Join us as we dive into the different music symbols and their meanings.
Reading sheet music is essential to learning an instrument or even just appreciating the art of music.
However, the learning curve can be steep due to the number of symbols you need to understand.
To make this easier, we’ve compiled this cheat sheet of all the essential music symbols, so let’s dive in!
Accidentals are notes of a pitch that aren’t the official member of the scale indicated by the key signature. They alter the pitch of the note they precede by a specific amount.
The sharp (♯), flat (♭), and natural (♮) are the most common markers for these notes.
Here’s what they mean:
- Flat: The note has a one-semitone lower pitch than its natural form.
- Sharp: The pitch of a note is one semitone higher than its natural form.
- Natural: A natural mark neutralizes pre-assigned sharps or flats and returns the note to its natural pitch.
- Double flat: The pitch of a note is two semitones lower than its natural form. This is typically used when the note is already flat in the key signature.
- Double sharp: The pitch of a note is two semitones higher than its natural form. This often appears when the note is already sharp in the key signature.
Articulation Marks 𝄐
Articulation marks determine how a single note or phrase in a musical staff should be played. These marks often determine a note’s duration and expression.
- Staccato: The note should be played half a value shorter than notated, and the remainder of the duration should be silent.
- Staccatissimo: The performer should play the note even shorter than a staccato – usually a quarter of the original duration. It usually appears on the crotchet or shorter notes.
- Tenuto: The performer should play the note at its full length or slightly longer. It sometimes also indicates a level of emphasis, especially when appearing together with dynamic markings.
- Fermata: The performer should play the note/chord or sustain the rest longer than its notated value. The duration of a fermata is entirely up to the performer or conductor.
- Accent: The performer should play the note louder or with more emphasis than other notes. It can appear to modify notes with any duration – long or short.
- Marcato: The extreme version of an accent. A note with a marcato marking means that the performer should play the note even louder or with harder emphasis than notes with a regular accent mark.
Barlines separate musical bars according to the time signature of the piece. This helps musicians keep track of where they are in the sheet music.
There are several different types of barlines: double barline, bold double barline, and dotted barline.
- Double barline or final barline: A double barline usually appears at the end of a section to tell the performers of the upcoming changes in the pitch, tone, or pace. Pop songs typically have a double barline between the verse and the chorus.
- Bold double barline: A bold double barline marks the end of the piece. It looks like a regular double barline but with a thicker second line.
- Dotted barline: A dotted barline is the modified version of a regular barline. It divides long bars into shorter segments to help performers read the sheet music.
Break symbols tell the performers to take short breaks by breathing or allowing a brief space between notes or phrases.
- Breath marks: A breath mark instructs the aerophone performers to take a breath or other instrument players to leave a brief space. For instruments with a bow, it instructs the player to lift the bow and start the following note with a new bowing direction.
- Caesura: A caesura indicates a break or pause in a verse, usually to separate one phrase from the next. It can be symbolized by a comma, a tick, or two straight or slashed lines.
A clef is a musical symbol that indicates which notes are represented by the lines and spaces on a musical staff.
These symbols often appear at the beginning of the section in a musical staff. Clef can be placed on any line or space on the musical staff, but modern notations usually only use treble, bass, alto, or tenor clef.
- G clef (most commonly treble clef): The G clef places the G4 note on the line that passes through the spiral of the clef. When the spiral is located on the second line of the staff, it’s called a treble clef– the most common clef used in modern music.
- C clef (most commonly alto and tenor clef): The C clef places the C4 (middle C) note on the line that passes through the center of the clef. A C clef on the third line is known as an alto clef, and a C clef on the fourth line is called a tenor clef.
- F clef (most commonly bass clef): The F clef places the F3 note on the line that passes between the two dots of the clef. If this is the fourth line of the staff, it’s called a bass clef.
- Octave clef: An octave clef modifies the treble or bass clef to indicate a shift in pitch– a number 8 means a change of one octave, and a 15 means a change of two. If the number is placed beneath the clef, the pitch is dropped, and if it’s above, it is lifted.
- Neutral clef: Neutral clef often appears in pitchless instruments like the drums. The lines here indicate specific instruments, such as the different drums in a drum set.
- Tablature: The tablature doesn’t represent pitches in any way– instead, it replaces the regular staff for string instruments like the guitar. The lines in a tablature represent the strings of an instrument (e.g., a standard 6-string guitar would use a 6-line tablature).
The dynamics of musical pieces indicate the loudness between notes or phrases. These symbols determine how loud or quiet the performer should play a note.
- Pianississimo: Pianississimo means that the tone has an extremely quiet pitch.
- Pianissimo: Pianissimo means that the tone has a very quiet pitch.
- Piano: Soft, but louder than pianissimo. The word ‘Piano’ itself means “quiet.”
- Mezzo piano: Mezzo piano means that the note has a slightly soft volume but is still louder than the piano.
- Mezzo forte: Mezzo forte means the note has a moderately loud volume.
- Forte: Forte means that the note is quite loud – but still at an average level.
- Fortissimo: Fortissimo means that the note has a very loud volume, even louder than a regular forte.
- Fortississimo: Fortississimo means that the note has an extremely loud volume.
- Sforzando: It translates into “forced,” indicating an abrupt and fierce accent on a single sound.
- Crescendo: A crescendo means the note gradually gets louder as it plays on.
- Diminuendo: A diminuendo means the note will slowly get quieter as it plays on.
- Niente: Niente translates to nothing. The symbol is mostly used at the beginning of a crescendo to indicate that the sound will start from nothing (no sound) or at the end of a diminuendo to indicate that the sound will fade out to nothing.
Key signatures indicate which notes need to be played as sharps or flats.
Notes that are sharp or flat in a key signature dictate that they will be played as such throughout the entire piece.
The key signatures are typically illustrated in the circle of fifths, a circular diagram used to summarize the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys.
Line symbols in musical notation often relate to the non-notation markings used to help composers write and organize clefs, notes, and other symbols. These lines allow the performers to read the sheet music better and understand where they are in the piece.
- Staff or stave: The staff (American) or stave (British) are five horizontal lines that indicate a different musical pitch or different percussion instruments. Each line and space refers to either specific notes or percussion instruments.
- Ledger or leger lines: The ledger lines notate higher or lower pitches outside the lines and spaces of the regular musical staff. Lines above indicate a higher pitch, while lines below indicate a lower pitch.
- Bracket: Brackets connect two or more lines of music that must be played simultaneously. A bracket usually connects staves of individual instruments (e.g., flute and clarinet) or multiple vocals in modern music.
- Brace or accolade: A brace connects two or more lines of music that must be played simultaneously by a single player when using a grand staff. Braces usually connect staves for piano, celesta, harp, organ, and some pitched instruments.
Microtonal music doesn’t yet have a universally accepted notation method due to the varying systems used depending on the circumstances.
Microtones are very common in pieces for instruments that have more flexibility and space between notes. However, they’re almost nonexistent for piano pieces since the instrument is limited to half-semitone movements.
These are the most common microtonal notation forms right now:
- Demiflat: A demiflat is represented by a flipped flat symbol or a flat symbol with a diagonal slash. It lowers the pitch of a note by a quarter of the natural sound.
- Flat-and-a-half: This lowers the pitch of a tone by three quarter-tones. It’s common for a flat-and-a-half to be represented with a slashed double flat symbol.
- Demisharp: A demisharp raises the pitch of a note by one-quarter of the tone. It is often notated as one vertical line and two horizontal bars—essentially a sharp symbol cut in half vertically.
- Sharp-and-a-half: This mark raises the pitch of a note by three quarter–tones. It occasionally appears as two verticals and three diagonal bars.
- Harmonic flat: The harmonic flat lowers the pitch of a note to match the indicated number of the harmonic series of the root note, which is the lowest note in a chord. The harmonic series of a note refers to a series of higher frequencies that occurs when a note is played.
Notes and Rests ♪
Musical notes indicate the relative duration of a note using the shape of a note head, note stem, and note flags. Rests indicate silence of the equivalent duration as the musical notes.
These symbols have two varieties: one for the musical note and another for rests.
- Semibreve or whole note: A whole note or a semibreve (British) is a musical notation that counts as four beats. It looks like a hollow circle with no stem in a 4/4 piece.
- Minim or half note: A minim (British) or a half note (American) is half as long as a semibreve. It counts for two beats and is represented as a hollow note head with a stem.
- Crotchet or quarter note: A crotchet (British) or a quarter note (American) is half as long as a minim or a quarter as long as a whole note. It counts for one beat and is shown by a filled-in notehead with a stem.
- Quaver or eighth note: A quaver (British) or an eighth note (American) is a musical notation that counts as one-eighth the duration of a semibreve or half a beat. It looks like a filled-in notehead with a stem and a flag.
- Semiquaver or sixteenth note: A semiquaver (British) or a sixteenth note (American) is a note that counts as one-sixteenth the duration of a semibreve or a quarter of a beat. It is represented as a filled-in notehead with a stem and two flags.
- Beamed notes: A beam is a horizontal or diagonal line connecting multiple consecutive notes to indicate a rhythmic grouping of notes. It can only be used on quavers or shorter notes, and the number of beams is the same as the number of flags on each note.
- Dotted notes: A dotted note is a musical notation with a small dot placed right after it, which indicates an extended note duration. The first dot will extend the note by half its original duration, while the second dot will extend it by half the amount of the first dot, and so on for subsequent dots.
- Ghost notes: A ghost note, indicated by a cross in the place of the note head, is a note that contains a rhythmic value but not pitch or timbre. Guitarists often execute ghost notes by muting the strings, whereas drummers play ghost notes very softly in between accented beats.
- Multi-measure rest: A multi-measure rest (a.k.a gathered rest or multi-bar rest) indicates a period of silence greater than one bar. The number above the bar shows the number of measures of rest.
Note Relationship ⁀
Symbols in this category represent the relationship between one note and another. These symbols tell the performer how to transition between notes to get the best melody and harmony.
- Tie: A tie is a curved line connecting the heads of two notes with the same pitch. Tied notes indicate that they should be played as a single note with the duration of both.
- Slur: Notes bound by a slur means that the performers should play them without separation. It’s represented by a curved line above the notes if the stems point downward and below the notes if the stems point upwards.
- Glissando (or portamento): A glissando represents a glide from one pitch to the next. Instruments like the trombone, timpani, and cello can continuously make this glide, which will be classified as portamento.
- Tuplet: A tuplet (short for quintuplet, sextuplet, etc.) is a rhythmic grouping of notes that breaks the time signature. For example, you might use a triplet in a 2/4 time signature to play three notes for an equal duration in the space of two beats.
- Chord: Chords are several notes played simultaneously to form a harmonic set of pitches or frequencies. Two-note chords are called dyads, while three-note chords are called triads.
- Arpeggiated chord: An arpeggiated chord is a broken chord where the notes that compose it are played quickly in ascending or descending order. A squiggly line (sometimes shown with an upward arrow) means ascending order, and a squiggly line with a downward arrow means descending order.
Octave signs indicate that multiple notes should be played an octave (or two octaves) higher or lower, depending on the mark used. An 8va means one octave higher, and 8vb means one octave lower. When two-octave changes are involved, the mark turns into 15ma or 15mb.
- Ottava: An ottava is drawn above or below the staff to instruct the performer to play the passage one octave higher or lower. This sign has two types: ottava alta (higher) or ottava bassa (lower).
- Quindicesima: The quindicesima sign is drawn above or below the staff to instruct the performer to play the passage two octaves higher or lower.
While articulation marks affect how a note sounds (longer, shorter, stronger, etc.), ornaments are used to ‘decorate’ the note without affecting the note itself to bring variety.
- Trill: A trill marks a rapid alternation between a note and the following higher note within its duration, as determined by the key signature. The trill ornament is also known as a shake.
- Upper mordent: Notes with an upper mordent tell the performer to play a single alternation between the primary note and the next higher note. This differs from a trill because it involves only one alternation, while a trill repeats two or more times.
- Lower mordent: Notes with a lower mordent tell the performer to play a single alternation between the primary note and the note below it.
- Gruppetto or turn: When a note has a gruppetto directly above it, the sequence starts with the upper auxiliary note, primary note, lower auxiliary note, and back to the primary note.
- Appoggiatura: An appoggiatura adds an ornamental note that temporarily displaces and then returns to the original note. It often appears in the first or third beats of the bar in 4/4 time.
- Acciaccatura: A musical ornament that modifies arpeggiated chords to be played with a chord tone a one or half-tone below and immediately released.
Repetition and Codas
The repetition and codas help the performers better understand the flow of the piece by marking sections that they need to play and repeat.
- Tremolo: A tremolo sign means that the note(s) should be played rapidly and repeatedly. If it appears between two notes, they should be played alternatively in a similar manner.
- Repeat signs: Repeat signs are used to enclose a passage that needs to be played again. The right repeat sign indicates where performers need to start repeating, while the left repeat sign marks where the passage they should repeat starts.
- Simile marks: These tell the performer they must repeat the previous group of bars. A singular diagonal line means to repeat the previous bar, while a double diagonal line means to repeat the last two bars.
- Volta brackets: The volta brackets tell the performer to play the repeated passage with different endings on each iteration. There are typically only two endings, but the usage of 3rd ending or more isn’t unknown.
- Da capo: Da capo tells the performer to return to the beginning of the music and play it over. There is usually either al fine or al coda following this mark – resulting in a D.C. al fine or a D.C. al coda.
- Segno: A segno is a symbol used to mark a specific passage or note. This works with Dal segno.
- Dal segno: Dal segno tells the performer to play the music over starting from the nearest segno. Like da capo, there’s usually al fine or al coda following dal segno, resulting in a D.S. al fine or D.S. al coda.
- Coda: The coda symbol indicates a forward jump to a concluding section of a musical piece, and it’s utilized following instructions like “D.S. al Coda” (from the sign to the coda) or “D.C. al Coda” (from the beginning to the coda) to guide the performer to the final passage.
