List of musical symbols
Modern musical symbols are the marks and symbols that are widely used in musical scores of all styles and instruments today. This is intended to be a comprehensive guide to the various symbols encountered in modern musical notation.
The fundamental latticework of music notation, upon which symbols are placed. The five stave lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale - which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef. With treble clef, the bottom staff line is assigned to E above middle C (E4 in note-octave notation); the space above it is F4, and so on. The grand staff combines bass and treble staffs into one system joined by a brace. It is used for keyboard and harp music. The lines on a basic five-line staff are designated a number from one to five, the bottom line being the first one and the top line being the fifth. The spaces between the lines are, in the same fashion, numbered from one to four. In music education, for the Treble Clef, the mnemonic "Every Good Boy Does Fine" (or "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge") is used to remember the value of each line from bottom to top. The interstitial spaces are often remembered as spelling the word "face" (notes F-A-C-E).
Ledger or leger lines
Used to extend the staff to pitches that fall above or below it. Such ledger lines are placed behind the note heads, and extend a small distance to each side. Multiple ledger lines may be used when necessary to notate pitches even farther above or below the staff.
Used to separate measures (see time signatures below for an explanation of measures). Bar lines are extended to connect the upper and lower staffs of a grand staff.
Double bar line, Double barline
Used to separate two sections of music. Also used at changes in key signature, time signature or major changes in style or tempo.
Bold double bar line, Bold double barline
Used to indicate the conclusion of a movement or an entire composition.
Dotted bar line, Dotted barline
Subdivides long measures of complex meter into shorter segments for ease of reading, usually according to natural rhythmic subdivisions.
Connects two or more lines of music that are played simultaneously. Depending on the instruments playing, the brace, or accolade, will vary in designs and styles.
Clefs define the pitch range, or tessitura, of the staff on which it is placed. A clef is usually the leftmost symbol on a staff. Additional clefs may appear in the middle of a staff to indicate a change in register for instruments with a wide range. In early music, clefs could be placed on any of several lines on a staff.
G clef (Treble Clef)
The centre of the spiral defines the line or space upon which it rests as the pitch G above middle C, or approximately 392 Hz. Positioned here, it assigns G above middle C to the second line from the bottom of the staff, and is referred to as the "treble clef." This is the most commonly encountered clef in modern notation, and is used for most modern vocal music. Middle-C is the 1st ledger line below the stave here. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-G.
C clef (Alto Clef and Tenor Clef)
This clef points to the line (or space, rarely) representing middle C, or approximately 262 Hz. Positioned here, it makes the center line on the staff middle C, and is referred to as the "alto clef." This clef is used in modern notation for the viola. While all clefs can be placed anywhere on the staff to indicate various tessitura, the C clef is most often considered a "movable" clef: it is frequently seen pointing instead to the fourth line and called a "tenor clef". This clef is used very often in music written for bassoon, cello, and trombone; it replaces the bass clef when the number of ledger lines above the bass staff hinders easy reading.
C clefs were used in vocal music of the classical era and earlier; however, their usage in vocal music has been supplanted by the universal use of the treble and bass clefs. Modern editions of music from such periods generally transpose the original C-clef parts to either treble (female voices), octave treble (tenors), or bass clef (tenors and basses).
F clef (Bass Clef)
The line or space between the dots in this clef denotes F below middle C, or approximately 175 Hz. Positioned here, it makes the second line from the top of the staff F below middle C, and is called a "bass clef." This clef appears nearly as often as the treble clef, especially in choral music, where it represents the bass and baritone voices. Middle C is the 1st ledger line above the stave here. The shape of the clef comes from a stylised upper-case-F (which used to be written the reverse of the modern F)
Used for pitchless instruments, such as some of those used for percussion. Each line can represent a specific percussion instrument within a set, such as in a drum set. Two different styles of neutral clefs are pictured here. It may also be drawn with a separate single-line staff for each untuned percussion instrument.
Treble and bass clefs can also be modified by octave numbers. An eight or fifteen above a clef raises the intended pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. Similarly, an eight or fifteen below a clef lowers the pitch range by one or two octaves respectively. A treble clef with an eight below is the most commonly used, typically used instead of a C clef for tenor lines in choral scores. Even if the eight is not present, tenor parts in the treble clef are understood to be sung an octave lower than written.
For guitars and other plucked instruments it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB-sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard 6-stringed guitars, six lines would be used). Numbers on the lines show on which fret the string should be played. This Tab-sign, like the Percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef. The interstitial spaces on a tablature are never used.
Notes and rests
Note and rest values are not absolutely defined, but are proportional in duration to all other note and rest values. The whole note is the reference value, and the other notes are named (in American) in comparison; i.e. a quarter note is a quarter the length of a whole note.
