Musical Symbols in Piano Music

Common Commands of Keyboard Sheet Music

Playing the piano can be an enjoyable experience, no matter your level of expertise. When playing the piano, several different pieces of information come together to create the music that you hear. Muscle coordination and dexterity allow pianists to play with different dynamics, articulations and speeds. 

Music symbols are helpful tools in music notation that allow the composer to express how the music should sound. Note pitch, rhythm, articulation and dynamic are a few of the many symbols used in composition that indicate how to play the music. 

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Music note lengths.

The vertical position of noteheads on the staff denotes pitch, while the duration of a note’s sound is expressed with note color, note stems, and stem flags. Learn how to identify the different musical note length notation and understand their names in American and British English. 

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Music rest lengths.

In music, notes indicate sound. But sometimes, silence is a part of music too. A music rest is a symbol that represents silence or the absence of a music note. Similar to music notes, music rests are written in various styles to show their different rhythmic lengths.

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Accidentals and double-accidentals.

An accidental is a musical symbol placed beside a note that creates a change in the note's pitch. Accidentals include sharps, flats, and naturals. Double-accidentals include the double-sharp and double-flat. Learn about the different types of music accidentals in order to identify them correctly.

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Key signatures.

The key signature is a series of accidentals written at the beginning of a music staff and is used to express the key in which a song is written. In other words, it tells you which notes will have sharps or flats throughout a musical composition. Key signatures can have single or multiple sharps or flats. 

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Time signatures.

The time signature looks like a fraction and appears at the beginning of a piece of music. Time signatures organize beats into measures and work alongside the tempo to create the rhythm of a song. Sometimes, a single piece of music can contain several time signatures, indicating a change in the beat structure. 

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Tempo commands and bpm.

The tempo defines the speed of the music and is measured by the beats per minute (BPM). The BPM of a song may be written using metronome marks or Italian tempo terms that are closely associated with a metronome range. Some music pieces detail a precise metronome marking, while others use a broad command. An understanding of both tempo and BPM is helpful in music performance. 

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Note accents and articulation symbols.

Symbols and lines placed around noteheads and note groups change the way they sound and create a relationship with the surrounding notes. This concept is called “articulation,” and is modified in piano music using a variety of articulation marks.

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Tremolos on the piano grand staff.

Note ornaments are used to simplify the notation of certain techniques, which would otherwise complicate and crowd the sheet music. For example, a glissando is when you run your finger across the entire keyboard, hitting every note along the way. To write this out in notation would be tedious for the composer and the pianist. Instead, note ornaments and embellishments help abbreviate the notation of the desired effect.

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Volume and musical dynamics.

Musical dynamics control the volume of a song and may be signified by words, symbols or both. Dynamics mark the relative changes in intensity and do not express precise decibel levels. Understanding the various dynamic and volume commands help bring expressive volume elements to the music. 

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Repeat barlines.

A repeat bar is a musical symbol that resembles a final barline with two dots in the middle staff spaces. A passage written between two repeat bars will be played at least two times, and any variant of this will be explained using volta brackets, or “time bars.” Repeat signs and volta brackets are common commands in music composition.  

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Segno and coda repeats.

Segno and coda marks belong to a system used to express complex repetitions which cannot be expressed using simple repeat barlines. They may seem tricky at first, but rest assured, they make sheet music much simpler and at times can help avoid several page-turns. Navigating segno and coda marks becomes simple once they are familiar.

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8va, 15ma and octave commands.

Musical symbols such as 8va and 15ma indicate that a note or passage will be played in a different octave than in the one they are written. These commands make it easier to read very high or low notes that would otherwise be written using ledger lines. Learn to recognize these common octave commands.

Images © Brandy Kraemer