Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 4 – simple music reading

Kpopalypse’s music theory series continues with all the trufax on reading music!

This post is going to start off quite dry and not very k-poppy, but there’s some important fundamentals to cover before we get to the k-pop bits, which will come.  It’s also going to focus mainly on the basic aspects of music reading and skip over a few theoretical bits which I’ll gloss over for now and come back to later.

Modern music notation is a system that has evolved over the last few hundred years so people who make music don’t have to remember exactly how it goes.  The system of modern music notation historically dates back to vocal performance by religious types who have a lot of time on their hands to write stuff down, and not a lot of room in their brains to be able to remember how every tune went.  As these people also had to remember a whole bunch of make-believe fairy-tale religious rules, and that these rules were also written down because there’s no way anybody can remember hundreds of pages of that stupid shit verbatim, they saw the value in having a notation system.  Then they could sing their songs in the church easily when called upon to do so, without having to tax their memories too hard.

The key point here is that the modern system of music notation which evolved from these early days of religious bumfuckery was specifically tailored towards vocal performance, as these churchy types were singers, not instrumentalists. What this means for folks like you and me, is that for practical purposes music writing and reading functions best when it is there to recreate vocal passages, as that’s what it was initially exclusively designed to do.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t also use it to reproduce other things, but it does mean that note-reading is a “poor fit” for certain instruments that became popular after the standards of notation were invented, and that manipulate sounds in different ways.  Instruments that have a long history, such as keyed instruments (the piano, and its forerunners, the harpsichord and organ) and bowed instruments (violin, viola, cello and double bass) fare quite well with music reading because the systems were still being formalised when those instruments emerged.  Other instruments that came to prominence in the musical canon more recently (such as electric guitar and the rock/jazz drum kit) are a poor fit for the formal music notation system and many players of those instruments don’t even bother with music reading in the traditional style.

Music is written on a group of five lines, called a stave or staff:

Music is divided into time units called bars, and then subdivided into beats.  This picture shows a bar of music.  The little block hanging down from the second line is a rest, which in this case indicates that nothing is to be played in this bar, so the singer or instrumentalist is actually silent for this bar.  However this bar is without context, we need to add a few elements to show what exactly we’re asking our performer to do.

The 4/4 marking is the time signature, which indicates the rhythmic pulse of the piece.

  • Top number – how many beats in the bar
  • Bottom number – time length of each individual beat

In this case, 4/4 means “four beats in each bar, each of a duration of one quarter”.  The top number is fairly self explanatory, but the bottom one is a little more ambiguous, because how do we define “a quarter”.  The truth is that the bottom number is slightly arbitrary – slower or simpler pieces will usually have a 4 there, whereas pieces with smaller subdivisions of the bar or quicker tempos will sometimes have an 8.  The time signature of 4/4 is by far the most common in modern music, so much so that sometimes instead of 4/4 pieces will just have a letter C there instead (meaning “common time“).

Sometimes you’ll see a C with a line through it like the below.  This means “cut common time” which is 2/2.  This is pretty much only used for “marches” (marching band music) where the rhythm is super-simple and you’ll probably never see this in a k-pop song from your bias unless North Korea successfully invades, so we’ll ignore it and never discuss it again.  Groovy.

The squiggle on the far left of these is called a clef.  The above examples use the treble clef.  Clefs are used to indicate the range of notes that we’re asking someone to perform in.  Someone making high notes (such as a soprano singer, or a violin) will be assigned bars with the treble clef which indicates the pitch range where they are performing.  The treble clef isn’t a random design, it actually indicates certain pitches.  The curl of the treble clef curls around the fourth line of the staff, and the dot at the bottom of the clef hangs just below the lowest line.  These positions indicate G4 and C4.  If I write these notes on the above stave, you’ll see that they line up (G4 is blue, C4 is black).

Notice how we’ve had to add an extra line under the stave to hold the C.  The extra line is called a leger line.  (Not “ledger”, an inaccuracy added by pesky Americans – “ledgers” are for financial stuff, “legers” are placeholders.)

For lower instruments there is the bass clef, which looks like this:

The bass clef is also not a random design, the dot at the end aligns with the second line of the bass stave, which is the note F3, pictured here.

Note that although the F3 in the bass clef appears higher on the stave, F3 is actually a lower note than C4.  If I were to add a simultaneous C4 to the F3, it would be positioned as per below (F3 in red, C4 in black).

The C which is C4 is positioned between the two staves and is called middle C because it sits roughly in the middle of all the commonly useable frequencies of music, as well as the approximate middle of the piano keyboard (a little to the left but whatever).  Here’s a picture of all the keyboard positions and frequencies on the piano, which indicates the position of middle C.

