thin/thick double bar line indicates the end of the piece.

A Time Signature is placed at the beginning of each piece to show how many beats there are in each bar, and the type of note that equals one beat.

The Time Signature is shown as a fraction.

The upper number indicates the number of beats in each bar.

The lower number represents the length of one beat as a fraction of a semibreve (whole tone).

For example :

2/4 - means 2 beats per bar, each beat a crotchet (a quarter note) long

3/4 - means 3 beats per bar, each beat a crotchet (a quarter note) long

4/4 - means 4 beats per bar, each beat a crotchet (a quarter note) long

2/2 - means 2 beats per bar, each beat a minim (a half note) long

6/8 - means 6 beats per bar, each beat a quaver (an eighth note) long

Time signatures

The Time Signature in the shape of a C is known as Common Time. It is identical to 4/4 time.

Cut Time, is written as a C with a vertical stroke through it. It is identical to 2/2 time.

The Common Time sign is a relict from the 14th Century, when there were two types of rhythmic division :
  1. Perfect time - shown as a circle - subdivided a long note into three.

  2. Imperfect time - shown as half a circle - subdivided a long note into two.

Over the years the half circle became a C sign.

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BT 2.2 - Accidentals

Every pitch in music can be raised or lowered half a tone (half a step).

The sign for raising a note half a tone is the sharp sign : #
The sign for lowering a note half a tone is the flat sign : b

This is how the black keys of the keyboard are notated.


The black note between C and D can be written as a C# (with a # in front of the C note), or as a Db (with a b in front of the D note).
C# and Db refer to the same note, they are enharmonic equivalents.

Likewise the note between D and E is a D# or Eb.
The note between F and G is an F# or a Gb. And so on.

A sharp or flat (accidental) not only affect the note behind it but also every other note with the same pitch that follows in the same bar. To cancel a sharp or flat within a bar a natural sign is used.

Audio 1
enharmonic equivalents

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BT 2.3 - Key Signatures

Consider the scale of G major. It consists of the notes :

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

Audio 2
G major scale

A piece of music written in the key of G obviously will contain mostly F#s rather than F naturals. To avoid writing a sharp in front of every F in the music, an F# sign is written on the F line at the beginning of the piece.
This is the Key Signature for G major.

Audio 2
G major key signature

It means that all Fs in the music must be played as an F#, unless the note is preceded by a natural sign. (The natural remains in force for the remainder of that bar.)

The D major scale contains an F# and a C#. The Key Signature for D major consists therefore of two sharps.

In this way each major key has its own unique key signature.
Here they are :

All key signatures

Key Signatures on the Bass Clef

Each key signature is also used for a minor key.
It has its tonic note 3 semitones below the tonic of the major key.
Major and minor keys with the same key signature are called related keys.

The C major and A minor keys contain no sharp or flat.

The key signature of F# has six sharps with an E# at the end.
E# is the enharmonic equivalent of F. Using the E# avoids having twice the same letter in the scale (F natural and F#), which otherwise would result in many accidentals.

The same applies to the key signature of Gb. Here the Cb is used as the enharmonic equivalent for B.

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BT 2.4 - Dotted notes

A dot after a note lengthens that note by half its value.

Therefore, in 4/4 Time :

  • a dotted minim = 2 + 1/2 x 2 = three beats

  • a dotted crotchet = 1 + 1/2 x 1 = one and a half beats

  • a dotted quaver = 1/2 + 1/2 x 1/2 = three quarters of a beat

dotted notes

A dot can also be placed after a rest. It also increases its length by halve its value.

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BT 2.5 - Articulation

There are various signs used to specify how a note is to be articulated. Here follow four important ones.

A slur is a curved line placed over or under notes of different pitch. It indicates that the notes contained within the slur are to be played smoothly (Legato). Wind instrument players play these notes in one continuous breath with only the first note tongued.

A tie is a curved line placed over or under two notes of the same pitch. The tie joins the notes together making one continuous note. Wind instrument players must therefore not tongue the second note.

Audio 3

A staccato mark is a dot placed over or under a note. The note is to be played detached and very short. Wind players usually use the word 'dit' or 'dat' to produce this.

A tenuto mark is a short line placed over or under the note. The note is to be played long but detached.

An accent sign is used to place emphasise on a note.
The accent can either be short (^) , or long (>).

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BT 2.6 - Dynamics and Tempo

Dynamics refer to the loudness of music.

p stands for piano, which means soft

f stands for forte, which means loud

These signs are placed under the staff. Here is the full range :


"Hair pins" indicate a gradual increase (Crescendo, cresc.) or decrease (Diminuendo, dim.) of sound.

Audio 4
Crescendo - Decrescendo

The mood or tempo of the music is often indicated above the staff at the beginning of the piece.
In Jazz and Popular music this is usually written in English ( 'Medium tempo swing' or 'Slow blues tempo').

In Classical music standardised Italian terms are used.
Common terms are :

Adagio slow, leisurely
Largo slow, stately
Moderatomoderate time
Andante walking pace
Allegretto slightly slower than Allegro
Allegro lively, fast
Vivace quick, lively
Presto very quick

A half circle with a dot under it is a Pause sign (also called 'Fermata').
The note (or rest) under the Pause sign is held as long as the player (or conductor) judges it to be appropriate within the musical context.