Note British name / American name Rest Breve / Double whole note Semibreve / Whole note Minim / Half note Crotchet / Quarter note Quaver / Eighth note
For notes of this length and shorter, the note has the same number of flags (or hooks) as the rest has branches.
Semiquaver / Sixteenth note Demisemiquaver / Thirty-second note Hemidemisemiquaver / Sixty-fourth note Beamed notes
Beams connect eighth notes (quavers) and notes of shorter value, and are equivalent in value to flags. In metered music, beams reflect the rhythmic grouping of notes. They may also be used to group short phrases of notes of the same value, regardless of the meter; this is more common in ametrical passages. In older printings of vocal music, beams are often only used when several notes are to be sung to one beat; modern notation encourages the use of beaming in a consistent manner with instrumental engraving, and the presence of beams or flags no longer informs the singer. Today, due to the body of music in which traditional metric states are not always assumed, beaming is at the discretion of the composer or arranger and irregular beams are often used to place emphasis on a particular rhythmic pattern.
Placing dots to the right of the corresponding notehead lengthens the note's duration, e.g. one dot by one-half, two dots by three-quarters, three dots by seven-eighths, and so on. Rests can be dotted in the same manner as notes. For example, if a quarter note had one dot alongside itself, it would get one and a half beats. Therefore n dots lengthen the note's or rest's original d duration to .
Indicates the number of measures in a resting part without a change in meter, used to conserve space and to simplify notation. Also called "gathered rest" or "multi-bar rest".
Durations shorter than the 64th are rare but not unknown. 128th notes are used by Mozart and Beethoven; 256th notes occur in works of Vivaldi and even Beethoven. An extreme case is the Toccata Grande Cromatica by early-19th-century American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich, which uses note values as short as 2,048ths; however, the context shows clearly that these notes have one beam more than intended, so they should really be 1,024th notes.
The name of very short notes can be found with this formula: Name = 2(number of flags on note + 2)th note.
In a score, this symbol tells the performer or singer to take a breath (or make a slight pause for non-wind instruments). This pause usually does not affect the overall tempo. For bowed instruments, it indicates to lift the bow and play the next note with a downward (or upward, if marked) bow.
Indicates a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted. In ensemble playing, time resumes when conductor or leader indicates.
Accidentals and key signatures
Accidentals modify the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same staff position within a measure, unless cancelled by an additional accidental.
Lowers the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Raises the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Cancels a previous accidental, or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature (such as F-sharp in the key of G major, for example).
Lowers the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to be modified is already flatted by the key signature.
Raises the pitch of a note by two chromatic semitones. Usually used when the note to be modified is already sharped by the key signature.
Key signatures define the prevailing key of the music that follows, thus avoiding the use of accidentals for many notes. If no key signature appears, the key is assumed to be C major/A minor, but can also signify a neutral key, employing individual accidentals as required for each note. The key signature examples shown here are described as they would appear on a treble staff.
Quarter-tone notation in Western music is not standardized. A common notation involves writing the fraction 1/4 next to an arrow pointing up or down. Below are examples of an alternative notation:
Lowers the pitch of a note by one quarter tone. (Another notation for the demiflat is a flat with a diagonal slash through its stem. In systems where pitches are divided into intervals smaller than a quarter tone, the slashed flat represents a lower note than the reversed flat.)
Lowers the pitch of a note by three quarter tones.
Raises the pitch of a note by one quarter tone.
Raises the pitch of a note by three quarter tones. Occasionally represented with two vertical and three diagonal bars instead.
Time signatures define the meter of the music. Music is "marked off" in uniform sections called bars or measures, and time signatures establish the number of beats in each. This is not necessarily intended to indicate which beats are emphasized, however. A time signature that conveys information about the way the piece actually sounds is thus chosen. Time signatures tend to suggest, but only suggest, prevailing groupings of beats or pulses.
The bottom number represents the note value of the basic pulse of the music (in this case the 4 represents the crotchet or quarter-note). The top number indicates how many of these note values appear in each measure. This example announces that each measure is the equivalent length of three crotchets (quarter-notes). You would pronounce this as "Three Four Time", and was referred to as a "perfect" time.
This symbol is a throwback to sixteenth century rhythmic notation, when it represented 2/4, or "imperfect time". Today it represents 4/4.
Alla breve or Cut time
This symbol represents 2/2 time, indicating two minim (or half-note) beats per measure. Here, a crotchet (or quarter note) would get half a beat.
Written at the start of a score, and at any significant change of tempo, this symbol precisely defines the tempo of the music by assigning absolute durations to all note values within the score. In this particular example, the performer is told that 120 crotchets, or quarter notes, fit into one minute of time. Many publishers precede the marking with letters "M.M.", referring to Maelzel's Metronome.
Indicates that the two (or more) notes joined together are to be played as one note with the time values added together. To be a tie, the notes must be identical; that is, they must be on the same line or the same space; otherwise, it is a slur (see below).
