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Theory Project 4: Writing Notes

David Raleigh Arnold

Note Names

The letters ‘a’ through ‘g’ are used to name the notes. There are many systems for specifying by name which ‘a’ or ‘g’ is meant. The best known is probably to name the note by using the standard pitch in cycles per second, A440. The notes starting with C4 up to B4 contain A440. C5-B5 contains A880, C3-B3 contains A220, and so on. These ranges are called octave registers. This is certainly the system easiest to remember.

If numbers are used to specify time values, for example C4 to specify a quarter note “c”, then numbers are not good for anything else.

Punctuation is also commonly used to indicate the octave register, and it is used here.

Chord names or note names of keys, scales, modes, or tonalities are capitalized. A generic note name may be capitalized or any name may be bracketed, as “C” may refer to [c,], c or c’, etc.. These conventions are neither totally standard nor unusual.

Middle C is [c’].

This series of notes starts with [g] below middle [c’], in the top space of the bass clef staff, the bottom space of the alto clef staff, and the line below the middle line of the G/8 staff. The range of a staff can be extended by leger lines.[1]

A Series of Notes

g          e,  f,  g,  a,  b,
c     d    e   f   g   a   b
c'    d'   e'  f'  g'  a'  b'
c''   d''  e'' f'' g''

Horizontal Spacing

Space the notes of the shortest duration, which right now are quarter notes or rests, about 1.5 cm. apart:


There is usually not any such extra white at the ends of measures in printed music, but it is a good habit in writing to allow for insertions or corrections. Also, leave a gap after the bar to allow room for a sharp or flat, for instance. Most printed music is as compact as possible, for very good reasons. Crowding is the most common fault in the writing of beginners.

Practice in Writing Notes

Ex. 1. Write the List of Notes

Write the list of notes above in quarter notes. Work from the list above instead of the finished exercise until it’s no longer a struggle.

List of Notes

The head of a quarter note or crotchet[2] is an ovoid with its long axis at 30 degrees. Start at the upper right edge of the note and outline it counterclockwise. then quickly fill it in. You can write faster if you make the note head narrower. I don’t think that turning it into a line is a very good idea, but it is done by some. Draw the stem straight downward to the right side of the head or downward from the left side.

There is no time signature and there are no bars, because this is not music. A double bar can go anywhere because it is not necessarily necessarily a bar. Of course there must be clefs for all notes.

The stems extend from the note head all the way to the middle line of each staff. Always draw the stems downward, with a minimum length of one octave. (All of this assumes one voice on each staff.) A note on the middle line may have the stems go either way.[3]

Ex. 2. FACE

Write the following notes in 4/4 time. The “4” after the first note sets the notes as quarters. For “||”, draw a double bar.

f4 a c' e' | f, a, c e | f' a' c'' e'' | f a c' e' |
e' c' a f | e'' c'' a' f' | e c a, f, | e' c' a f |
f a c' e' | f, a, c e | f' a' c'' e'' | f a c' e' |
e' c' a f | e'' c'' a' f' | e c a, f, | e' c' a f |
f a c' e' | f, a, c e | f' a' c'' e'' | f a c' e' |
e' c' a f | e'' c'' a' f' | e c a, f, | e' c' a f |
f a c' e' | f, a, c e | f' a' c'' e'' | f a c' e' |
e' c' a f | e'' c'' a' f' | e c a, f, | e' c' a f |
f a c' e' | f, a, c e | f' a' c'' e'' | f a c' e' |
e' c' a f | e'' c'' a' f' | e c a, f, | e' c' a f ||

Ex. 3. A G Major Arpeggio

Write the following notes, which make a G major arpeggio. An arpeggio is the notes of a chord played one note at a time. A G major triad, or “G chord” for short, is made up of the three pitches G, B, and D. If all these notes following were played at once, it would sound as a G major triad.

g4 b d' | g' b' d'' |
 d'' b' g' | d' b g |
d b, g, |
g, b, d | g b d' |
d'' b' g' | d b, g, | d' b g | g, b, d |
g' b' d'' | g b d' | d b, g, | d' b g |
g, b, d | g b d' |
d'' b' g' | d' b g | d b, g, | d' b g ||

Ex. 4 Writing Music

Write the following. It is in 4/4 time. The half note is written just like the quarter, except that the head is left white. It ought not to be narrowed. The “r2” is a half rest.

e,4 f, g, a, | b, c d e    | f g a b | c' d' e' f' |
g' a' g' f'  | e' d' c' b  | a g f e | d g, a, b, |
c2 r2 ||

Ex. 5

e,4 g, f, a, | g, b, a, c  | b, d c e    | d f e g |
f a g b      | a c' b d'   | c' e' d' f' | e' g' f' a' |
a'2 r2 |
g'4 e' f' d'  | e' c' d' b  | c' a b g    |  a f g e  |
f d e c      | b, g, a, b, | c2 r        ||

Ex. 6

c'4 c e' d'  | c' b a g   | f d f' d'   | b g a b |
c' c e g     | c' g' e' c' | a f d b,   | g, f e d |
c e, f, g,   |
a, b, c d    | e f g a     | b f' d' b  | g' e' c' a |
f d' b g     | e' c' a f   | d g, a, b, | c d e f |
g a b g      | c'2 c  ||

Writing and Being Neat

Gaining skill.

It would be a good thing if you could write with some speed and confidence before you start with scales, modes, and chords.

Learning notes.

If you can read this you learned to write mainly to learn to read. Learning to read music is no different.

Looking ahead.

It used to be necessary for a composer to be able to write very neatly because someone else was going to typeset his music. As long as you can read your own writing years down the road, you’re ok. I have found that the passage of time requires more neatness than one might think, and it is useful to be able to put your first draft or version on the scanner to hand out to other players.

Nevertheless, just in case, the “answers” are in PDF:[4]

End Notes:

§1 “Leger lines” has been the traditional term and spelling for the extra lines above or below the staff. Some think that “ledger” is better, but I don’t.

§2 “Crotchet” is British for quarter note, but croche is French for eighth note. Wikipedia explains very well how that happened.

§3 A note on the middle line used to be stem up in Europe and stem down in America, but no one cares about that any more. The reality is that there is usually some other better reason to do it one way or the other.

§4 [ ex. 2-6 ]

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©2008 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com