How to read and write music
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway
So far we’ve been talking about many topics, but we never brought stuff down to Earth.
We need to learn how to write down our music, which will help us not forget it, but also will help others play what we’ve composed. Great!
There are two major ways in which we can write down our music:
This is a method which is exclusively made for guitar. What we use is a representation of the guitar strings, and use numbers on each to note the fret in which we play each string.
Also called standard notation, this is a method that is applicable to all instruments. Unlike tablature, this specifies which notes must be played, instead of a fret where to hit the strings. In this manner, sheet music can be applied to all instruments, like violin, saxophone, harp, etc. Oh, and guitar too.
Because sheet music is more difficult to read and use, I’m going to be focusing on tablature for now, and we’ll see more of sheet music later on.
The way we use tablature is by drawing horizontal lines that represent each string on the guitar. Of course, most of the times we’ll draw 6 lines for each of the guitar’s six strings, although you use more lines if your guitar has more strings (7, 8, etc).
The bottom line represents the thickest string, and the top line the thinnest. It’s also quite common to place a letter on the left of each string to note the tuning of that string.
You can see that there are two big 4’s on top of each other; this is the time signature (in this case 4/4, which means that each bar is made of four quarter notes, or four beats).
The equation is used to note the duration of a beat (a quarter note). In this case, the beat has a duration of 120 BPM, which means that there are 120 beats in 60 seconds, so a duration of half a second each.
Lastly, we get the tuning information. On the top we can see that is reads standard tuning, this means EADGBE from 6th to 1st respectively.
The last thing you can see is that there are a series of vertical lines with numbers over them. These are the separations between bars, which in this case with a time signature of 4/4, each bar has four beats.
Next, we’ll start seeing how we play some stuff, so we’ll write numbers on top of each string to note which fret has to be pressed and played on each string.
When a number appears on a string, you know that that string has to be played while pressing on that fret number.
There are two things we need to understand at this point. When we write numbers in a vertical line, that means that we have to play those frets on each string at the same time, for example with a chord, and if the notes in different vertical lines they are meant to be played separately, depending on the note values of each.
In the last image, you can see that the first four numbers on the left are just single notes that have to be played, while the last group in vertical line is a single chord to be played at the same time on all the strings.
So, starting from the left, we would play:
1st fret on the 6th string.
2nd fret on the 6th string.
1st fret on the 5th string.
2nd fret on the 5th string.
Open 6th, 2nd fret 5th, 2nd fret 4th, 1st fret 3rd, open 2nd, and open 1st.
If you’ve already gone through the Zero to Beginner learning guide, you should be able to tell which chord is it that we just saw.
What about the note values?
Well, because note values are just as important as the notes themselves, we need to find a way to write the value of each note value with the note, or else we won’t be able to play correctly.
This is when some people do differently. The actual notation for the note values comes borrowed from the standard notation we talked about before.
Here are the most common symbols used:
We want to use the above symbols on the tablature but including the fret number inside each of the small circles of each symbol (ideally). Sometimes, as with the tablatures that are shown above, we can use only the lines to identify the note value.
But...music is not only about sounds. No! It’s also about silence.
We need some way to note silences, so we will use a different set of symbols that note silences for each of the note values we have already seen.
That’s it! You now know the basics of reading tablature.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember the meaning of every symbol; you will with practice.
There are more symbols that are a little more advanced, so we will see those as we move along learning.