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Music Theory

Music Notes Explained: What they are and how to use them!

Photograph of the blog post author, Annika Hope

Annika Hope


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When thinking about music notes, contextually music is a fundamental form of human expression that has been around, in some capacity, for millennia. The earliest written piece of music dates back to around 1400 BCE, however, anthropologists believe that humans have been making music since long before then.

Music notes are a means of turning this aural art form into something written so that it can be preserved, circulated and reproduced by multiple musicians. There are many different notation systems that have been developed across many different cultures. 

We are going to look at the Western system of music notation. We will learn a bit about its history, then go on to explain the basics of reading and writing music and what the benefits of acquiring this skill might be. 

After that, we will discuss a few other notation systems that might interest you!

A brief history of music notes and musical notation

The earliest examples of what would become modern Western notation can be seen in the religious music of the early Medieval period. However, examples of written music drawings have survived from far earlier than this.

The earliest surviving written piece of music is a tablet created in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq). There is a lot of controversy over how to interpret the notes, however, it is generally agreed that it was written for a lyre, with the notation representing the different strings of the lyre. Other tablets found alongside it indicate how to tune the lyre. 

Various other forms of early notation appeared with music drawings by the Ancient Greeks and the Byzantine Empire, however, the notation that we recognise today has its origins in the early medieval church.

A Benedictine monk called Guido d’Arezzo is widely credited with creating the foundation for the music notes drawing system we use today, which can capture complex melodies and rhythms.  

He came up with a ‘solmization’ system which attributes a syllable to each musical note in a scale. This has survived in English-speaking countries as ‘do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti’. These syllables can be applied to any set of musical notes – they can easily be moved up or down an octave. 

From this came the A-G alphabetical system that we use to name notes today and which is the concept around which the Western music notation system hinges.

The church continued to develop musical notes in order to find a way to standardize religious music and distribute it throughout the church. The developments made by the early church directly influenced the development of classical music and everything that derived from it.

How to read musical notes

Let’s have a look at how musical notes are written nowadays so that we can make a start on learning to read them.

Modern music notation is written on a stave (or staff in American English). A stave consists of 5 parallel horizontal lines. These lines provide a frame upon which to draw musical notes. 

Oval notes are placed either on or between these lines. The lower the note, the lower the pitch, the higher the note, the higher the pitch. They can even be placed above or below the 5-line stave, in which case smaller lines are added, called ‘ledger lines’

Music notes and staves

In order to identify the pitch range of the stave, each stave is assigned a ‘clef’. 

Treble Clef

The most popular clef is called the treble clef, or G clef. If you look at the symbol for a treble clef, you will notice that it wraps itself around the second to bottom line. 

This indicates that this line represents the note ‘G’. Using this information, we can apply the alphabetical note system to show where the other notes fall into place. This music notes png shows clearly:

Music notes - treble clef

In order to help name a musical note there are two helpful mnemonics to remember the notes on a treble clef. The notes that fall on the lines read, from bottom to top Every Good Boy Deserves Friends

Every Good Boy Deserves Friends

The notes that fall between the lines read, from bottom to top FACE.


Bass Clef

The second most useful clef is the bass clef or F clef. The bass clef is usually used for instruments that play lower-pitched notes, such as the bassoon, cello and trombone.

The symbol for the bass clef picks out the second to the top line as the F note. Again, from this, we can use the alphabet to identify where all the other notes lie.

Basic Clef Music Note

The mnemonics used to remember the notes of the bass clef are as follows. For the notes that fall on the lines, we use the phrase ‘Good Boys Do Fine Always’

mnemonics in music notes

For the notes that fall between the lines, we use the phrase ‘All Cows Eat Grass’.

Now you know what pitch each line and space stands for on two popular clefs! Let’s move on to how to capture the rhythm and write a melody.

How to write music 

Understanding staves and music notes

It isn’t hard to master the basics of writing music notes. Once you know the music note symbols and how to place them on a stave, you will be writing your own music in no time.

You already know what a stave is and how to figure out what note each line on a stave represents. You can buy a notebook of notation paper, download and print it off the internet, or use music notation software such as Musescore to write music digitally. 

Choose which clef you are going to be writing in (I would recommend starting with a simple treble clef) and draw that at the start of your stave.

Now choose your time signature. When you write music, you separate your stave into bars by drawing vertical lines. Each bar represents a certain amount of beats. The time signature signifies how many beats per bar and what fraction of a whole note one beat represents. 

A quarter note is one beat. This is the most basic measure of music.

A half note is twice as long as a quarter note. It is worth two beats.

A whole note is 4 beats long.

An eighth note is half a beat long or half a quarter note.

A sixteenth note is half an eighth note.

Time signatures are written as fractions. The top note represents how many beats per bar and the lower number represents the value of those notes (eg. whole note, half note etc)

The most standard time signature is 4/4. This means that each bar has 4 quarter notes. Another time signature could be 2/4, meaning there are 2 quarter notes per bar. Alternatively, it could be 2/8, meaning 2 eighth notes per bar.

This might sound a bit complicated but it should start to make sense the more you practice. 

How to draw musical notes

Now let’s move on to how to draw music notes. In musical notes drawing, the shape of the different notes stands for the length of the note and where you position them on the stave determines pitch.

I have already explained the different lengths of notes to you: whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note and sixteenth note. We won’t worry about the sixteenth notes, for now, we can focus on the first 4.

