Modern musical symbols

Modern Musical Symbols are the marks and symbols that are widely used in musical scores of all styles and instruments today. This is intended to be a comprehensive guide on the various symbols encountered in modern musical notation.

Lines

Staff
The fundamental latticework of a musical score, upon which symbols are placed. The five staff lines and intervening spaces each correspond to the seven repeating pitches of the diatonic scale, as defined by the clef. For example, on a staff with a treble clef, the bottom staff line is assigned to E above middle C (E4 in note-octave notation). The space above it is F4, and so on. A common use of the staff is the grand staff, which combines bass and treble staffs into one system, joined by a brace, and used for keyboard music notation. (Also called a Stave)
Leger lines
Used to extend the staff if any pitches fall above or below it. Such leger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Four lines is the practical limit for most situations.
Bar line
Used to separate two measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Bar lines are extended to connect the upper and lower staffs of a grand staff.
Double bar line
Used to separate two sections or phrases of music. Also known as the symbol that starts and ends a musical piece.
Dotted bar line
Subdivides long measures into shorter segments for ease of reading.

Clefs

Clefs define the pitch range, or tessitura, of the staff on which it is placed. A clef is usually the leftmost symbol on a staff. Additional clefs may appear in the middle of a staff to indicate a change in register for instruments with a wide range. In early music, clefs could be placed on any of several lines on a staff.
G clef (Treble Clef)
The centre of the spiral defines the line or space upon which it rests as the pitch G above middle C, or approximately . Positioned here, it assigns G above middle C to the second line from the bottom of the staff, and is referred to as the "treble clef." This is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music.
C clef (Alto Clef)
This clef points to the line (or space, rarely) representing middle C, or approximately . Positioned here, it makes the centre line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the "alto clef." This clef is used in modern notation for the viola. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a "movable" clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line and called a "tenor clef". This can be seen in some trombone or cello music.
F clef (Bass Clef)
The line or space between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C, or approximately . Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a "bass clef." This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef.

Neutral clef
Used for pitchless instruments, such as those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured here. It may also be drawn with a separate single-line stave for each untuned percussion instrument.
Octave Clef
Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively.
Tablature
For guitars and other plucked instruments it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB-sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard 6-stringed guitars, six lines would be used). Numbers on the lines show on which fret the string should be played. This Tab-sign, like the Percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef.

Notes and rests

Note and rest values are not absolutely defined, but are proportional in duration to all other note and rest values. For the purpose of definition, the duration of the quarter note is represented by R, for "reference length."
NoteDurationRest
Longa
Also called a "quadruple whole." This value appears in early music.
Duration: 16 R
Breve
Also called a "double whole."
Duration: 8 R
Semibreve
Also called a "whole."
Duration: 4 R
Minim
Also called a "half."
Duration: 2 R
Crotchet
Also called a "quarter."
Duration: 1 R
Quaver
Also called an "eighth."
Duration: 1/2 R
Semiquaver
Also called a "sixteenth". Note the correspondence between the number of flags on the note and the number of branches or pawls on the rest.
Duration: 1/4 R
Demisemiquaver
Also called a "thirty-second."
Duration: 1/8 R
Hemidemisemiquaver
Also called a "sixty-fourth."
Duration: 1/16 R
Quasihemidemisemiquaver
Also called a "hundred-twenty-eighth or "semihemidemisemiquaver."
Duration: 1/32 R
Beamed notes
Beams connect and emphasize quavers and shorter note values.
Dotted note
Placing dots to the right of the corresponding notehead lengthens that note's duration. One dot lengthens the note by one-half its value, two dots by three-quarters, three dots by seven-eighths, and so on. Rests can be dotted in the same manner as notes.
Multi-measure rest
Indicates the number of measures in a resting part without a change in meter, used to conserve space. This requires the performer to count carefully, preceding their next entrance. Also called "gathered rest" or "multi-bar rest".


Durations shorter than the 128th are not unknown. 256th notes occur in works of Vivaldi and even Beethoven. An extreme case is the Toccata Grande Cromatica by early-19th-century American composer Anthony Phillip Heinrich, which uses note values as short as 2,048ths; however, the context shows clearly that these notes have one beam more than intended, so they should really be 1,024th notes. The duration and name of these notes can be easily found with two simple formulae.
The name is: a th note.
The number of beats it receives is of a beat.
These two formulae can also be applied to the branches or pawls on eighth- and smaller rests.