Here’s another diagram which shows you this, plus all the notes how they appear on the stave, and the ranges of each different type of instrument and vocal.  It’s a bit squishy with a lot of detail, click the image below for a slightly bigger version.

There are other clefs too, I’ve just covered the main ones.  The other clef I’ll mention briefly is the alto clef.  If you’re writing music that kind of revolves around middle C a lot due to the range of your voice or instrument, it’s annoying to have to spread your music out over two staves when the range itself might be quite condensed, so for convenience the alto clef is used in those situations.  Examples of people who would use alto clefs a lot would be alto vocalists in choirs, as well as the viola (the violin’s slightly bigger and deeper sounding cousin).  The alto clef looks like below, with the note indicating the position of middle C, also indicated by the intersection of the curls in the clef itself.  We’ll probably ignore alto clef and never discuss it again, just know that it’s a thing.

Note that time signatures are only ever used once, at the start of a piece, unless the time signature changes during the piece.  Clefs are written once per line of music.

Now onto note lengths.  Each note has a specific length within the bar.  Above is the semibreve (English name) or whole note (American name), which indicates a note for a length of four beats.  We’ll tolerate the American names in this instance as note lengths is one of the very few areas in music – and general life – where the American names for stuff actually make much more good sense than the English names for stuff, so while I’ll tell you both names in this post I’ll generally use the American ones in future discussions.

It’s important to note that silence in music is just as important as sound, so above I’ve written two bars, the first one has a whole note, and the second bar has a whole note rest, like the ones we saw earlier.

The next example above is the minim or half note.  This note goes for two beats, so half the duration/twice as fast as the whole note.  After the note is a half note rest, which is like the whole note rest, but instead of hanging down from a line, it sits on top of a line.  The stem on the note in this case is pointing upward, but it can also point downward.  Note also that I’ve dispensed with the clefs and time signatures for now just because I cbf, but all the following examples are in 4/4.  The note is two beats long, and the rest is two beats long, equaling four beats total – in a bar of 4/4 everything must add up to four beats (exception: sometimes a song has an “anacrusis” which is an introductory bar of less beats, these only appear at the very start of a song).

If we speed things up again, we have the crotchet or quarter note, which is one beat long.  Here we have three different quarter notes, C4, C5 and then C4 again, and the fourth beat is a quarter note rest where there is just silence.  It’s convention just for the sake of legibility and neatness for lower notes to have upward pointing stems, and notes on or above the third line to have downward pointing stems (the exception is when two notes played by different instruments have to be written on the same stave, in which case for the sake of giving clarity to which instrument plays which part, the stems will point away from each other in opposite directions).  Stem direction doesn’t affect the way the note is played.

Above, the first note is a quaver or eighth note and these go for half a beat each.  After this is an eighth note rest, and then four more eighth notes.  When two eighth notes appear consecutively, and they’re both within the same beat, they are grouped as above, in groups of two, this is to make the rhythm of the piece clearer to the person performing it.  At the very end (in blue) is another quarter note.  As a quarter note goes for a length of one beat, it doesn’t need a rest after it because it fills up all the remaining space on its own.

Another example showing note grouping.  It’s okay in this case to group together the quarter notes in beats 1 and 2, but the two quarter notes in beat three are left on their own.  This is because beat three is considered to be very important.  Beat three is where the snare drum usually goes in popular music (see previous lesson on drums).

You can keep speeding things up.  Above is the semiquaver or sixteenth note, with a sixteenth note rest at the start.  For each doubling of speed from here on, extra lines are added to the note group, or extra tails to single notes.  The names also get more and more stupid, with demisemiquavers (thirty-second notes), hemidemisemiquavers (sixty-fourth notes) and so on, but you’re not likely to encounter anything much faster than a sixteenth note most of the time in your favourite k-pop tunes.

Some other timing quirks: if a note has a dot after it, the note is extended for 50% of its initial value:

In the above example, the first note is a dotted quarter note, it goes for a beat and a half, then there’s a rest for half a beat (an eighth-note rest), then the note on beat three goes for just one beat, and then just one beat of rest.  The total here once again adds up to 4.  Any type of note can be dotted, and rests can be dotted too.

However, if you see a dot above or under a note, that means something different – it means that the note is played “staccato“, or in other words sharply, so when singing or playing the piece you cut the ending of the note shorter than normal.  The word “staccato” is an Italian word – because Italy was a hub of religious music creation in the early days of all this rule-making, music notation still uses a lot of Italian terms as convention today.  There’s lots and lots of expression terms that are written on pieces, usually in Italian, I won’t go through them now but I will explain them as we come across them.

