Symbols of Piano Music: Part I

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Kraemer, Brandy. "Symbols of Piano Music: Part I." ThoughtCo, Jun. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/symbols-of-piano-music-part-i-2701991. Kraemer, Brandy. (2017, June 19). Symbols of Piano Music: Part I. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/symbols-of-piano-music-part-i-2701991 Kraemer, Brandy. "Symbols of Piano Music: Part I." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/symbols-of-piano-music-part-i-2701991 (accessed September 23, 2017).
01
of 09

Staff & Bar Lines

Building the piano staff and barlines.
Most measures are separated by single bar lines. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Building a Musical Staff

A musical staff is a set of five horizontal lines containing notes, rests, and many of the musical symbols. When notes are found off the staff, they’re placed on ledger lines.

  • Measures

    A measure is a section of the staff that comes between two bar lines (or barlines). Each measure satisfies the time signature; music written in 4/4 time will have four quarter-note beats per measure.
  • Double Bar Lines

    A double bar line is used to separate different sections of a song, and may mark the transition into a different time signature, key signature, or musical phrase.

    A double bar line with one bold line is a final bar line, and marks the end of a song or movement.

 

Note: The plural of staff is “staves.” In British English, a singular staff is called a “stave.”



More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
■ Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
■ Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
■ Articulation
■ Dynamics & Volume
■ 8va & Octave Commands

■ Repeat Signs
■ Segno & Coda Signs
■ Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

■ Trills
■ Turns
■ Tremolos
■ Glissando
■ Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz
 

02
of 09

The Grand Staff & Piano Clefs

The piano grand staff.
The grand staff is made up of the treble and bass staves. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

The Piano Grand Staff

The grand staff is the two-part piano staff used to accommodate the piano’s wide range of notes:

 

  • Bass Staff

    The bottom staff is the bass staff, marked with the bass clef (or F-clef). Its notes are around middle C and below, and are played with the left hand.

       ► Memorize the Bass Staff Notes

 

These two staves are connected physically by vertical systemic bar lines, and musically by a brace. The brace indicates that one performer plays the two staves simultaneously.



More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz
 

03
of 09

Time Signatures & Meter

Different time signatures.
Common time can be written 4/4, or with a C-shaped symbol. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Understanding Time Signatures

A time signature is a fraction found at the beginning of a piece of music, after the clef and key signature. Time signatures regulate rhythm by organizing beats in two ways:

  • The top number shows how many beats occur in each measure.
  • The bottom number shows the length of the beats: A 4 means each beat is a quarter note long; a 2 indicates a half note, etc.


Therefore, a 4/4 time signature has four beats per measure, with each beat equalling the length of a quarter note. A 3/4 time signature has three quarter-note beats per measure.
 

Common Time

4/4 time is also called “common time” because, you guessed it, it’s so common. You’ll see it a lot, so keep in mind:

  1. It may be written 4/4, or with a c-shaped half-circle (this symbol does not stand for common time; learn its true meaning).
  2. It’s also called “quadruple meter” or “imperfect time.”
  3. Cut common time is represented by the signature 2/2, or with a symbol similar to a cent sign. Cut time changes the rhythmic feel, but is mathematically equal to 4/4 meter.

 

Time signatures organize beats, but the speed of a song depends on its tempo.

►  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz
►  What Is Meter?

 


More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

04
of 09

BPM & Tempo Terminology

Tempo terms and symbols.
The phrase “a tempo” indicates a return to the original speed after a tempo-altering command such as ritardando. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Rhythm & Tempo

The tempo is the speed of a song, or the speed at which beats are repeated.

Tempo commands specify the tempo of a song, and are written above the very first staff in sheet music. They are expressed in at least one of the following ways:

  1. As metronome marks, followed by the number of beats per minute (BPM): The small note preceding the BPM tells you which note length you use to count your beat. In this text example, an eighth note equals one beat, so 140 eighth notes will occur each minute (more on this below). Metronome marks may be written a couple ways:
    • ♪=140
    • M.M.=140

    So, what determines which note length is written in the metronome mark? Generally, you go by the bottom number of the time signature: In 4/4 or 2/4 time, the quarter note is the main beat; in 6/8 or 9/8, the beat falls on the eighth note.
  2. As a word description (often in Italian), sometimes accompanied by an expression command:
    • Vivace: Very lively and fast, with a tempo of 140 BPM.
    • Maestoso: Play with dignified expression.

