1 Section 1.1: Basics


Step one: Realize that learning to read and write music is exactly the same as learning to read and write any language be it English, Spanish, German, Danish, Arabic, etc. This means that there are grammar and syntax rules one must follow for the successful communication of music in the form of the written page. Music uses the English language and low-level principles of Mathematics in unconventional ways to communicate graphic information. When we learn Math and English in the classroom we are given foundations or a set of base operating principles. Music being its own language also has grammar and syntax requirements unique to its function, however, it uses the same graphic symbols based in Math and English. It is my opinion that this is where the common “disconnect” happens for most during theory practice. If one spends significant time learning grammar and syntax of the English language and Math functions until they have mastery in those areas it builds a knowledge base. Using that knowledge base in an unconventional language set and applying these new rules in new ways can be difficult. But that is exactly what music demands. So, we approach the study of music theory as one would learning a new language.

From birth, we begin to learn aural communication from our family how to speak until we are old enough to read and write. Many musicians can mimic or repeat sounds and techniques played in front of them for the first time. This is great but unless total understanding is achieved how do we tell someone else? “Playing by Ear ” is a good technique that professional musicians use to their advantage constantly. However, this is during live performance after serious study of music theory and its application is learned. People who rely solely on their ear always hit a wall and can never develop their musicianship past a given point.

Most of you reading this now are probably thinking “well crap this is how I operate, and if I can’t just use my ear anymore, where do I start?” The good news is you already have. Many people who play by ear discover things they already knew but had no way to label them verbally for reference or communication. Since we already know how to speak when we enter grade school, we begin to learn the basics of reading and writing or communicating graphically. So, this is where we will start, assuming a certain level of exposure to music without graphic understanding.

The basics of music can easily be deciphered if one understands how music is graphically communicated. In other words, how it is written and what devices we use to deliver that message. The first device we will look at and study is the music staff. The staff is a series of five horizontal lines. That’s it, just five lines with proximity to one another. How we use this device will vary based on the things we place on the staff. This is very important in communicating music and will be the only vehicle to graphically communicate music. Just like words go on a page to make a sentence, and those sentences form paragraphs that go on to fill out a book, notes go on the staff with various spaces and repetitions to form harmony, melody, and rhythm – in other words, music.

The following graphic is an example of a blank staff. If you have staff paper then good for you, now you don’t have to spend time with straight edges drawing line after line. Although, it is good practice to recreate a staff freehand or with a straight edge a number of times. Music as a graphic notation has its own art to its transmission. Portions and space must be followed in order for the language of the song to be interpreted.




A staff.


The Staff is nothing without an item we refer to as a CLEF. When no clef is present the staff carries no meaning or frame of reference for the reader, except for a graph. Once a Clef is present then and only then is there a frame of reference present with which the musician can identify notes placed on a staff.

The staff below has a TREBLE clef placed on it. This is one of the most commonly used clefs which is also referred to as a “G” clef. The position of the clef tells us where the note G is located. The tail of the Treble clef surrounds the line where G lives like crosshairs in a scope. This is our first “frame of reference” and will be a tool we use to figure out other notes on the staff when we begin to add them.


A staff with a treble clef.

The next clef we will learn is called the BASS clef or “F” clef, which is the second-most commonly used clef. The two dots located next to the clef indicate where the note F is located.


A staff with a bass clef.


The Bass and Treble clefs are more commonly used to transmit music, especially in pop and rock settings. However, there are a number of others that exist to help define the vast range of musical instruments that exist throughout the world. Each one has a specific melodic range it defines graphically. Below are examples of other clefs and their placement on the staff.


A staff with a treble clef, a bass clef, an alto clef, and a neutral clef.

The fact is that there are a number of clefs that music theorists and composers use to communicate music to performers. The one they decide to use will depend upon the RANGE of the instrument in question. Range is a word musicians use to refer to where the sound is located within a larger spectrum of instruments or sounds. This means that the clef one decides to use will define a particular palette of sounds within the Bass and Treble spectrum. For instance, the Equalizer or “EQ” that is located on almost all consumer-grade electronics depicts the sound spectrum from left to right starting with the lowest range.