If you see two notes which are the same pitch connected together with a curved line, this is called a tie.  This means that you add the value of the two notes together, so they are essentially one longer note.  The above note goes for six beats.

However when there’s a curved line connecting two or multiple notes of different pitches, this is called a slur, which means something different to a tie.

The above passage is a notation of the vocal run in Berry Good’s “Angel” at 2:54.

The long curved line indicates that the notes are supposed to be smoothly connected together as one phrase.  Despite what k-pop’s misguided vocal analysts would lead you to believe, it’s not necessarily desirable to smoothy connect notes all the time with every phrase of music ever, and smoothly connecting notes is not the “default position” of all singing everywhere at all times.  That’s why when it is called for it’s specifically notated in the music with lines such as these.  The lesson here is while we don’t always slur notes, we always should slur vocal analysts who spread incorrect information regarding music performance around the k-pop fandom, hence the term “vocalfaggot” has been created specifically by Kpopalypse for this purpose.

The number three at the top of each group of three eighth notes indicates a triplet, which means “three notes for the time of two”.  Astute people with mathematical brains following so far will notice that in the above example there are twelve eighth notes per bar of 4/4 here when only eight actually fit, but in this section of the song the singer has “broken time” and crammed in an extra note per beat.

Here’s a video version of the playback software at work so you can see exactly how the written notes correlate to the vocal run.  An important point is that the software’s playback bar always hovers on the note coming up as opposed to the note that you’ve just heard, this is probably because people who read music while playing or singing it back have to read the next note in advance, not the one they’re currently on.

The last thing that this series will cover in this episode is sharps and flats, or “accidentals”.

The C on the left (assuming treble clef here) has a # before it, this symbol is a sharp and means that the C is played sharp, or one note higher.  The A on the right side has a b before it which is the symbol for a flat, so this note is played one note lower.  It’s probably helpful to look at the piano keyboard here.

Each line or space between a line on the musical stave represents a white note on the piano keyboard, but there are also black notes in between some of the white notes.  Each of these black notes has two different names and the rules for what name is used at what time, I’ll cover in a future part of this series, but it’s fairly arbitrary just for basic purposes.  Therefore C# is the note between C and D, and we could also call this note Db if we wanted, as these are in fact the same note.  However in a practical music situation where you were writing a song you wouldn’t put both C# and Db in the same piece, you’d pick either sharps or flats and stick to them where possible, just so it’s easier for the sucker who has to perform your shitty piece of music to be able to actually read and understand it quickly.

A sharp or flat has an “effect” of one bar.  This means that if you write a G# twice in one bar, you don’t need to put the accidental before the G note the second time you write it.  However after the bar is finished, if you want G to be played as G# again later on, you have to put the accidental back in again.  All three notes in the above example are therefore the same note, G#.

Sometimes you might want to cancel this effect before the end of the bar, in which case you can use the “natural” symbol to do this.  A natural just means a note that is neither sharp nor flat.

The first note is G sharp, but the second note is G natural, this cancels out the effect of the sharp for the rest of the bar.  The third note is also G natural (neither sharp nor flat) but the natural symbol is not necessary as the third note is after the bar line which mean that the effect of the first note’s sharp has expired anyway, mind you even if there wasn’t a bar line it would still be a natural because the natural symbol has the same “effect duration” as the sharp symbol, and the most recent symbol always takes precedence.

In a song where a lot of sharps and/or flats might be required, it’s a pain in the ass to write them all out all the time, especially if the same notes tend to be the ones getting raised or lowered all the time, which is often the case (I’ll tell you why in a future post).  To save effort here and increase readability (because lots of sharps and flats look messy to read) many pieces use key signatures.  Just like clefs, these key signatures appear at the start of each line of music.

The above passage is the keyboard riff that plays at the start of Apink’s “%% (Eung Eung)”.

The key signature has four flats, B E A and D are all played as Bb, Eb, Ab and Db in this piece.  The use of the key signature saves the poor songwriter the annoying task of having to write it out this way instead:

As you can see, the second way, although technically the same notes as the first way, is a lot messier to read.  Note that the seventh and eighth notes in the first and third bars are Bb and Ab respectively, but they are not written with a flat symbol because the “effect” of the flat before the fifth note (Bb) and second note (Ab) in the same bar automatically flattens these notes as well.  What a pain in the ass to remember all that shit though, much easier to just throw a key signature at the start of each line and then just make a mental note to always flatten those four notes every time you see them.  You can still use sharps, flats and naturals within the piece itself to note any “exceptions” to the key signature if needed, these override the key signature just for the duration of the bar that they are in.


That’s all for this post!  The music theory series will return soon, with more music theory stuff!  Stay safe and OH&S compliant, caonimas!