Musical notes are one of the most important elements in music; notes are as important to music as writing systems are to speech or to the written word; they serve a similar function. Without musical notes systems, music could be composed or played only in the most primitive manner, if at all.
A musical notes is a system of symbols for representing music so that it can be played, read, or recorded in a more or less uniform fashion by a relatively large number of people, who are thereby enabled to communicate musically with one another in an intelligible manner. That’s why having the information related to musical notes is very essential for the musicians.
We are starting the Step by Step Ultimate guide of Musical Theory Fundamentals to help you grow from beginner to expert in your music profession. This is the First Chapter – Musical Notes, so let’s dive into it.
What is a Sound, Pitch, Note, Timbre and Tone? This may seem like a simple question but the answer may be as complicated as you want it to be. It could be said that everything in nature is energy vibrating and different frequencies; there are scientific theories that even the reality itself on the tiniest layers is just that—a vibration in the quantum field. When something vibrates it produces waves. Waves, in physics, are disturbances that transfer energy and there are two main types we experience in our perceivable surroundings: mechanical and electromagnetic. The main difference is that mechanical waves require the presence of physical matter, like air, through which they can travel.
Electromagnetic waves do not require physical medium — they can travel through the vacuum of space. We already write an article on the elements of music which covers what is sound, pitch, note, timbre, and tone in very detail.
When we see music as a language it is easy to realize that the notes in music are like the alphabet of a language. The notes are simply the foundation of all music.
There are only 12 musical notes in Western music, which is historically derived from the European music and is by far the most common music system that we hear today. There are other music “systems” out there, like Indian music, African music, Chinese and other traditional folk music, which are all different and make use of different scales. The 12 notes in Western music are as follows:
A, A# or Bb, B, C, C# or Db, D, D# or Eb, E, F, F# or Gb, G, G# or Ab
There are a couple of things to note here:-
1. The notes are named after the first 7 letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
2. There are also 5 notes lying between those: A#/Bb, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, that are named with sharps (‘#’ symbol), which indicate that a note is raised, and flats (‘b’ symbol) which indicate that a musical note is lowered. In this system, the sharp of one note is harmonically identical — also called enharmonically equivalent — to the flat of the note above it. In other words, A# is exactly the same tone as Bb, C# is the same tone as Db, D# as Eb, etc.
3. There are no sharps or flats between B and C or between E and F. That’s just one fundamental characteristic of the music system that we use today.
4. The notes that don’t have any sharps or flats — all white keys on piano keyboard — are called Natural notes. The black keys on piano keyboard are always the notes with sharps or flats.
5. The distance between any two of these 12 notes that are next to each other is called a half-step (H), and each half-step is the same distance (for example the distance between Bb and B is the same as the distance between E and F). The distance comprising two half-steps, which is the distance between, for instance, C and D, is called a whole step (W).
In elements of music, we mentioned that the term ‘tone’ is sometimes used as a name for a particular music interval. This is that case—oftentimes the term semitone (S) is used instead of the half-step, and tone (T) instead of the whole step. These are just different names for the same thing. Half-steps or semitones are equal to the distance from one piano key to the next, or one fret on guitar to the next (which is why there are 12 keys or 12 frets per octave on those instruments).
The note circle shows all 12 notes that exist in Western music
Whenever you’re moving clockwise on the note circle (from left to right on piano keyboard), you are ascending and the musical notes are becoming higher in pitch. That’s the situation in which we would use ‘#’ symbol; for example, we would use C# instead of Db to indicate that we’re ascending. On the opposite, whenever you’re moving counter-clockwise (from right to left on piano) the notes are becoming lower in pitch and hence we would use ‘b’ symbol — Db instead of C#, to indicate that we’re descending.
Octave and Registry Ranges
Each note has its own pitch, but as we saw, there are only so many different notes (there are 12 in the Western music system). This doesn’t cover the whole range that our ears can hear. That means that those notes have to repeat in higher and lower registers. All registers contain the same 12 musical notes, repeated both in higher and lower pitches.
When a note repeats in a higher or lower register—when it has a different pitch but is the same note—we say that the distance between those musical notes is measured in octaves. An octave is simply the distance between one note and that same note repeated in the next higher or lower register on the frequency scale.
Physically speaking, an octave is the distance between two pitches that results in one pitch having exactly twice as many waves in the same amount of time (number of oscillations per second). In other words, the frequency of a musical note that is an octave up from another note is twice that of the first, meaning that there are twice as many waves, and the pitch is higher despite being the same note.
Between any two octaves there are all of the notes, and the order of the notes stays the same. What that means is that if you understand something in one octave, you have understood it in all of them. If you look back at the note circle (above figure) you can see that an octave is equal to going one full way around the note circle from any starting musical note.