 


Continue With Tempo:
►  Tempo Glossary
►  What Is Meter?

 


More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

05
of 09

Musical Note Lengths

Different note lengths shown on the staff.
Smaller notes, like eighth and sixteenth notes, may be grouped by note-beams to make them easier to read. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Music Notes

Notes are the symbols written on the staff that express the pitch and duration of a sound:

  • Pitch is expressed by a note’s placement on the staff. When a note has fallen off the staff, it is placed on a ledger line.
  • Duration depends on the note’s length (or “value”), which is specified by its color, stem, or flag(s).

 

Note Lengths

The length of a note will tell you how many beats it covers in a measure. The most common note lengths are:

  • Whole Note (U.S.), Semibreve (U.K.)
    Covers every beat in 4/4 time.
    In common time, a whole note takes all four beats.
  • Half Note (U.S.), Minim (U.K.)
    Is half the length of a whole note.
    Covers two beats in common time.
  • Quarter Note (U.S.), Crotchet (U.K.)
    Is 1/4 the length of a whole note.
    Is one beat in common time.
  • Eighth Note (U.S.), Quaver (U.K.)
    Is 1/8 the length of a whole note; half the length of a quarter note.
    Two eighth notes make one beat.
  • Sixteenth Note (U.S.), Semiquaver (U.K.)
    Is 1/16 the length of a whole note; half the length of an eighth note.
    Four sixteenth notes equal one beat of common time.
  • Thirty-Second Note (U.S.), Demisemiquaver (U.K.)
    Is 1/32 the length of a whole note; 1/4 the length of an eighth note.
    Eight thirty-second notes equal one beat of common time.
  • Sixty-Fourth Note (U.S.), Hemidemisemiquaver (U.K.)
    Is 1/64 the length of a whole note; 1/8 of an eighth note.
    Sixteen sixty-fourth notes equal one beat of common time.

 


Continue With Lengths & Values
►  Beginner Note-Length Quiz (Available in U.S. or U.K. English)
►  Advanced Rhythm & Note Length Quiz
►  How to Read Music Rests

 


More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

06
of 09

Dotted Notes

A dotted half note, and a dotted quarter note.
The dotted quarter note can sometimes be considered the length of one beat in certain time signatures, such as 6/8 time. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Understanding Dotted Notes

Dotted notes may seem confusing, but they are easily explained. You do, however, need to have an understanding of note lengths to make sense of them.

A dot placed next to a note is called a rhythm dot, and increases a note’s duration by 50%; the note is held for its own length, plus half of its original length:

  • Half Note

    A half note = 2 beats in common time
    Half of that length = 1 beat
    2 beats + 1 beat = 3 beats

    A dotted half note has a total duration of 3 beats.

 

  • Quarter Note

    A quarter note = 1 beat
    Half of that length = 1 eighth-note beat
    1 quarter note + 1 eighth note = 1½ beats

    A dotted quarter note has a total duration of 1 1/2 beats.

 

Double Dotted Note

While a single rhythm dot increases a note by 50%, two dots increase it by 75% (the first dot adds 50%, and the second dot adds 25%):

  • A double-dotted quarter note equals 1 quarter note + 1 eighth note + 1 sixteenth note, or 1¾ beats.

 

Triple-dotted notes are less common, but do occur in piano music. A good example is Chopin’s Prelude Opus 28, No. 3, which contains single, double, and triple rhythm dots.


(Not to be confused with the staccato accent, a dot placed above or below a note-head.)

 


More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

07
of 09

Musical Accidentals

Accidentals in piano music.
An accidental is always written before a note. Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

What Are Accidentals?

An accidental is a symbol that turns a note into a sharp, a flat, or a natural:

  • Sharp (♯): Makes a note higher in pitch by a half step.
  • Flat (): Makes a note lower in pitch by a half step.
  • Natural (): Returns a note to its original pitch after having been sharpened or flattened. Naturals also cancel out sharps or flats implied by a key signature.

 

Double-Accidentals

Double-sharps (x) and double-flats (♭♭) occur in certain chords and scales. Double-naturals (♮♮) cancel out a double-accidental in traditional sheet music, but nowadays a single natural sign may be used.

