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Music Lessons Tips: How Notes Work

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

The Language Of Music

Notation (Musical Notes) are the bedrock of the musical language. To help us understand them we can compare them somewhat to how letter of the Alphabet work, but in a way also to numbers - we'll get to that part later on.

We use notes to construct words and musical sentences, but notes also gives us the confines, the framework for (western) music.

To learn how to read and write in English for example, you need to know how to use the letters within it. By combining the right letters you can form words and sentences that have meaning, that others can comprehend.


There are of course other dimensions to music, music also holds time (tempo), textures, pitch and many other qualities.

Pitch in music is more comparable to how numbers work. We do indeed use letters to indicate which note we want to be played at what time, but they are not equal in pitch ("distance"). Musical notes are actually a representation of sound frequencies (Hz).

At a certain point in time humans have collectively agreed that specific frequencies will be indicated by12 distinct different pitches using 7 letters and 5 "accidentals".

Why 7 letters? The distance (intervals) between those notes sounded wholesome to us, harmonious if you will.

After playing the 7th notes people noticed the 8th note sounded the same as the 1st (octave). We added those 5 smaller intervals between to allow us more textures and expression within. Indeed the 1st not and the 8th were not the same but because those notes shared a lot of the same sound waves (sound frequencies) they sounded the similar and almost identical to our ears and were labeled with the first letter or note name we used.

These 12 notes we assigned can be repeated endlessly going up (in tone) or down (just like numbers can be counted upwards or downwards). In English, we use the letters A-G to represent those 7 distinct pitches and "accidentals", to mark the 5 other notes.

The Instruments we use

Any musical instrument we play on (including our voice), in the western musical style, uses these 12 notes. and with them we communicate what we want other players to play and how.

Musical notes are the language we need to write, perform or play our instrument. It is true that you can learn many musical aspects simply by repeating and playing around with constructs. but to truly wield the power of music you need to understand, first, how notes work.

Notes Vs Numbers

Musical notes, as we mentioned can be compared to numbers.

We practically only use 10 distinct number signs. 0-9, with those signs we can write all numbers in existence. Same goes with notes, only we don't add numbers together in the same way. With numbers, we attach one to another to increase its "value". i.e '0' added to a '1' will create the number 10, thus increasing its "value"

Musical notes, like numbers have no beginning or end, we decide arbitrarily where we start and finish. But in order to increase a notes "value", or pitch we literally write it on a different part of the paper (more later), using different signs to indicate that the note has a higher or lower value.

The main difference is that notes represent frequencies and thus are limited to what we are able to hear (20hz - 20k), numbers are limited by our imagination.

*In actuality, notes also have no beginning or end, but because we are unable to hear them we stop mentioning them beyond our hearing spectrum.

Order Of Appearance

So, now that we've gotten that out of the way. Let's learn how notes are ordered, meaning, which not comes after which and why.

As mentioned before we use 7 letters of the alphabet to indicate a note's value. Starting with A (for convenience reasons) and ending with G.

These letter do not represent the smallest steps we can make in music but the most harmonious steps we start working with.

Let's place them on a linear line:


The smallest step (distance) we create in (Western) music is called a half step, or a half tone. You can think of it as a counting numbers in halves. i.e 0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 etc.

To indicate where the half tones are between the letters we borrowed from the Alphabet we will use the accidentals:

# - Sharp (Diez)

b - Flat (Bemol)

These accidentals only do one thing. They indicate to us that the note that we're about to play needs to be pushed up, or down by half a tone.

# = Indicates that we Push our note by half a tone, and so we attach to the note that we want to push it. For example, the not A can be pushed up by writing it like so, A#. This tells me I have to play the original A, Higher by half a tone.

b - indicates the opposite, pulling a note downwards by half a tone. So the same A can be pulled down by using the b, like so Ab.

Between some of the Alphabet notes we already have half tones present, and so we cannot push or pull them to create a smaller distance (interval) - at least not in western music.

Let's see where how we arrange all the notes including all accidentals by using Sharps only.

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

Notice the two sets I've marked in blue, between those two sets there is already a half tone present. Meaning you cannot push up those notes close together. B cannot be pushed close to C (Again in Western music at least), and E cannot be pushed closet to F. This is their set distance.

But, we can push C closet to D for example, by using the sharp sign. this tells us that that C is now closer to the D.

By how much? let's see.

So in the chart above we move by half tones every step; A => A# => B => C =>C# etc these are half steps intervals. The smallest increments we write with in Western music.

So with distance indicated between the notes:

A ½ A# ½ B ½ C ½ C# ½ D ½ D# ½ E ½ F ½ F# ½ G ½ G# ½ A

Now let's do the same using the Flats, meaning pulling notes downwards instead of up.

For it to make more sense at first we're going to be going Downwards from the letter A

A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C B Bb A

Notice again the two pairs of notes that have no flats between them. i.e E F & C B

Let's draw this up again, this time using the interval (distance) indication. We'll be traveling by half tones alone:

A ½ Ab ½ G ½ Gb ½ F ½ E ½ Eb ½ D ½ Db ½ C ½ B ½ Bb ½ A

Sharps & Flats; What are the differences?

By now, you may have notice the similarities between Sharps & Flats. You may have noticed the in the same space between A & B there's an A# in one instance and in the other Bb.

What is the difference between them then?

Well we won't get too deep into that, just know that in the past there were differences between them that have modified in a lot of the more modern instruments.

For our intent and purposes they are simply to different ways to travel with pitch. One takes us above the note and one takes us below. Essentially reaching the same end result from two different directions.

Imagine it like adding 0.5 to the number 1, That will give you the result; 1.5 and on the flip side of that subtracting 0.5 from the number 2, that will also give you the result 1.5.

Sometimes in music we have to indicate that we're going upwards rather than downwards. It is not important why at this point in time. Just know that theses are two methods to reach the same note.

Here's a more visual aid:

*Notice that in this image we're starting at C, as I mentioned, in music you can start at any note you want, the distances (intervals) are going to start the same.

Notes are not actually linear

Even though notation is usually represented linearly i.e above or on the keys of a piano. Notes don't actually have a starting point or an end point, as I've mentioned before. We decide when to start or finish. And our ears present us with the limitation of comprehending them beyond our spectrum.

I like representing notes as numbers are, no beginning, no end and more importantly never ending. We can keep "counting" them, for as long as we want.

In my mind the based way to represent them, is on a spiraling line. Where the more inwards you fall into the spiral the higher the notes get. But, their names and relative distance stays the same (at least to our ears).

Here's a partial image of that:

Notice, again, that we've started with the note C. This is completely arbitrary and we could have just as easily started on A or F# or wherever. But again, the distances and the location of the accidentals (Sharps & Flats) are always in the same place.

If this does not resonate with you, here's the same notes but represented on a linear piano:

Practice suggestion;

Write down all the notes on paper, randomly starting on whichever note you wish. Double check yourself with the images above or look online for others.

After you've done that you can try and arrange them in various intervals. half tones, full tones, tone and half etc. Just to get a hang on how can you rearrange and use them.

Don't forget to try and go both upwards and down.

For more guitar tips visit my other Music Lessons Tips blogs. For Music Lessons you, may contact me directly.

Music Lessons @ The Pijp Amsterdam

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