The time signature is a notational convention that specifies how many beats are in each bar and which note value (the duration of a note) is equivalent to a beat. In sheet music, the time signature appears at the beginning as a time symbol or a stacked numeral like C or ¾.
- Simple time signatures: A simple time signature consists of two numbers, where the upper numeral indicates the number of beats, whereas the lower digit indicates the note value for one beat. The most common examples of simple time signatures are 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/8, and 2/2.
- Compound time signature: In a compound time signature, the upper number of the beat is evenly divisible by three (e.g., 6/8, 12/8, and 9/4). It signifies that the beats in the piece are broken down into three-part rhythms, except for time signatures with three as the upper number.
- Common time: The common time signature (C) represents a 4/4 time (imperfect time). While the symbol resembles the letter C, it’s derived from a broken circle used in music notation from the 14th to 16th centuries.
- Alla breve: Alla breve, or cut time, is a musical meter notated by a C with a vertical line through it. The alla breve is equivalent to 2/2 in the time signature.
- Metronome mark: The metronome mark shows the speed of the music by using the beats per minute (bpm) measurement. A metronome mark can be precise, i.e., 176 bpm, or in a range, i.e., 152-176 bpm.
Because each instrument is played differently, some symbols exclusively work for specific instruments. Here are the most common:
For bowed string instruments
These notations are used in bowed-string instruments like violin, cello, and lyra. While some symbols apply to several other instruments, they aren’t as universal as other musical symbols.
- Left-hand pizzicato or stopped note: A left-hand pizzicato is a note played by plucking the string with the left hand rather than the bow.
- Snap pizzicato: A snap pizzicato is a note played by pulling the string away from the instrument frame and letting it go – thus making the snap. It’s also known as Bartók pizzicato.
- Natural harmonic or open note: A natural harmonic (also known as flageolet) is played by applying slight pressure with the finger on the various nodes of the open strings.
- Up bow or Sull’arco: A Sull’arco note should be played while dragging the bow upward.
- Down bow or Giù arco: Inversely, a Giu arco note should be played while dragging the bow downward.
In fingerstyle (or fingerpicking) guitar notation, each finger on the left hand (which stops the strings) is indicated with a number from 1 for the index to 4 for the little finger. The thumb is notated with a T.
The right-hand fingers (that pluck the strings) are notated with the first letter of their Spanish name: I for index, M for middle, A for ring, C for little finger, and P for the thumb.
Piano pedal marks
Pedal marks often appear in musical instruments with sustain pedals, including the piano, vibraphone, and chimes. Sustain pedals allow the notes to play longer by pulling the dampers away from the strings, allowing them to vibrate more freely.
- Engage pedal: The engage pedal symbol tells the performer to put the sustain pedal down.
- Release pedal: The release pedal symbol tells the player to let go of the sustain pedal.
- Variable pedal mark: The variable pedal mark, placed under the notes, indicates the precise pattern in which the pedal is used. A horizontal line shows when the pedal is pressed, and a ^ mark indicates a quick, temporary release of the pedal.
- Con Sordino: This term translates to “with mute” and is used in music notation to indicate that the musician should mute the instrument, commonly seen in string and brass instrument parts. In string instruments, a mute is placed on the bridge to dampen the sound.
- Una Corda: This term is specific to the piano and translates to “one string.” It’s an instruction to press the soft pedal, which, in a grand piano, shifts the action slightly so that the hammers strike only one string instead of the usual two or three, thus producing a softer sound.
- Senza sordino, tre corde: Tells the performer to let go of the soft pedal (piano) or remove the mute (other instruments).
Drum notation is a way to write down sheet music for percussion instruments – basically a language for drums.
Percussion instruments, including drum sets, use the percussion clef on the musical staff. In a drum notation, the symbols represent different parts of the drum set.
How to Use Music Symbols
To use musical symbols correctly, you need to recognize the symbol in a piece and understand how it affects the music. You can then apply this knowledge when you play your instrument.
With a good knowledge of music symbols, you’ll be able to easily understand the piece at first glance and even sight-read through the whole sheet music.
Moreover, music symbols communicate beyond the notes, showing how the composer wants the piece to be played.
Using the music symbols, you’ll have better knowledge on not just how to play the piece but the composer’s intention behind every passage.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are music symbols?
Music symbols are symbols found in sheet music that communicate how a piece is meant to be played. They encompass various aspects of the performance, from pitch, dynamics, tempo, and more.
What are the 12 musical notes?
The 12 musical notes are the twelve notes that make up an octave: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, and their sharp/flat variants of A#/B♭, C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭, and G#/A♭.
These notes are used in most Western music, but not all.
How do musical symbols represent sound?
Musical symbols provide instructions on how to play the notes, such as dynamics (loudness or softness), tempo (speed), articulation (the manner in which notes are played), and other aspects of music that contribute to the overall sound and feel of the piece.