 


More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

08
of 09

Piano Chords

Chords seen in piano music.
Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

Go to the Piano Chord Charts:
Major Chords | Minor Chords | Diminished Chords | Augmented Chords
6th Chords | 7th Chords | 9th Chords | Sus Chords

 

Types of Chords

Chords come in various sizes, and can create various moods centered around harmony or dissonance. The smallest chords contain two notes; however, these are more accurately referred to as intervals, because a chord’s type (major, minor, and so on) is dependent on its having one more note …

Which brings us to the triad; a three-note chord made up of the following:

  • Root Note: Foundation for the entire chord; names the chord with a letter.
  • Third: A major (M3) or minor (m3) interval above the root.
  • Fifth: May be “perfect” (P5), diminished (♭5), or augmented (♯5).

 

Building Triad Chords

A triad’s type relies on both its third and its fifth; or, more specifically, the distance between these notes and the root note. Compare the four most common triad types using C as the root:

 ■ C Major
  Root: C
  M3: E
  P5: G

 ■ C Minor
  Root: C
  m3: E
  P5: G

 ■ C Diminished
  Root: C
  m3: E
  5: G

 ■ C Augmented
  Root: C
  M3: E
  5: G
 

 

Building Larger Chords

A triad can stand alone as a chord, or it may be expanded upon to form a larger chord. You can simply add an octave (a root note to the triad to make it a 4-note chord (C-E-G-C); or, intervals may be added to change the chord type:

●  Seventh Chords

   A triad chord with a seventh interval added above the root:

  ○ Cmaj7: C - E - G - B (M3, P5, M7)
  ○ Cdom7: C - E - G - B (M3, P5, m7)
 

A major ninth, a five-note chord, is built the same way.

Try it yourself: Look at the above chord chart and build a major ninth chord.

 

Forming Piano Chords

 ◊ Piano Chord Fingering for the Right Hand
 ◊ Left Hand Piano Chord Fingering
 ◊ Master Chord Library

 

More Musical Symbols:

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz

09
of 09

Note Ornaments

Note ornaments in piano music.
Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

More Ornaments:
Trills | Turns & Inverted Turns | Mordents & Inverted Mordents | Glissando | Single-Note Tremolos | Two-Note Tremolos


Music Note Ornaments Note ornaments are used to simplify the notation of note embellishments. Writing (or reading) every single note in a glissando, for example, would be needlessly tedious. More embellishments include:

  • Turn
    A turn creates a four-note series of notes that starts one semitone above the written note.

    Inverted turns begin one semitone below the written note. The symbol for an inverted turn creates an ‘S’ if faced upright.
  • Trill
    A trill is a quick alternation between two notes, most often the written note and the semitone above it. A trill’s notes may be modified with small accidentals, but if notes are too far apart, a tremolo is used.
  • Tremolo
    A tremolo creates a quick repetition of one tone, or a quick alternation between two or more tones:

    Single-note tremolos repeat one tone for the duration of the note-length. The rhythm of the repetition is specified by the note-flag. For example, the tremolo in the image above will last for one half-note, and will be played as sixteenth-notes.

    Two-note tremolos express an alternation between (most commonly) two tones. The full length of the tremolo is specified by the note-head, and the rhythm of the alternations is written into the flag (see two-note tremolos).
  • Glissando
    A glissando is a slide up or down the piano keyboard. Starting or landing notes, if applicable, are written on either end of the symbol.
  • Mordent
    A mordent creates a three-note embellishment, starting on the written note then alternating quickly with the semitone below it. An inverted mordent does the same, but with the note above it.

 


More Musical Symbols:

 

■ Staff & Barlines
■ The Grand Staff
Key Signatures
■ Time Signatures

■ Note Lengths
■ Dotted Notes
Music Rests
■ Tempo Commands

■ Accidentals
Articulation
Dynamics & Volume
8va & Octave Commands

Repeat Signs
Segno & Coda Signs
Pedal Marks
■ Piano Chords

Trills
Turns
Tremolos
Glissando
Mordents


 


Beginner Piano Lessons
 ▪  The Piano Keyboard Layout
 ▪  The Black Piano Keys
 ▪  Finding Middle C on the Piano
 ▪  Find Middle C on Electric Keyboards
 ▪  Left Hand Piano Fingering

Reading Piano Music
 ▪  Sheet Music Symbol Library
 ▪  How to Read Piano Notation
 ▪  Illustrated Piano Chords
 ▪  Musical Quizzes & Tests

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano

Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance

Musical Quizzes
 ▪  Identify the Piano Keys
 ▪  Key Signature Quiz
 ▪  Grand Staff Notes Quiz
 ▪  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz