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Music Theory Cheatsheet

Oct 21, 2015



A short summary of music theory. Useful for quickly reviewing the basics, esp. before an exam.

  • music notation is the art ofrecording music in written form.

    tobyrush.b . c



    2009 toby w

    . rush. all r

    ights r



    modern music notation is a productof centuries of transformation...

    and it is neither efficient nor intuitive!



    Notation: Pitch##g#F#d#DD#SS#d#Mf#SSg#F

    pitch is the highness orlowness of a sound.

    the system of musical notationwe use is essentially a stylizedgraph of pitch versus time.

    the five lines on which notesappear is called a staff.

    the white notes on the keyboardare labeled with letters from A to G.

    notation is based on the piano keyboard;lines and spaces on the staff represent

    the white notes on the keyboard.

    the clef determines what notes each staffline corresponds to. the four modern

    clefs are shown here; the note displayedon each staff corresponds to middle c.

    To notate theblack noteson the piano

    keyboard, we useaccidentals,which alter thenote by one or

    two half steps.

    a half step isthe distancebetween two

    adjacent keyson the piano


    of what colorthe keys are.

    these symbols are placed tothe left of the note that theyaffect, and they apply to all the

    notes on that line or spacefor the rest of the measure.

    two notes which have the samepitch (for example, f sharp and

    g flat) are called enharmonics.

    middle c is the c that is closest tothe middle of the piano keyboard.

    The double sharp raises thenote by two half steps.

    The double flat lowersthe note by two half steps.

    The sharp raises thenote by one half step.

    The natural cancels outany previous accidental.

    The flat lowers thenote by one half step.

    treble clefalto clef

    tenor clefbass clef

    for example, a flute hasa high pitch, while a tuba

    has a low pitch.

    a note is awritten representation

    of a particular pitch.



    F g a b c d e F g a b c d e

    ! !


    T TTTto display notesoutside thestaff, we useshortenedstaff lines

    calledledger lines.

    F g a b c d e F g a b c d e

    @ K K

  • whole n


    double w

    hole n


    half n



    hth n


    sixteenth n




    econd n



    ourth n





    ighth n


    quarter n


    whole r


    double w

    hole r


    half r



    hth r


    sixteenth r




    econd r



    ourth r





    ighth r


    quarter r


    Notation: Rhythm

    5 T E








    while pitch is pretty clearly notated on avertical axis, note length is indicated using a

    somewhat arcane system involvingnoteheads, stems and flags.

    in this chart, each successive type of note is half as longas the note to its left. none of these notes has a standardlength; a half note in one piece may be the same length as

    an eighth note in a different piece.

    note lengths in a pieceare indicated by the tempomarking at the beginning

    of a piece or section.

    a rest is a period ofsilence that a length

    which corresponds to aparticular note.

    usually rests areplaced on the staff at a

    particular verticalposition as shown here.

    the augmentation dot is a dot placed to theright of a notehead. though small, this dot

    wields some serious power: it changes thelength of the note by 150%. In other words,

    it makes the note half again as long!

    multiple dots can also be added,each one adding half of the

    previously added value.

    N B B= + N B B B= + + N

    B B B= + + U+ N

    B B B= + + U+ +U)

    ties are curved marks which connecttwo notes together to createa single, extended sound.

    to tie more than two notes together,draw ties between each note; do not

    use a single, extended tie.

    a tuplet is any non-standard division of anote. these are usually written as a group

    of notes delinated with a bracket anda number showing the division being made.

    most tuplets are simple divisions, likethe triplets to the left. but anything ispossible! chopin, for example, wouldoften go to town with these things.

    G G G = =

    3 for example, these arent

    exactly quarter notes;they are each a third aslong as a half note.

    wha... gah!chopin, no!down, boy!

    tobyrush.b . c



    2009 toby w

    . rush. all r

    ights r



  • N# # N# # #

    Notation: Meter

    // // // // // // // // // // // // / // // // //

    // / / //

    a fundamental feature ofmost pieces of music is a

    consistent rhythmic pulse.

    this pulse is called the beat,and a single pulse

    is called a beat unit.

    there are two types of beat units:those containing two divisions,

    called simple beat units...

    ...and those containingthree divisions,

    called compound beat units.

    in music, beats are organized into patterns of accented and unaccented beat fact, if you listen to a sequence of repeated notes, your brain will probably start toperceive the notes as groups of two, three, or four, even if no accents are present!

    these groups are called measures,and they are delineated with barlines.

    the organizationof beat units

    and measures ina piece is calledmeter. Meter isdescribed by twonumbers placedat the beginningof the piece:

    the time signature.

    by looking at the topnumber of the time signature,you can tell two things aboutthe meter: whether its simpleor compound, and how many

    beats are in a measure.

    beats p

    er m


    simple compound




    the top numberindicates the numberof beats in a measure.

    the bottom numberindicates the type ofnote which serves asthe beat unit.

    simple meters are easy.


    the code for the bottom noteis pretty easy: refers to

    a quarter note, to an eighthnote, to a sixteenth note,

    and so on.

    / / / /the top number indicates the numberof divisions in a measure. to get thenumber of beats, divide it by three.

    in fact, wouldnt this bean easier way to notate

    compound meters?

    sorry... the man saysyou have to do itthe other way.

    the bottom number indicates the type ofnote which serves as the get the beat unit, use the note thatis equal to three of these a compound meter, the beat unit isalways a dotted note!

    compound meters are stupidly complicated.

    notes that have flags canbe grouped together by usingbeams in place of flags.

    however, beaming is only used to group notes within beats.for the most part, you shouldnt beam notes between beats,

    nor should you tie notes within beats.

    tobyrush.b . c



    2009 toby w

    . rush. all r

    ights r



  • notes should be beamed in groups that illustrate the meter. for simple rhythms, this is pretty easy to do;simply group any notes that can be beamed (eighth notes and smaller) intogroups that are equal to the beat unit of the current meter.

    for complex rhythms, however, things can get complicated... when a rhythm includes thingslike syncopations or other off-beat figures, illustrating the meter may involve dividingnotes across beat units with ties. fortunately, there is a step-by-step system for correctlybeaming these complicated rhythms!


    step 1:

    Hey, kids!

    its Sparkythe music theory dog!



    A: WOOF!*

    Dear Sparky:I understand that were supposed to beam rhythms to show the organization ofbeats in the measure, but is there an easy way to beam complex rhythms?

    --A.Y., Owatonna, MN

    ( ( ( ( ( (

    ( ( 0 0 0 ( 0 0for example, lets

    take this rhythm,which is written

    without beaming.

    find the smallest note value used, and fill a complete measure with this type ofnote, beamed in groups that are equal to a beat unit in the current meter.

    step 2: add ties between individual notes to recreate the original rhythm. make sure thateach tied group corresponds to a note in the rhythm you started with!

    step 3: find every group of two or more notes that are both tied together andbeamed together, and replace them with a single note of equivalent value.

    a correctly beamed rhythm may include ties, but it willvery clearly show the beats in the measure... which, inturn, makes it easier for the performer to read!

    yes, i know itlooks weird...but were not

    done yet!

    if you have notesthat are tied orbeamed, but not

    both, then leavethem alone!




    yes...simplify it!

    original rhythm:

    ( ( 0 0 0 ( 0 0

    ( (

  • The Major Scale

    one of the reasons that a particular piece ofmusic sounds the way it does has to do with thegroup of notes the composer decided to use.

    take this melody, for example...lets first remove all the duplicate notes, regardless of which octave theyre in.

    next, lets put the notesin alphabetical order,starting on the notethat the melody soundedlike it was centering on.

    what we end up wi

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