If you go clockwise and end up on the same note you would get an octave higher note, and likewise if you go counterclockwise you would get an octave lower note. After one octave, the notes simply repeat themselves in the same order in the next lower or higher octave/register. Note that the terms ‘octave’ and ‘register’ are often used interchangeably.
An octave can also be viewed not just as the distance (interval), but as a single note—the eight note—which has the same letter name as the first note, but double the frequency. This will be important when we get to scales and chords later in the book. Limited by what our instruments can produce and the range that our ears can hear, there are only so many registers (or octaves) at our disposal.
Different instruments vary a lot in their ranges; some instruments, such as pianos, have many octaves, so that even though there are only 12 notes there are 88 keys on a full-size keyboard (88 different pitches that can be produced, which is as many as 7 octaves).
Here’s a picture of a full size master piano keyboard with marked all C notes repeated in eight different octaves/note registry ranges
You may have seen before a note with a number next to it and wondered what that number means. Unless we’re talking about a particular chord, that number tells us what kind of registry range the note is in. Looking at the figure, you can see that there are eight C notes on piano, and this number (1-8) tells us exactly which C to play (in what registry/octave range).
Same goes for any other note; for example, D3 means that this D note is in the C3-C4 range, or the third range. This is especially important when writing down music using notation because it determines what kind of clefs we will use to best cover the range of a piece, and minimize the use of ledger lines.
Middle C and Standard Pitch
On above figure, you can see all registry ranges on piano. One range has the length of one octave—so the distance between C3 and C4 is exactly one octave; same with F2 — F3, D6 — D7, A4 — A5, etc. The distance between C1 and C3 would be 2 octaves, G4 and G7 3 octaves, etc. It’s important to remember here that C is the starting note/frequency of each range, and that C4 note is called the middle C. On guitar (if tuned to standard tuning), this note is found on the 5th fret of the 3rd (G) string.
We use pitch to determine how high or how low something sounds. But there was a problem back in history (before XIX century) when musical notes were not fixed to certain pitches (pitch was not standardized), and musicians would just pick certain frequencies according to their subjective hearing and assign notes to them.
For this, and many other reasons, it was obvious that pitch standardization was needed. Throughout history there have been many attempts to standardize the musical pitch. The most common modern music standard today sets the A above middle C to vibrate at exactly 440 Hz.
This A4 serves as the reference note, with other notes being set relative to it. This is called the “Standard pitch”, or “Concert pitch”. Most instruments today are tuned according to this “default” tuning.
On standardly tuned guitar for example, A above middle C is found on the 5th fret of the 1st (thinnest high e) string. Since A4 has the frequency of 440 Hz, what frequency would an octave lower—A3 have?
The answer is: 220 Hz, and A5 would be 880 Hz.
This tuning standard is widely recognized and used, but there are also other tuning choices used by different orchestras around the world, most of which revolve around A4 being set to different frequencies, such as: 441 Hz, 442 Hz, 436 Hz, etc.
There is another type of pitch standard, called Scientific pitch (or Philosophical pitch), where the focus is put on the octaves of C rather than on A. In Standard pitch, A4 is 440 Hz, and C4 (or middle C) is 261.625 Hz, but in Scientific pitch C4 is adjusted so that it is equal to a whole number—256 Hz, and A4 is 430.54 Hz.
This pitch standard is sometimes favored in scientific writings because 256 is a power of 2, which is very useful in the computer binary system and serves different purposes.
One octave consists of 6 whole steps, one step consists of 2 half-steps, and one half-step consists of up to 100 cents. What that means is that, for example, D and D# are one half-step apart but between them there are up to 100 cents. Cents in music are typically used to express microtones, which are very small intervals—smaller than a half-step (which you can also call a semitone).
Beyond one semitone, rather than using hertz as a frequency measure unit (which if you remember shows the amount of air pressure waves produced in a given amount of time), we more often use cents which are a logarithmic measure used for musical intervals. It is enough to say that they are simply more convenient and easier to use for musicians.
Human ear is very sensitive as it can recognize up to only a few cent difference between two successive notes (pitches), but the interval of one cent is too small to be heard between two successive notes.
Your instrument can be in tune and still sound a little bit off, and that’s the case when there’s a small pitch difference that can only be measured in cents. Correcting these small differences is sometimes called fine-tuning and the tuners that you can find today allow for this kind of super-accurate tuning (with even less than one cent accuracy). The more “exactly” in tune your instrument is, the better it will sound, especially on the recording. That’s why it is important to keep it in tune.
We’ve now covered the notes and the note circle. Before we dive any further, it is essential that you understand and learn the intervals in music, which we are going to understand in next blog.
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