Music Theory For The Dropouts #3 – Music Symbols

Cassi Falk  /  Reading Music / Jul 24

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As you’ve been learning all of these music theory techniques, you’ve probably come upon quite a few strange looking symbols.  So let’s take a look at some of the most common symbols you’ll find and what they mean musically.  

The first symbols we’ll look at are types of dynamic markings (meaning they indicate where you should be playing loudly or softly.)  Generally speaking, there are two symbols that indicate loudness or softness.  The loud symbols look like a stylized ‘f’’, while the soft symbols look like a ‘p’.  These two symbols stand for ‘forte’ and ‘piano’, respectively.  

You can modify these symbols by putting a stylized ‘m’ in front of the f or p (mf or mp). These modified symbols stand for mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano.  Mezzo is just a fancy word for ‘medium’, so all this symbol really means is you’re going to be playing at a medium loud or soft volume.  

Wanna get louder or softer?  Just start stacking ‘f’s or ‘p’s!  

If you want to start a phrases quietly and build it up with increasing volume, you’ll play something called a ‘crescendo’.  They look like long ‘<’ signs: as it widens the notes get louder.  The opposite of a crescendo is a decrescendo, which naturally looks like a longer version of ‘>’.  With a decrescendo, you start off loud and gradually grow quieter and quieter.  

The next symbols to look at are called legato and staccato.  These affect how each specific note is played.  A legato is simply a note that is connected together with another note.  It looks like a curved line that swoops underneath and ‘ties’ the two notes together.

A staccato is played more rhythmically.  Each note is played, but then you immediately release the key.  The staccato note looks like a regular note but with a little dot underneath it.  

There’s also the accent note.  An accented note is played a little bit louder than the other notes in the phrase.  It looks like a little sideways ‘v’ underneath the note.  

So, these notes are all examples of how a musical symbol and tell you dynamic or expressive information.  Without these symbols, you won’t be able to tell what notes should be louder or quieter, or how they should be played.  Music is SO much more than just playing the right pitches with each other.  

Now let’s take a look at what are arguably the two most important music symbols: the sharp and the flat.  These symbols indicate whether you should be playing a note one semi-tone above (aka a sharped note) or one semi-tone below (aka a flattened note).  A sharp note is indicated by a ‘#’ symbol before the note, and a flat note is indicated by a stylized ‘b’ symbol.  

Determining a sharp or flat note depends on context.  If you take a C and play the black key immediately above it, you’re going to call that note C-sharp.  But if you take a D and play the black key immediately below, that note is called D-flat.  Even though they are physically the exact same key on the keyboard!  This will come into play once you start learning songs in different keys, as you make different keys by sharping and flattening different notes.

Ready for your next lesson? You can learn all about major and minor scales in Lesson 4 of our series!

Missed any previous lessons?

You can find Lesson 2 on the Grand Staff here.

And Lesson 1 on rhythm here.

Jordan Leibel is passionate about songwriting, improvisation, and helping you become a creative musician! He’s worked as a composer for film, commercial, and theatre projects as well as a session musician and producer for recording work.

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