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Giant musical symbol!

Music is more than just a collection of notation

Music is typically written as symbols on one or more five line staves. Consider an example:
Notation example
Treble ClefIn this example we can see two rows of five horizontal lines. Each group of five lines is called a stave (in British English; Americans call it a staff).
The one at the top is for the higher frequencies, the curly thing on the left (called a treble clef - technically it is a "G clef" as the tight circle is around the G line, the second line up on the treble stave) indicates this.
Bass ClefThe lower stave is for the lower frequencies, the thing that looks like a crude drawing of an ear with two dots following (called a bass clef - technically an "F clef", the two dots are around the F line, the second line down on the bass clef) indicates this.
Both of the staves are joined together by the curly brace on the left marked "Piano". It is valid to have multiple staves if there are multiple instruments in the piece. Middle C falls on a line in between the two staves; here is a diagram showing the relationship between notes and their positions on the stave:
Notes on the stave
Aside: There are other styles of clef, and different positioning which affects how the notes are read (consider a contrabass viol (aka double bass)) which would require a stave below the normal bass clef stave just so there was a place to put notes for it! However for the sake of simplicity, we will stick to reading music the usual "treble clef and bass clef" way, as shown in the above diagram.
Aside: Through this blog entry, you'll see little indented sections like this to discuss things related to the text, but would break up or otherwise complicate things. Consider these "extras". ☺

Now looking at the two staves, we can note that there is a vertical line at periodic intervals. This is, essentially, a time marker. Each bar (also known as a measure) is separated by a vertical line, and in this case each bar consists of four beats; this is indicated by the four on top of a four - the lower four represents a crotchet or a beat-length note and the upper four represent how many of them appear in a bar).

Explanation of 4/4 time.
Aside: In olden days, 4/4 time would be represented by a thing that looks like a lower-case 'c', but this isn't used so much these days. If there is nothing specified, 4/4 is assumed by default.

 

Therefore, what musical notation is, is a way of writing pitch (which notes to play) and time (when to play and how long to play for).

Aside: This is the most common way of writing music, however there are various different types of notation. The one you might come across first is "tablature", which is used most often these days for guitar notation where instead of indicating notes on a staff, the staff represents the strings of the guitar and numbers indicate which frets to hold to obtain the desired note.
Klavarskribo is a type of piano score written downwards. It is not unlike how Synthesia teaches you to play.
Jianpu (numbered notation) is a Chinese way of writing music using numbers. It is interesting in that it can be written using nothing more than a typewriter.
Numerous Eastern (e.g. Shakuhachi or Swara), Arabic (many more tones than in Western music), and African ways of writing music exist and were devised independently of the Western style staff/note form. Some of these notations survive today because of specifics of the type of music catered for are difficult to describe using western notation - an example being Japan's Taiko (the big-ass drum that you play with gusto). How you play, which part you hit, and how hard, are not things that can easily be described in western notation.
This basic style of notation is missing vast amounts of information, so all of the odd-looking annotations attempt to add in this extra information. At the top we see "Allegretto" which is an Italian word which according to Wikipedia means "moderately fast (98109 BPM)" though my music program seemed to think 120BPM could be allegretto. Since such terms do not have any exact definition, the "note symbol equals 120" specifies the exact beats per minute.
Clap your hands together, quickly. That is most likely not far off (120BPM would be two claps per second). The solid black notes with the tail (up or down, it's the same) that look like the big one at the top of this page last for a duration of one beat. The hollow note lasts for a duration of two beats. A solid black note with a hook (also shown as a bar joining more than one) lasts for half a beat.

There's yet more. "mp" and "pp" specify intensity. Think of it a little bit like a volume knob, only instead of turning the knob up and down, you would hit the keys harder or more gently. "mp" means "mezzo piano" and is the soft side of medium. "pp" means "pianissimo" and is quite soft. In order from quietest to loudest: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff. By including "dynamics", instruction on playing intensity, a piece can become a lot more expressive. You'll have noticed this in movies and the like where there is gentle background music during the talky scenes, the music intensifies during the action until it becomes a series of power chords for the epic climax. Actually, it's pretty much the same for any rock number or power ballad worth remembering the title of.

This leaves us two loose ends. The first, all the hash marks. The '#' (called "sharp") indicates that instead of playing the note shown, you should play the black key to the right (technically, raising the pitch by 70.6 cents); as shown:

Piano keys example
B-sharp and E-sharp (B# and E#) do not exist. B-sharp is the same as C and E-sharp is the same as F; the tonal difference between B and C is less than that between C and D for instance. It is complicated, but explains why there aren't black keys across the range of the keyboard.

