Understanding a score

For this course, it is helpful to be able to read a score and understand how to enter it into GarageBand. ‘Score’ is another word for ‘sheet music.’ Understanding a score will enable you to create a cover song from any score you can find. Here’s an example of an old score:

The score consists of groups of 5 lines, called staves:

Music notes are written on the lines of the staves and also in the spaces between the lines. Which line or space the music note is written on tells you the pitch (how high or low) the note is.

The staves are divided into bars with small vertical lines. There are 4 bars shown in the diagram below, divided by 3 bar lines. The bar lines help us to break down the song into smaller chunks, like eating a block of chocolate one square at a time.

In the diagram below, notice that once we start putting music into each bar, sometimes the bars are wider, and sometimes the bars are narrower. This is because they can stretch to fit all the notes that are within the bar. Regardless of how wide the bar is on the score, every bar plays for an equal amount of time – the number of beats written on the time signature. I’ll explain the time signature in a minute.

See the simple score for Happy Birthday below, and note the bar lines that divide it into bars.

You can see that the time signature is circled on the score above.

The top number of the time signature tells us how many beats in each bar.

For the diagram above, the time signature is 2/4, which means there are two beats in the bar.

Happy Birthday is in 3/4, which has three beats in every bar. The most common time signature is 4/4, which means there are four beats in every bar. Notice that the diagram below is in 4/4. It has 4 bars, each containing 4 beats.

Imagine clapping your hands in time to music. We show each bar by emphasising the first beat, also known as the downbeat. For music in 3/4 time, you would count your claps, ‘One, two, three, one, two, three…’ and so on. For music in 4/4 time, you would count your claps, ‘One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…’ and so on. Each clap is one beat. By emphasising the first beat of each bar, we get a feeling for the rhythm. Notice how 3/4 time, with its groups of three beats per bar, feels different to 4/4 time, with groups of four beats.

Score notation

Each example above uses quarter notes, also known as crochets, to represent the beat. That means the note plays for the duration of one beat. A crotchet is a solid dot with a stem. The stem may point upward or downward. Here are some examples of crochets:

If the music note has a stem but is hollow, then it is called a half note or minim, and this tells you to hold that note for two beats. Here are some minims:

See how the last note, circled in red, has a dot after it? This is called a dotted minim, and it plays for three beats.

If the note is hollow and has no stem, that’s called a whole note or semibreve. It plays for four beats:

If you look back over the examples above, you can see that four quarter notes are equal to one whole note. And two half notes also equal one whole note. Now we can look at ways to divide the beat into smaller parts. Quavers are also known as eighth notes because it takes eight of them to equal the length of a whole note. Quavers always have a stem, but can have either a bar across the top to organise them into groups, or a tail, when they’re not grouped together. Here are some examples of quavers:

The following tells you how long a note plays for: the shape of the note, the presence or absence of a stem, if it has a dot beside it, whether it has a tail or is joined to another note, and whether the note is hollow or solid. This is a lot to remember to begin with, but if you use the score reference to remind you, you will find you get faster at telling the difference.

A score also shows rests – beats when you don’t play any notes, and how long they are. See how rests are written on the score:

Sometimes you will see rests that last for multiple bars, shown by a thick black line through the bar, like the picture below. The number at the top tells us how many bars we need to rest for.

Sometimes you will see a curved line between two notes, like this:

The curved line is called a tie, which you can think of as like a string that ties together two notes. When you see a tie, instead of playing the second note, you only play the first note, and then hold it down for the entire duration of both the notes. In this instance, the first note is a minim, which plays for two beats, and the second note is a dotted minim, which plays for three beats. So you would play a single note that is held down for five beats.

This may seem like a lot to remember! If you have printed out the score reference (download here), you will see all the information about how long each note plays for is included on this reference. When you are entering a song into GarageBand, keep the reference handy to remind yourself how to understand the score.

Understanding notes on a piano

In the image below, you can see a piano keyboard. You will see that the pattern of the keys repeats with every eighth note on the keyboard. Each group of eight notes is called an octave.

