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Understanding Lines in Musical Notation

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  • 0:00 Lines in Music Notation
  • 0:47 Ledger Lines
  • 2:50 Barlines
  • 4:27 Grouping Lines
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

Lines are everywhere in the music notation system. This lesson will show you the different types of lines you might encounter - barlines, grouping lines, and ledger lines. Take a quiz when you're ready.

Lines in Music Notation

Nearly everything in the musical notation system is based on lines. Lines give us the backbone of each note, they tell musicians how loud or soft to play, they illustrate the shape of musical phrases, and they give information about how different instruments relate to one another. To play from a piece of sheet music, you need to read all of these lines together and all at once. But it's not as hard as it sounds. Each line has a specific job and, once you understand them, you'll find it easy to interpret the information they give you, even if you're playing at virtuoso speeds. In this lesson, we'll look at three different families of musical lines: ledger lines, barlines, and grouping lines.

Ledger Lines

Let's start with ledger lines. You might remember that music is written on a staff, a collection of five lines and four spaces, which tell the musician to read from left to right. A musical note's vertical position on the staff gives information about that note's pitch. The higher the note appears on the staff, the higher the pitch.

Most musical instruments, however, have a range that stretches far beyond the five lines and four spaces within the staff, and composers need a way to indicate these ranges. The answer is ledger lines, extra lines appended to either end of the staff, which work to extend the readable range of the staff. Ledger lines can work in either direction on the staff. Ledger lines work just like the lines and spaces within the staff. Placing a ledger line on the staff creates an extra line as well as an imaginary space above or below it.

So one ledger line can actually create two notes. If the ledger line is ascending above the staff, then the ledger line creates a note that appears on the line and one that appears on the space above. If the ledger line is descending, it creates a note on the line and one that appears on the space below. By placing consecutive ledger lines, the composer can indicate a note as high or as low as they want. There is no limit to ledger lines, although for extremely high and low notes, it's often more practical to change clefs, or use another notation trick, than it would be to use ledger lines.

Barlines

Most musical notation also includes vertical lines placed across the staff like railroad ties. These vertical lines are called barlines. Barlines break the music into measures, smaller chunks, which make it easier to understand the music's meter and construction. Each measure lasts for a certain number and type of beat, as determined by the time signature.

There are several different types of barline. The most common, a single vertical line, is just called a barline.; it separates one measure from the next. These are extremely commonplace, occurring in almost all concert music. Moments in pieces with major changes, such as a key change or a change in tempo, are often marked with a double barline, constructed using two normal barlines. At the end of the piece, composers will place a bold double barline, a barline connected to a thicker bold bar. This type of barline always signals the end of a piece or movement.

Several other types of barline exist as well, but there are fewer rules governing their use. For example, a composer might write music in which it makes sense to divide a measure in half without creating two measures. In this case, they'll often use a dotted barline to bisect the measure at a specific point without cutting it into two. Dotted barlines can also be used in music without measures to break music into phrases or small chunks. The exact use is up to the composer, and she's never obligated to use dotted barlines. In fact, most pieces use only regular solid barlines and don't make use of dotted barlines at all.

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