Pauses

Breath mark
In a score, this symbol tells the performer to take a short breath (or make a slight pause for non-wind instruments). This pause usually does not affect the overall tempo. For stringed instruments it indicates to lift the bow and play the next note with a downward bow.
Caesura or Grand Pause
Indicates a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted. In ensemble playing, time resumes when so indicated by the conductor or leader. More commonly called "railroad tracks."

Accidentals and key signatures

Accidentals modify the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same staff position within a measure, unless cancelled by an additional accidental.
Double flat
Lowers the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones.
Flat-and-a-half
Lowers the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. (Used in microtonal music.)
Flat
Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Demiflat
Lowers the pitch of a note by one quarter tone. (Used in microtonal music.)
Natural
Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).
Demisharp
Raises the pitch of a note by one quarter tone. (Used in microtonal music.)
Sharp
Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Sharp-and-a-half
Raises the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. (Used in microtonal music.)
Double sharp
Raises the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones.


Key signatures define the prevailing key of the music that follows, thus avoiding the use of accidentals for many notes. If no key signature appears, the key is assumed to be C major/A minor, but can also signify a neutral key, employing individual accidentals as required for each note. The key signature examples shown here are described as they would appear on a treble staff.
Flat key signature
Lowers by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, thus defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are denoted by differing numbers of accidentals, starting with the leftmost, i.e., B♭, and proceeding to the right; for example, if only the first two flats are used, the key is B♭ major/G minor, and all B's and E's are "flatted", i.e. lowered to B♭ and E♭.
Sharp key signature
Raises by a semitone the pitch of notes on the corresponding line or space, also defining the prevailing major or minor key. Different keys are denoted by differing numbers of accidentals, also proceeding from left to right; for example, if only the first four sharps are used, the key is E major/C♯ minor, and the corresponding pitches on the staff are raised.

Time signatures

Time signatures define the meter of the music. Music is "marked off" in uniform sections called measures, and time signatures establish the number of beats in each. This is not necessarily intended to indicate which beats are emphasized, however. The same music marked off in measures of a different duration will sound precisely the same if properly played, but since music could be marked off in infinitely many ways, it makes sense to mark it off in a way that conveys information about the way the piece actually sounds, and those time signatures tend to suggest, but only suggest, prevailing groupings of beats or pulses.
Specific time
The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes).
Common time
This symbol is a throwback to sixteenth century rhythmic notation. It once meant the equivalent of 2/4. and now means the equivalent of 4/4 (See imperfect time).
Cut time
Indicates 2/2 time, meaning only two beats per bar but written as four, also called Alla breve.
Metronome mark
Written at the start of a score, and at any significant change of tempo, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 crotchets, or quarter notes, fit into one minute of time.

Note Relationships

Tie
Indicates that the two notes joined together are to be played as one note. This can also indicate a note sustained over two or more measures.
Slur
Indicates that the two notes are to be played in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath.

Slurs and ties are similar in appearance. A tie is distinguishable because it always joins exactly two immediate adjacent notes of the same pitch, whereas a slur may join any number of notes of varying pitches.

Legato
Notes covered by this sign are to be played with no gaps. Sometimes indistinguishable from a slur.
Glissando
A steady glide from one note to the next.
Ligature
Also known as a phrase mark. Usually appears in music for string instruments to indicate bowing.
Triplet
Condenses three notes into the normal duration of two notes. If the involved notes are beamed, the brackets on either side of the number can be omitted. This can be generalized to a tuplet, where a certain number of notes are condensed into the normal duration of the greatest integer power of two notes less than that number, e.g., six notes played in the normal duration of four notes.
Chord
Three or more notes played simultaneously. If only two notes are played, it is called an interval.
Arpeggio
Like a chord, except the notes are played one at a time in sequence. Also known as a rolled chord or a spread chord.

Dynamics

Dynamics are indicators of the relative intensity or volume of a musical line.
Pianissimo
Very soft. Usually the softest indication in a piece of music.
Piano
Soft. Usually the most often used indication.
Mezzo-piano
Literally, half as soft as piano.
Mezzo-forte
Similarly, half as loud as forte. More commonly used than mezzo-piano. Note: if no dynamic appears, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.
Forte
Loud. Used as often as piano to indicate contrast.
Fortissimo
Very loud. Usually the loudest indication in a piece.
Sforzando
Literally "forced", denotes an abrupt, fierce accent on a single sound or chord. Note: when written out in full, it applies to the sequence of sounds or chords under/over which it is placed.
Crescendo
A gradual increase in volume.
Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the passage.
Decrescendo
Also Diminuendo
A gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended in the same manner as crescendo.

