Music Theory 101: How do I READ this stuff, anyway?

This month we'll delve into some of the basics in reading sheet music -- even if you are in voice lessons, a solid foundation in reading music is very important!  Without further ado....

1. Measures: Songs are broken into small sections, called measures.  Measures are divided on either side by a bar line - a thin black line that helps us clearly see where when measure starts and ends.  Each measure receives the same number of beats.  If you've ever seen a band perform, you've probably heard them yell "1, 2, 3, 4!" before beginning the song -- they are establishing not only the number of beats per measure, but the speed of the song as well.

2. Time signature: How do we know how many beats are in each measure?  We look for the time signature, which is written at the very beginning of the song.  For example, a song in 4/4 time signature receives 4 beats per measure; a song in 3/4 time signature receives 3 beats per measure; a song in 2/4 time signature receives 2 beats per measure.  4/4 and 3/4 are the most commonly used time signatures, particularly in the early years of learning an instrument.  (By the way, 4/4 is also a clever musical reference in our school's name!) 

3. Notes: There are many kinds of notes; we'll learn 3 of the most common notes today.  Notes look different - some are black in the middle, others are white, some have dots - the difference in appearance is what allows us to identify the name of the note, and how many counts it receives. 

See full size imageFor example, a quarter note is a black oval with a stem pointing up or down.  A quarter note receives one beat.  So, if we were playing a song in 4/4 time signature (four beats per measure), we could fit four quarter notes into each measure.

See full size imageA half note looks like a quarter note, but is white in the middle.  A half note receives two beats.  In 4/4 time signature, how many half notes could fit into one measure?  (If you said two, you're right!)

See full size imageA whole note looks like a half note, but has no stem.  A whole note receives four beats -- that means we play the key/sing the note only once, but hold it for four beats.

Want any easy way to remember the names of the notes, and how many counts each gets?  Well, think of a whole note as a whole cake.  If you weren't sharing the cake with anyone, you'd have whole cake to yourself.  What happens if you wanted to share it with a friend?  You'd cut it in half.  A half note is half the value of a whole note.  How many cake halves does it take to make a whole cake?  Two.  How many half notes (two beats each) would it take to equal one whole note (four beats)?  Two. 

Now, what would happen if you were sharing the cake amongst four people?  You'd cut it into quarters.  A quarter note is called such because it is a quarter of a whole --- how many quarter notes (1 beat) would it take to equal a whole note (four beats)?  Four.  How many cake quarters would it take to equal a whole cake?  Four.  Make sense?

Take time this week to check out the latest song you're working on - can you find the time signature?  How many measures in the song?  Can you find quarter, half and whole notes?  Try clapping the rhythm for the song.  Keep this up, and you'll see your sight-reading and sight-singing improve!  
Jennifer Iovanne

Voice Lessons in Redmond, Washington

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