Pitch Symbols and Their Meanings for Reading Guitar Notation
The table explains what the various symbols dealing with pitch mean in music notation. Refer to the figure and this table for the meanings of the symbols. The table refers to the symbols numbered from 1 to 6 in the figure.
Music for “Shine On Harvest Moon.”
|Number in Figure||What It’s Called||What It Means|
|1||Staff||Composers write music on a five-line system called a staff. In
talking about the individual lines of the staff, refer to the
bottom line as the first line. Between the five lines are four
spaces. Refer to the bottom space as the first space. You can place
note heads on lines or in spaces. As the note heads get higher on
the staff, they get correspondingly higher in pitch. The distance
from one line to the next higher space (or from one space to the
next higher line) is one letter of the alphabet (for example, A to
|2||Clef||The staff alone doesn’t tell you the pitches (letter names) of
the various lines and spaces. But a symbol called a clef, at the
left edge of each staff, identifies a particular note on the staff.
From that note, you can determine all the other notes by moving
alphabetically up and down the staff (line to space to line, and so
on). The clef you use in guitar music is called the treble clef (or
G clef — see G note following).
|3||G note||The clef you use in guitar music is the treble clef (sometimes
called the G clef), which vaguely resembles an old-fashioned letter
G. It curls around the second line of the staff and indicates that
this line is G, and any note on that line is a G note. Some people
memorize the letter names of all the lines (E, G, B, D, F, bottom
to top) by the mnemonic “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” For the spaces
(F, A, C, E, bottom to top), they think of the word face.
|4||Ledger lines||If you want to write notes higher or lower than the staff, you
can “extend” the staff, above or below, by adding very short
additional staff lines called ledger lines. The notes (letter
names) move up and down alphabetically on the ledger lines just as
they do on the normal staff lines.
|5||Accidentals (sharps, flats, and naturals)||The seven notes that correspond to the first seven letters of
the alphabet (sometimes called natural notes) aren’t the only notes
in our musical system. Five other notes occur in between some of
the natural notes. Picture a piano keyboard. The white keys
correspond to the seven natural notes, and the black keys are the
five extra notes. Because these “black-key” notes don’t have names
of their own, musicians refer to them by their “white-key” names,
along with special suffixes or symbols. To refer to the black key
to the right of a white key (a half step higher), use the term
sharp. So the black key to the right of C, for example, is C-sharp.
On the guitar, you play a C-sharp one fret higher than you play a
C. Conversely, to indicate the black key to the left of a white key
(a half step lower), you use the term flat. So the black key to the
left of B, for example, is B-flat. On the guitar, you play a B-flat
one fret lower than B. If you sharp or flat a note, you can undo it
(that is, restore it to its natural, “white-key” state) by
canceling the sharp or flat with a symbol known as a natural sign.
The last note of the first staff of the figure, A-natural, shows
this kind of cancellation.
|6||Key signature||Sometimes you play a particular pitch (or pitches) as a sharp
or flat (see the preceding explanation of accidentals) consistently
throughout a song. Rather than indicate a flat every time a B
occurs, for example, you may see a single flat on the B line just
after the clef. That indicates that you play every B in the song as
B-flat. Sharps or flats appearing that way are known as a key
signature. A key signature tells you which notes to sharp or flat
throughout a song. If you need to restore one of the affected notes
to its natural state, a natural sign in front of the note indicates
that you play the natural note (as in the seventh note of the
figure, where the natural sign restores B-flat to B-natural).