A whole note is drawn as an empty oval. A half note is drawn as an empty oval with a stem. A quarter note is drawn as an opaque oval with a stem. An eighth note is drawn the same as a quarter note but with a little flag-like shape at the top of the stem.

How to Draw Music Notes

There are also different symbols for rests. Rest stands for silence the length of a note. A rest for the length of a whole note looks like a little bar hanging upside down on the middle line. A rest of the length of a half note looks the same but is placed on top of the middle line.

The symbols for a quarter or eighth note rest are slightly harder to describe. Here are all the symbols are drawn out for you:

Rests in music notation

There are many ways you can modify these notes to represent more complex patterns. For example, two or more eighth notes played in succession are usually connected across the top by a bar.

In musical notes drawing you can also add a dot beside a note, to signify that it should last 1 and a half times its usual length. For example, a half note with a dot beside it would last 3 beats.

How to use musical notes, dynamics and articulations 

You can place a music notes symbol anywhere on your stave, depending on what pitch you want them to be played at. For example, an opaque stemmed oval placed between the first two lines of a treble clef would be a quarter note F!

Dynamics and articulations

You can also layer them on top of each other to denote that they should be played at the same time (for chords, for example). These are not real chords, just an example to show how it works!

Music notes

When you have finished writing a bar of music (according to your time signature), draw a vertical line to show that a new bar has started.

Bars in music

If you want a bar to be repeated, you can add a repeat symbol. Place one at the beginning and one at the end of the section you want to be repeated.

Music notation explanation

You can also add dynamics and articulations. Dynamics and articulations are symbols that indicate how the music should be played. Dynamics are symbols like “p” (piano) and “f” (forte) which indicate the volume of the music. Articulations are words like “staccato” which indicate the style of the music.

These are usually placed above or below the stave, so as not to get in the way of the notes. Check out this handy pdf of dynamics and articulations to learn more!

These are the basics of music note names and symbols. With this knowledge, you should be able to start reading and writing basic music. Of course, it gets far more complex the more you get into it, but master these simple skills now and you’ll be well-prepared to learn more!

Benefits of learning to read music

There are so many benefits to being able to read musical notes. Although some musicians famously don’t read music (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder to name a few!) it is a pretty crucial skill for most of us trying to make it in the music world.

Learning to read music and learning the musical notes names can really deepen your understanding of how music works, as well as give you access to lots of teaching resources that use standard Western notation.

If you can read music you can access so much music written by other musicians, which really facilitates collaboration and performance. Being able to accurately sight-read a piece of written music is an invaluable skill!

It can also improve your ear training, as it can help musicians to better identify different sounds and intervals. This can be helpful for transcribing from recordings and for composing your own work.

Speaking of composition, reading music is a very helpful skill for anyone seeking to compose their own work. It is a foolproof and complex system for writing down your ideas and sharing them with others.

Alternative ways to write music

Western notation is not the only way of writing down music. There are many other systems that might be of interest to you. 

Guitar Tablature

One popular way of writing music notes is tablature or ‘tab’’ for short. This is only used for guitar music. It is super easy to learn and very helpful!

A tab has 6 lines, one for each string of the guitar. The top, thickest string is the lowest line and the bottom, the thinnest string is the top line. 

The notes are written as numbers placed on different lines. The number refers to which fret you need to hold down, the line refers to which string you need to play. So, for example, a 2 placed on the third line would indicate that you play the third string with your finger on the third string in the second fret.


If you layer numbers on top of each other, it means they must be played at the same time. This is very helpful for the finger-picking style.

Guitar tablature

There are various other symbols you can use in tab to vary your guitar playing, such as pull off, hammer on, slide etc.

Percussion Notation

If you are writing music for percussion, the music notes you use and the ways you use them will vary slightly to communicate the sounds of percussion instruments.

Usually, with a drum kit, for example, the different lines and spaces of a stave are assigned to different parts of the drum kit (eg. tom, hi-hat, snare). These are laid out in a key, or a legend. If there is no legend, each part should be labelled the first time it comes up.

There are also some different symbols used for the parts of the kit. For example, you might see a cross with a stem, or a triangle with a stem. 

Have a look at this guide to percussion notation to learn more.

Rap notation

Rap artists have a specific means of writing down their lyrics to show how they must line up with the beat. This form of notation is called a flow diagram. The lyrics are lined up under beat numbers (most rap and hip-hop follow a 4/4 beat) to show how they fit into the rhythm. Symbols are used to show various techniques that might be incorporated into a piece.

The whole system is explained really well in this article on the music notation of rap.

Numbered Notation

While we usually assign a letter between A and G to each note on a scale, this system assigns a number. 

To raise or lower the note an octave, a dot (or dots) is added below or above the number.

The number alone represents a quarter note. To extend the note, just add dashes after the number. To shorten the note, a line underneath the number makes it a quarter note.

0 represents rest and X represents a pitchless percussion sound. There are various symbols you can use in a similar way to dynamics and articulations, and bars are shown by a straight line, just like in standard notation and tab.

If this system interests you, learn more about it in this quick guide to numbered musical notation!

If you want to learn about even more alternative ways of writing music notes, check out this handy list of music notation systems and how they work!

In conclusion

I think we can all agree that writing music notes is a super important skill if you want to be a musician. It helps you to deepen your understanding of music, share your music and interpret the music of others! 

Hopefully, now you understand a little bit more about how to read and write music notes. The more you practice, the better you will become – so get out there and get playing!


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