Within an octave, each note has a name. To find a particular key on the piano, you need to know its name and also which octave it is in. See the names of the notes below:

If we go from left to right in the diagram above, each time we see the note C, it is one octave higher than the one before. The same goes for each D, or E or any of the other letter names.

Most musicians use the note C to understand a keyboard. The C is the white note to the left of the group of two black notes. Can you look at the piano and learn to recognise what the C notes look like?

One particular C, the C in the middle of a piano keyboard, is known as Middle C. Most musicians memorise the position of Middle C on the piano, and use that to know which octave they are working with. In GarageBand, the piano is turned sideways, and Middle C is labelled ‘C3’:

Just to be confusing, in the music world outside of GarageBand, Middle C is referred to as C4!

You might also like to identify Middle C on your audiogram, to see how much hearing you have at that pitch:

Connecting notes on the score with notes on the piano

When notes are written on the score, they correspond with notes on the piano. You need to learn how to identify Middle C, because notes that are in the octave above Middle C are written differently on the score than notes that are in the octave below Middle C. Let’s start with the notes from Middle C and above.

If the notes written on the staves refer to Middle C and the octaves above it, you will see a treble clef written on the staves at the start of the line:

In the image below, the left-most note is Middle C. Each note corresponds to a white key on the piano.

If you have done the GarageBand tutorial, you should be able to now enter the above notes into GarageBand, by finding C3 and entering the first note, for a duration of one beat, and then entering the next note and so on. If entering the notes into GarageBand is too confusing, don’t worry, we will come back to this in a later lesson.

Now let’s look at the notes below Middle C. For notes below Middle C, you will see a bass clef written at the start of the line:

In the image below, the right-most note is Middle C. Each note corresponds to a white key on the piano.

Hopefully you can now enter these notes into GarageBand.

Black piano keys

Diagram above shows all white notes in the octave below Middle C, moving from lowest to highest. See how only the white keys on the sideways piano are highlighted in blue.
Diagram above shows all black notes in the octave below Middle C, moving from lowest to highest. See how only the black keys on the sideways piano are highlighted in blue.

So far we have only covered the score notation for the white keys on the piano. The black keys are written on the score as sharps (#) which are one semitone higher than the white note, or flats (♭), which are one semitone lower. So the black key immediately to the right of C can be described as C# or as D♭.

On a score, if you see the # symbol before a note, it means that instead of playing the white key for the note, you play the black key to the right (or above it, in GarageBand). If you see the ♭ symbol before a note, in means that you play the black key to the left (or below it, in GarageBand).

However, sometimes you need to play a black key and it is not noted on the score with a # or ♭. This happens when the key (or scale) of the song includes notes with sharps or flats. I will explain exactly what keys and scales are in the next lesson. For now, we can see what key a song is in by looking at the key signature on the score. The key signature is written on the staves just after the treble clef or bass clef:

See there is a single ♭ on the line where the note of B would normally be displayed? This means that when you see a B on the score, you need to play B♭. This applies for every B in every octave, not just the B above or below Middle C. So the score will show a B, in any octave, and you play a B♭ instead.

For the below score, see how there is a # in the position where F would normally be played, and another # in the position where a C would normally be played?

This means that every time you see an F or a C on the score, in any octave, instead of playing that note, you play the black key one semitone higher – the F# or the C#.

If this is a little confusing, don’t worry, as we will learn about key signatures in detail soon. For now you just need to know how to read the score and enter it into GarageBand. You might like to come back here and read this section on key signatures again after you’ve studied the next lesson.

I have made a score reference which you can download here – a single page that you can use as a quick reference when you are entering a score into GarageBand, to remind you what each notation means. Keep this reference within reach while you are working on music so you can quickly look up how long notes or rests play for, and which note is which.

For even more detail on how to read a score, check out this page.

Did you understand this lesson ok? Is anything confusing you? Your feedback will help me improve this course. Thanks! – Asphyxia

Continue to next lesson – what is the scale of a song and why is it important?

Back to course page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s