Aside: You might have heard of 'flat' as well as 'sharp'. A flat, indicated by a sort of 'b' symbol, is the black key to the left of that indicated. So if our base note is an E, then E-sharp will be the black key to the right of E (marked E#), and E-flat will be the key to the left of E (marked D#).

Aside: Technically, the use of '#' to mean sharp is incorrect. The actual musical symbol is a # with the horizontal lines at an angle (so they stand out from the stave lines) and vertical lines upright. If your computer/font supports it, a sharp correctly looks like this: ♯

The final loose end: the "Ped" with the line. This indicates that the sustain pedal should be pressed and held for the duration of that line. There is an alternative, a "Ped" without a line, which is cancelled by a big asterisk-shaped mark, but the software I use doesn't offer this option (yet?).

With all of the above, we can look to decoding the short piece shown at the top of the page. The treble part of the first bar consists of four half-beat notes (F#, G#, A#, C#) followed by a two-beat note (G#). The bass part of the first bar consists of two beat length notes (F and A) played together, then another beat length note (C) followed by a two-beat note (E).
They are arranged as follows:

   Time:    0.0   0.5   1.0   1.5   2.0   2.5   3.0   3.5   |
                                                            |  
   Treble:  F#    G#    A#    C#    G#                      |
                                                            |
   Bass:    F+A         C           E                       |
The treble is played gently, and the bass gentler still. The notes are played for the entirety of the duration shown, so the F+A and C notes in the bass extend through the G# and C# of the treble, like this:
   Time:    0.0   0.5   1.0   1.5   2.0   2.5   3.0   3.5   |
                                                            |
   Treble:  F#--- G#--- A#--- C#--- G#--------------------- |
                                                            |
   Bass:    F+A-------- C---------- E---------------------- |
Aside: As we know the tempo is 120BPM, we can work out that a beat takes a half second. As there are four beats to a bar, each bar will take two seconds to play.

 

I'll leave you to work out what the second bar would sound like. When you are done, play the short clip below and see if you got it:

 

In a nutshell, that is what musical notation is and how it looks and how you read it. Now don't get me wrong, I don't expect you to be able to sight read after a simple blog post, however hopefully there will be enough here that you can find your way around simple music (and, perhaps, to work out how to play it on an electric piano if you have one).

If you're up for it, try this (click the image for a notes hint (needs scripting)):

Example music

 

We are, unfortunately, still missing something. This something cannot be written, nor can it be described. This something is "spirit".

One of my favourite pieces of music is "Canon" by Johann Pachelbel. I have heard quite a number of renditions of this popular piece which have been...

Look, listen to this:

That is Canon as performed by the "Collegium Musicum de Paris" (pretentious Latin alert!) conducted by Roland Douatte. It is an old recording, what with being on a bizarre piece of spinning plastic that turned at a sedate 33rpm and contained an analogue representation of the music. If you're confused what this is, go ask your grandparents; and all us crusty-geezers with grey hair can smile smugly at the scratching trope that still turns up in rock, rap, pop music, and film sound effects to which you young'uns can no doubt recognise but have no idea as to the origins.

By now you should have heard the piece. It isn't good quality, but it is enough to tell you two things. The first thing, it is technically competent. It is well performed. Flawless, even.
It is also as insipid as hell. I have heard as much 'spirit' and emotion being emitted from a MIDI synth.

Now listen to the rendition by the English Chamber Orchestra on the Best of Classics CD. This might be hated by some as it is not 100% true to the original version, however they have modified it to provide life, spirit, and emotion. When it kicks into high gear at 1m45s is a lovely thing. In fact, I would say this entire version is lovely. Don't ask me about the odd backdrop - I'd have been inclined to spoof Test Card F or something. ☺

Having listened to both, as I hope you have, you'll find it hard to believe they're both supposed to be the same piece. The Paris one is note for note correct but isn't lively. The English Chamber Orchestra version is not note for note correct but is a piece I want to listen to.
[if you are interested, YouTube has plenty of good, correct, but essentially lifeless renditions - try a few!]

 

To give you an example for how playing incorrectly can be beneficial, listen to Nodame (live action; Juri Ueno is very cute, né?) giving her rendition of Beethoven's 7th Symphony:

As Chiaki observes, she's "sloppy" but the result is amazing (sugoi!), it is a lively and engaging performance.

Finally, just because it is really really awesome, here's Nodame and co giving their....unique....rendition of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue:

 

If you like that sort of thing and you aren't fazed by subtitles, then you might enjoy Nodame Cantabile. It is a TV series (11 hour long parts plus a four-hour special), followed by two films.
If that sounds like way too much to take on, the same girl turns up a few years earlier in a film that I would recommend to you - スウィングガールズ or Swing Girls. It runs for 1h45 and it is on YouTube.

 

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