Articulation marks

Articulations (or accents) specify how individual notes are to be performed within a phrase or passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note. They may also appear in conjunction with phrasing marks listed above.
Staccato
This indicates that the note is to be played shorter than notated, usually half the value, the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may thus appear on notes of any value, thus shortening their actual performed duration without speeding up the music itself.
Staccatissimo
Indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making the note very short. Usually applied to quarter-notes or shorter. (In the past, this marking's meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent and not staccato. These usages are now defunct, but still appear in some older scores.)
Accent
The note is played louder or with a harder attack than any surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.
Marcato
The note is played much louder or with a much harder attack than any surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration. Also called petit chapeau.
Left-hand pizzicato or Stopped note
A note on a stringed instrument where the string is plucked with the left hand (the hand that usually stops the strings) rather than bowed. On the horn, this accent indicates a "stopped note" (a note played with the stopping hand shoved further into the bell of the horn).
Snap pizzicato
On a stringed instrument, a note played by stretching a string away from the frame of the instrument and letting it go, making it "snap" against the frame. Also known as a Bartók pizzicato.
Natural harmonic or Open note
On a stringed instrument, denotes that a natural harmonic is to be played. On a valved brass instrument, denotes that the note is to be played "open" (without lowering any valve).
Tenuto
This symbol has two meanings. It usually indicates that it be played for its full value, without any silence between it and the next note, but with a separate attack (non legato). It can also direct the performer to give the note a slight accent. Combining a tenuto with a staccato yields a "portato," which indicates intermediate note-lengths, detached but not quite staccato.
Fermata
An indefinitely-sustained note or chord. Usually appears over all parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo.
Up bow or Sull'arco
On a bowed string instrument, the note is played while drawing the bow upward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with an upstroke.
Down bow or Giù arco
Like sull'arco, except the bow is drawn downward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with a downstroke.

Ornaments

Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes.
Trill
A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher tone or semitone within its duration. Also called a "shake." When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill.
Mordent
An insertion of the semitone below the specified note within its value (this particular case can be called a "lower mordent"). Without the vertical line, the inserted semitone is above the specified note, and the ornament is known as an upper mordent.
Turn
Also known as a gruppetto, combines an upper mordent and a lower mordent, in that order, into the specified note's value. If the symbol is reversed, the lower mordent is played first.
Grace note
Also known as an appoggiatura, it means the first half of the principal note's duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).
Slashed grace note
Also known as an acciaccatura, it means the principal note's duration begins with the pitch of the grace note for only a very small part of the principal note's value.

Octaves

Ottava alta
Notes below the dashed line are played one octave higher than notated.
Ottava bassa
Notes above the dashed line are played one octave lower than notated.
Quindicesima alta
Notes below the dashed line are played two octaves higher.
Quindicesima bassa
Notes above the dashed line are played two octaves lower.

Pedal marks

These pedal marks appear in music for the piano.
Engage pedal
Tells the pianist to put the sustain pedal down.
Release pedal
Tells the pianist to let the sustain pedal up.
Variable pedal mark
More accurately indicates the precise use of the sustain pedal. The extended lower line tells the pianist to keep the sustain pedal depressed for all notes below which it appears. The inverted "V" shape (/\) indicates the pedal is to be momentarily released, then depressed again.

Repetition and codas

Tremolo
A rapidly-repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency at which the note is to be repeated (or alternated). As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate.

In percussion notation, tremolos are used to indicate rolls, diddles, and drags. Typically, a single tremolo line on a sufficiently short note (such as a sixteenth) is played as a drag, and a combination of three stem and tremolo lines indicates a double-stroke roll for a period equivalent to the duration of the note. In other cases, the interpretation of tremolos is highly variable, and should be examined by the director and performers.
Repeat signs
Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.
Simile marks
Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated.
Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings)
Denote that a repeated passage is to be played in different ways on different playings.
Da capo
Tells the performer to repeat playing of the song from its beginning. This is followed by al fine, which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda, which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.
Dal segno
Tells the performer to repeat playing of the song starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.
Segno
Mark used with dal segno.
Coda
Indicates a forward jump in the song to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda or D.C. al coda.

