In early childhood education, the alphabet is the "code" that makes words and concepts come alive. Learning the alphabet is the stepping stone to self-expression, comprehension of ideas and meaningful communication. The alphabet unlocks language. The same concept is true in music education. This is why the musical alphabet is a cornerstone of music education.
It's essential to understand the concept of the musical alphabet when learning how to read sheet music. Once the musical alphabet becomes like "second nature" for a budding musician, an entire world of being able to play, share and create music opens up! Yes, it does take time and patience to understand the rules of this new language. However, putting in just a little time to embrace the basics turns sheet music from a jumble of symbols to a gateway of communication that has been a channel of expression for the greatest musicians of all time!
The Musical Alphabet: What Is It?
In the music world, pitches of notes are named by the first seven letters of the Latin alphabet. That means that anyone who knows their ABCs can easily follow along with the musical alphabet. Here are the seven pitches:
Of course, it helps to know exactly what a pitch is before moving into pitch identification. The simplest definition for pitch is that it's the measure that we use to describe whether a note is a high-sounding note or a low-sounding note. When identifying pitch, we use something called a staff. A staff is comprised of five horizontal lines that create four spaces representing musical pitch. If you've ever glanced at a musician looking at a paper with a series of lines peppered with musical notes, you've seen a musical staff.
Musicians can identify the highness or lowness of a pitch with just a glance due to the simplicity of how a staff works. When a note has a higher pitch, it is placed higher on the staff. When a note has a lower pitch, it's placed lower on the staff.
What Happens When You Reach G?
Unlike the Latin alphabet that its characters are borrowed from, the musical alphabet does not contain 26 letters. There are only seven pitches that go from A to G. Why is this? The simple answer is that those seven letters represent the totality of the pitch scale. That means that there's no need for H on the scale because it's time to simply start back at A by this point.
Thinking of numbers instead of letters can actually make this concept a little bit easier to understand. Think of counting pitches from A to G as counting from one to 10. It would be the same as counting to 10 before starting back at one instead of simply making up new numbers.
How Sharps and Flats Fit in the Mix
While we only have seven letters to work with within the musical alphabet, this number does not represent the total number of notes we have to work with. There are actually 12 notes in total. We call the letters A through G either "natural notes" or "regular notes" when reading music. The other five notes that make up the 12 notes in total are placed between the natural notes. These are the sharp and flat notes.
When reading music, there are easy ways to differentiate between the notes on the page. When a note is a natural note, there is no special indicator other than the letter itself. When music contains a sharp note, you will see a sharp symbol. When music contains a flat note, you will see a flat symbol. Here's a cheat sheet for what this looks like:
- Natural Note: A letter from A to G.
- Sharp Note Symbol: ♯
- Flat Note Symbol: ♭
- A sharp note is one note higher in pitch than the natural note it's aligned with. An example would be A♯ on a piece of sheet music.
- Flat Note: A flat note is one note lower in pitch than the natural note it's aligned with. An example would be A♭on a piece of sheet music.
The purpose of sharp and flat notes is essentially to add nuance to music. The role of a sharp note within a piece of music is to raise the natural note it corresponds to by one key (step). With a flat note, you're lowering the corresponding natural note by one key (step).
How the Staff Works
To see how it all fits together, it's important to go back to the staff that we discussed earlier. The staff is made up of five lines with four spaces where each line represents one of the seven letters from A to G. The sequence of the notes on the staff will always move upward in alphabetical order.
Each staff has a clef perched on it. This clef is important because it indicates the pitch of the notes written on the sheet music. When musicians look at a clef, they instantly know which lines or spaces within the staff represents each note. While there are several clefs, modern musicians only use four clefs regularly when playing music. Those clefs are the treble clef, bass clef, alto clef and tenor clef.
How Music Looks in Real Life
When we first learn about the musical alphabet, we learn about it from a conceptual standpoint. However, musicians use the musical alphabet to "breathe" what's on sheet music into life to create complex, textured sounds that require split-second reaction times. The reason why learning the rules of the musical alphabet is so crucial is that being able to recognize music the same way you can recognize "language" is essential for staying on track while performing. In fact, an understanding of sheet music becomes like second nature for musicians.
What does the musical alphabet look like in real life? Picture a keyboard comprised of seven white keys with five intermittent black keys. In this case, the seven white keys are named A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The black keys that are peppered in are named after the sharp or flat keys. Black keys located to the left of white keys are considered flats. By contrast, a black key to the right of a white key is a sharp.
Learning the Musical Alphabet: What's the Benefit of Learning to Read Music?
Learning to read music comes with many of the benefits and challenges that go along with learning any new language. Make no mistake about the fact that music is its own language! The obvious benefit to learning how to read music is that you can play music. Being able to read sheet music enables a budding musician to collaborate with other musicians to take part in everything from a garage band to an orchestra. Additionally, becoming proficient in the musical alphabet allows a person to compose their own music. This is the most important aspect of being able to share music that other people can actually perform. However, there are many benefits to learning to read music that expand well beyond the music world.
Researchers have discovered that measurable brain changes take place after students are taught to read music. Following 15 weeks of music learning in one study, researchers could observe activation in a cluster of voxels within the parietal cortex. Each voxel is a unit containing roughly 630,000 neurons. What this points to is the idea that music reading actually sharpens the connection between spatial code and motor responses. Other studies have also shown that musicians often have better visuospatial abilities than people who do not play instruments.
The brain stimulation that occurs when we read or play music can have lifelong benefits. First, it's widely documented that musical training changes brain structure and function. For young music learners, there are benefits for both brain development and long-term memory. Brain scans have shown that musicians actually have different brain structures than people who don't play music. Most notable is the discovery that a portion of the brain called the corpus callosum that connects the two sides of the brain is actually larger in musicians. Learning music at a younger age appears to have the profoundest impact on brains. Studies involving brain scans have shown that the degree of anatomical change becomes more dramatic based on the age when music training began.