A metronome tempo may also be indicated, for example : MM note = 120

This means a tempo of 120 crotchet beats per minute.

MM stands for Maelzel Metronome.
This well known pyramid shaped instrument was invented ca. 1812 by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkler of Amsterdam.
The device was copied and patented as a "metronome" by Johan Maelzel, an inventor of mechanical musical instruments and a friend of Beethoven.

A subsequent lawsuit acknowledged Winkler as the creator of the instrument, but Maelzel had by then sold many metronomes. It is still known as the Maelzel Metronome and the MM signs in our music scores unfortunately continue to do injustice to Winkler, the true inventor.

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BT 2.7 - Repeat Signs

When a section of music has to be played twice Repeat Signs are used.

A pair of dots is placed at the beginning of the section and another pair at the end (Example A). The dots act as buffers, bouncing you back to the previous set of dots.

When there is only one set of dots the repeat is made to the beginning of the piece.


When the end of the repeated section is to be played differently the second time, boxes above the staff indicate the 1st time- and 2nd time- bars (Example B). When playing this section for the second time, skip the 1st time bars and go directly to the 2nd time bars.

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BT 2.8 - Notation for Drums

Music for the modern drum set (as used for Jazz and other popular music) is notated on the Percussion Clef (| |), or sometimes on the Bass Clef.

The notation outlines the rhythm for each of the instrument members of the drum set.

Drums score

The various drums of the set are notated by regular note heads.

  • Bass drum - in the bottom space of the staff.

  • Snare drum - in the third space from the bottom.

  • Large Tom Tom - in the second space from the bottom.

  • Small Tom Tom - in the top space of the staff.

Drums notation


  • Hi Hat, cymbals and most other instruments of the drum set are notated using crosses (x) as note heads.

  • Hi Hat and cymbals are usually written above the top line, but they can also be notated in the top space (hi hat) and on the top line (cymbals) of the staff.

  • When the Hi Hat is used without sticks, for time keeping only (perhaps together with the bass drum) it is usually placed in the space below the staff.

  • The Hi Hat position may also be specified as o for 'open', or + for 'closed'.

Cymbals etc. are identified on the score by their two initials.
If there are no initials the Hi Hat is inferred.

Initials Instrument Position on the staff
H.H.Hi Hatabove stave (or in top space)
R.C.Ride Cymbalabove stave (or on top line)
C.C.Crash Cymbalabove stave (or on top line)
C.B.Cow Bellin 3rd space from the bottom
W.B.Wood Blockin 3rd space from the bottom
RIMRim shotin same space as drum

Take the above outline only as a general guide, for there is quite a lot of variation in drum scores from different publishers. What is meant by the various notations is usually well defined on the score.

Now that you have some knowledge of the important elements of music notation, the next thing to do is read, read, and read. It is the only way to learn.
Start with Jazclass. The notation for the lessons and songs are not difficult to read.
Also get hold of some books with very simple music scores.

  • The John Brimhall books are good for keyboard,

  • so are the books of the It's Easy to Play Series by Wise Publications.
    (Distributed by Music Sales in London and Australia.)

Try to read and play at the same time. Do not go over each piece more than three times, for you tend to remember bits quickly. The purpose is learning to read not learning a song.

If you have enjoyed this Lesson and wish to learn more about music then get your copy of the Jazz Theory Course on CD-ROM.
The Course is 20 Lessons long and in web-style format, just like this lesson.
You will gain a fundamental understanding and knowledge of music that will serve you well for the rest of your musical life!

Michael Don't forget, if you have any questions please ask me.

Happy studying !


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BT 2.9 - Quiz

1. What does a double bar line indicate ?

2. What is a Time signature ?

3. What does the Time signature 9/8 mean ?

4. What is Common Time ?

5. What is Perfect Time, and when was it in use ?

1. What does a '#' do in front of a note ?

2. What does a 'b' do in front of a note ?

3. What is a 'natural' ?

4. How long does an accidental stay in force ?

5. What are the enharmonic equivalents of : F# - Bb - Cb ?

1. What is the difference between a dot behind the note and a dot placed above or below it ?

2. What is the difference between a slur and a tie ?

3. What do 'p' , 'mp' and 'f' written under the staff mean ?

4. What does a 'hair pin' (written under the staff) opening to the right mean ?

5. When are 1st time bars and 2nd time bars used ?

6. Who was the inventor of the original metronome ?

Which sharps or flats are in the following Key signatures ?

  1. F major

  2. Bb major

  3. D major

  4. B major

  5. C major

  6. Ab major

  7. F# major

Draw the bar lines in the following music score :

Audio 5
Quiz - bar lines

1. Which instruments of the drum set are used in the notation below ?
2. What important aspect of rhythm does the score portray ?

Quiz Answers

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BT 2.10 - Downloading Bay

File Name




Basic Theory 2 - Facts sheet



Key Signatures on the Bass Clef



Note and Rest names in English



Note and Rest names in different languages


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Copyright © 2002 Michael Furstner. All rights reserved.