Many EQs can control multiple BANDS, a word we use to refer to a specific frequency area we hear as Bass, Mid Tones, and Treble giving one the ability to customize the sound by accentuating or de-accentuating certain parts of the spectrum. The example below is an example of what a “3-band” EQ looks like and where a clef would fit within that spectrum. Isolating three areas of frequency we can begin to understand where this all ties together, Bass, Mid, and Treble.


A "3-band" EQ.

Besides the clues that clefs give us to decipher their meaning, they are also named after the part of the musical spectrum in which they operate. For instance, the TREBLE clef will be used with instruments that play extremely high notes like trumpets and flutes. The BASS clef will be used for instruments that play low notes like tubas and upright basses.



In certain instances, we use something called the GRAND STAFF when we need to communicate on paper something with an extended range like a piano. A grand staff is created when we combine the Treble and the Bass clefs graphically. The graphic below displays the grand staff for us to peruse and study.

A Grand Staff. There are two staves. One has a treble clef, and the other has a bass clef.

This is the arrangement of range in written form whereas the EQ is graphic but not a tool for writing, showing left to right movement. The grand staff shows how music translates through multiple ranges in an up and down movement with the bass at the bottom. The higher up one goes on the staff, the higher the pitches or tones.



Now that we have a staff with a clef, it is time to learn how notes operate on this graph of sorts. There are a couple of rules that are simple enough to understand if one can do their A B C’s. We use the first seven letters of the English alphabet to communicate music: A B C D E F G. Once we reach G we start over. This rule is good no matter which letter is chosen first. If the first note is D we advance in ABC order: D E F G A B C D or if our given tone is “F”  F G A B C D E F.

Since we learned the treble clef first and we also call it the G clef that is where we will start.

The musical alphabet with a treble clef.We can find the “G” note that the treble clef introduced us to in the previous section. Once we have located that we begin to use our understanding of the ABC order with a simple rule, move line to space to line to space in strict rotation. These are the tones or notes that live on a treble clef.

We do the same thing with the bass clef. Starting on the “F” line, the two dots next to the clef surround the note “F”, and fill in the rest in ABC order line to space to line to space.

The musical alphabet with a bass clef.Now we know four things about reading music:

  1. Every clef has an identifying mark that gives us a particular starting note.
  2. Once we identify that mark, we move from line to space to line in alternation.
  3. We use ABC order to discover the rest of the names of the notes on a particular staff.
  4. Never repeat a letter or note.

By creating a Grand Staff and labeling it according to the rules we learned for treble and bass clefs, we see that the notes line up and are centered around one tone that all piano players find on their first day of study which is called MIDDLE C. On a full-size piano, there is one C that stands directly in the middle of the keyboard with an exact number of pitches on each side. Concurrently, that pitch is exactly in the middle of the GRAND STAFF and is used as a type of connective tissue between the bass and treble staves.

A grand staff with the middle C.


When one sees the above example, immediately they recognize the pattern that occurs as explained earlier in the Musical Alphabet section in which we use the first seven letters of the English Alphabet as the basis for music notation and communication.

Remember step 1 from before? Realize that music is a language that has its own grammar and syntax. Step 2: Music is also Math. I know that’s a bummer, but it is. This means predictable patterns in a specific series will occur everywhere in various forms of music construction. These patterns have protocols that govern their use. The ability to spot mathematical patterns is a theorist’s most important tool and will eventually yield a skill that is used in an artful manner. The musical alphabet moves in patterns which means all of music is a series of patterns that are sometimes easy to see at first glance but can also be mysterious and daunting depending on how clever the composer is and how they use a pattern. So, our first Pattern is A B C D E F G, the Musical Alphabet. The rule that governs this pattern is that we start over once we have reached the G. The next set of Patterns we will study are referred to as INTERVALS and they are the building blocks of Harmony and Melody.


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A Practical Approach To Understanding Music Theory Copyright © 2022 by Charles B. Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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