See also

References

Music notation or musical notation is any system which represents aurally perceived music through the use of written symbols. Diverse systems of music notation have been developed in various cultures.
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In musical notation, the staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces, on which note symbols are placed to indicate their relative pitch. The lines and spaces are numbered from bottom to top; the bottom line is the first line and the top line is the
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diatonic scale (from the Greek διατονικος, meaning "[progressing] through tones", also known as the heptatonia prima
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clef (from the French for "key") is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes.* Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the staff, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line.
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Do or C is the first note of the fixed-Do solfege.

In Western music, the expression "middle C" refers to the note "C" (or "Do" in fixed-Do solfege) located exactly between the two staves of the grand staff, quoted as C4 in scientific pitch
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scientific pitch notation is given to one of several methods that name the notes of the standard Western chromatic scale by combining a letter-name, accidentals, and a number identifying the pitch's octave.
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The Grand Staff using both bass clef on the bottom and treble clef on top allows for four octaves of notation, counting the two high leger lines for Soprano C and two leger lines below bass clef for Deep C. Note, however, that more than two leger lines may be used.
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musical keyboard.]] A musical keyboard is the set of adjacent depressible levers on a musical instrument which cause the instrument to produce sounds.

Keyboards almost all share the common layout shown.
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ledger line or leger line is a tool of musical notation to express notes that do not fall on the regular lines or spaces of the musical staff. A short line (slightly longer than the note) is drawn parallel to the lines on the staff (above or below as appropriate),
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In musical notation, a bar or measure is a segment of time defined as a given number of beats of a given duration. The word measure is heard more frequently in the U.S.
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In music a phrase (Greek φράση, sentence, expression, see also strophe) is a section of music that is relatively self contained and coherent over a medium time scale.
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clef (from the French for "key") is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes.* Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the staff, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line.
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In music, the term tessitura (Italian: texture) generally describes the most musically acceptable and comfortable timbre for a given voice or, less frequently, musical instrument.
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The viola (French, alto; German Bratsche) is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the upper lines played by the violin and the lower lines played by the cello.
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The trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. Like all brass instruments, it is a lip-reed aerophone; sound is produced when the player’s buzzing lips (embouchure) cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate.
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violoncello, usually abbreviated to cello, or 'cello (the c is pronounced [tʃ] as in the ch of "check"), is a bowed stringed instrument, a member of the violin family.
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Tablature (or Tabulature) is a form of musical notation, which tells players where to place their fingers on a particular instrument rather than which pitches to play.
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note has two primary meanings: 1) a sign used in music to represent the relative duration and pitch of a sound; and 2) a pitched sound itself. Notes are the "atoms" of much Western music: discretizations of musical phenomena that facilitate performance, comprehension, and analysis
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A rest is an interval of silence in a piece of music, marked by a sign indicating the length of the pause. Each rest symbol corresponds with a particular note value:
  • longa (or four-measure rest)
  • double whole rest / breve rest
  • whole rest / semibreve rest

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longa is a musical note twice as long as a breve, four times as long as a semibreve/whole note, that appears in early music. It is equal to sixteen quarter notes, or four measures in common time.
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In music, a double whole note (American or "German" terminology) or breve (British or "classical" terminology) is a note lasting twice as long as a whole note (or semibreve).
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In music, a whole note (American or "German" terminology) or semibreve (British or "classical" terminology) is a note represented by a hollow oval note head, like a half note (or minim), and no note stem (see Figure 1).
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half note (American or "German" terminology) or minim (British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for half the duration of a whole note (or semibreve) and twice the duration of a quarter note (or crotchet).
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In music, a quarter note (American or "German" terminology) or crotchet (British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for one quarter of the duration of a whole note (or semibreve).
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Figure 1. An eighth note with stem facing up, an eighth note with stem facing down, and an eighth rest.]]

An eighth note (American or "German" terminology) or a quaver
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In music, a sixteenth note (American or "German" terminology) or semiquaver (also occasionally demiquaver, British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for one sixteenth the duration of a whole note, hence the name.
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In music, a thirty-second note (American or "German" terminology) or demisemiquaver (British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for 1/32 of the duration of a whole note (or semibreve).
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In music notation, a sixty-fourth note (American or "German" terminology) or hemidemisemiquaver (British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for 1/64 of the duration of a whole note (or semibreve).
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hundred twenty-eighth note (American or "German" terminology) or semihemidemisemiquaver or quasihemidemisemiquaver (British or "classical" terminology) is a note played for 1/128 of the duration of a whole note (or semibreve).
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A beam in musical notation is constructed as one or more lines used to connect multiple consecutive eighth notes (quavers), sixteenth notes (semiquavers), or smaller note values.
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