Music Notation: History & Theory

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to the Western music notation system, which is used to write down music in countless different styles. Learn about how the system conveys pitch, rhythm, and other core musical concepts.

Painting with Sound

Composers use notation to capture sound, which the performers then read to play the music. It's almost as if the composers are painting with sound, and the performers and instruments are the canvas. But how do you paint sound? How do you decipher all those dots and lines to make music out of them? This lesson will teach you how to read music notation, and might even inspire you to try painting some sound of your own.


Most ancient cultures made music, and while many of them had systems for writing music down, the notation systems they used are largely lost. Our notation system derives from neumes, a European system from the Medieval era. Neumes were most common in the church, where monks would use them to write down and recall chants. Around the 11th century, a monk named Guido d'Arezzo developed a notation system from neumatic practices that eventually evolved into the system we use today.

An example of neumatic notation. Image by MicheletB.

The Canvas: Staff

If you're going to paint a picture, you first need a canvas that can serve as a backdrop. Music notation has a canvas, too: the staff. The staff is a set of five lines and four spaces upon which musical notes are placed. The staff always has five lines and four spaces, no matter which instrument the composer is writing for.

Notes on a musical staff
Notes on a staff. Image by Greg Simon.

The Colors: Pitch

If the staff is the canvas upon which composers paint their musical pictures, pitch could be the colors they use. Pitch is a measure of how high or low a musical note is. The higher a notehead (the thick round part of the note) appears on the staff, the higher it is in pitch.

Composers affix a clef to the beginning of each staff to tell the performer which specific set of pitches the staff is indicating - after all, five lines and four spaces can't cover all possible pitches. A treble clef indicates that a medium-high set of pitches (around the high middle of the piano keyboard) is being used, and a bass clef indicates a medium-low set.

Treble and bass clefs
A treble and a bass clef

Music is read left to right, just like English. Occasionally notes may be written in a vertical line, one on top of the other; these notes are meant to be played simultaneously.

On the staff, notes on adjacent lines or spaces are usually a whole step apart; a whole step divides into two half steps, or the distance between a white key and an adjacent black key (on a piano). To raise or lower a note a half step, the composer uses an accidental, a small graphic placed before the notehead on the staff. The flat lowers the note a half step, while the sharp raises it. The natural is used to cancel out a previous flat or sharp.

Three types of accidental
Flat, sharp, and natural accidentals

The Shapes: Rhythm

Colors themselves don't usually make a picture; you'll probably want to combine color with shape to give the painting definition. Likewise, composers usually don't use just long pitches, but combine pitch with rhythm, the combination of different durations of musical sounds.

A note's duration can be indicated two ways: the color of the notehead, and the appearance of the stem (the long, thin line that arises from a notehead). A notehead can either be hollow (in the case of longer durations) or filled in (in the case of shorter durations). Stemless notes are longer than stemmed notes, and stemmed notes can be shortened further by adding flags to the stem.

Musical rhythm is measured in relationship to a fixed, constant pulse called the beat; think of it as the clock whose time the music follows. A quarter note, a filled-in notehead with a stem, usually lasts for exactly one beat; hollowing the notehead will create a half note, which lasts for two full beats. Adding a flag to a quarter note creates an eighth note, which lasts for half a beat; two eighth notes can also be joined together with a beam instead of giving each a flag.

Rhythmic durations for four beats
Different rhythmic breakdowns of four beats. Image by Greg Simon.

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