Indicates that two or more notes are to be played in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath. In certain contexts, a slur may only indicate that the notes are to be played legato; in this case, rearticulation is permitted.
Slurs and ties are similar in appearance. A tie is distinguishable because it always joins exactly two immediately adjacent notes of the same pitch, whereas a slur may join any number of notes of varying pitches.
A phrase mark (or less commonly, ligature) is a mark that is visually identical to a slur, but connects a passage of music over several measures. A phrase mark indicates a musical phrase and may not necessarily require that the music be slurred. In vocal music, a phrase mark usually shows how each syllable in the lyrics is to be sung.
Glissando or Portamento
A continuous, unbroken glide from one note to the next that includes the pitches between. Some instruments, such as the trombone, timpani, non-fretted string instruments, electronic instruments, and the human voice can make this glide continuously (portamento), while other instruments such as the piano or mallet instruments will blur the discrete pitches between the start and end notes to mimic a continuous slide (glissando).
A number of notes of irregular duration are performed within the duration of a given number of notes of regular time value; e.g., five notes played in the normal duration of four notes; seven notes played in the normal duration of two; three notes played in the normal duration of four. Tuplets are named according to the number of irregular notes; e.g., duplets, triplets, quadruplets, etc.
Several notes sounded simultaneously ("solid" or "block"), or in succession ("broken"). Two-note chords are called dyad; three-note chords are called triads. A chord may contain any number of notes.
A chord with notes played in rapid succession, usually ascending, each note being sustained as the others are played. Also called a "broken chord".
Dynamics are indicators of the relative intensity or volume of a musical line.
Other commonly used dynamics build upon these values. For example "piano-pianissimo" (represented as 'ppp' meaning so softly as to be almost inaudible, and forte-fortissimo, ('fff') meaning extremely loud. In some European countries, use of this dynamic has been virtually outlawed as endangering the hearing of the performers. A small "s" in front of the dynamic notations means "subito", and means that the dynamic is to be changed to the new notation rapidly. Subito is commonly used with sforzandos, but all other notations, most commonly as "sff" (subitofortissimo) or "spp" (subitopianissimo).
A section of music in which the music should initially be played loudly (forte), then immediately softly (piano).
Another value that rarely appears is niente, which means 'nothing'. This may be used at the end of a diminuendo to indicate 'fade out to nothing'.
Articulations (or accents) specify how individual notes are to be performed within a phrase or passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note. They may also appear in conjunction with phrasing marks listed above.
This indicates that the note is to be played shorter than notated, usually half the value, the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.
Indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making the note very short. Usually applied to quarter notes or shorter. (In the past, this marking’s meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent and not staccato. These usages are now almost defunct, but still appear in some scores.)
The note is played louder or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.
This symbol has several meanings: It may indicate that a note be played for its full value, or slightly longer; it may indicate a slight dynamic emphasis; or it may indicate a separate attack on a note. It may be combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment ("portato" or "mezzo staccato").
The note is played somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge).
Left-hand pizzicato or Stopped note
A note on a stringed instrument where the string is plucked with the left hand (the hand that usually stops the strings) rather than bowed. On the horn, this accent indicates a "stopped note" (a note played with the stopping hand shoved further into the bell of the horn).
On a stringed instrument, a note played by stretching a string away from the frame of the instrument and letting it go, making it "snap" against the frame. Also known as a Bartók pizzicato.
Natural harmonic or Open note
On a stringed instrument, denotes that a natural harmonic (also called flageolet) is to be played. On a valved brass instrument, denotes that the note is to be played "open" (without lowering any valve, or without mute). In organ music, this denotes that a pedal note is to be played with the heel.
An indefinitely-sustained note, chord, or rest. Usually appears over all parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo. It can be placed above or below the note.
Up bow or Sull'arco
On a bowed string instrument, the note is played while drawing the bow upward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with an upstroke. In organ notation, this marking indicates to play the pedal note with the toe.
Down bow or Giù arco
Like sull'arco, except the bow is drawn downward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with a downstroke. Also note in organ notation, this marking indicates to play the pedal note with the heel.
Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes.
A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher note (according to key signature) within its duration. Also called a "shake." When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill. Trills can begin on either the specified root note or the upper auxiliary note, though the latter is more prevalent in modern performances.
Rapidly play the principal note, the next higher note (according to key signature) then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In most music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.
Rapidly play the principal note, the note below it, then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In much music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.
When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. By either placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates the order of the auxiliary notes is to be reversed.
The first half of the principal note's duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).
The acciaccatura is of very brief duration, as though brushed on the way to the principal note, which receives virtually all of its notated duration.
The 8va sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to indicate the passage is to be played one octave higher.
The 15ma sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to indicate the passage is to be played two octaves higher.
(The 15ma sign is placed below the staff to indicate the passage is to be played two octaves lower.)
8va and 15ma are sometimes abbreviated further to 8 and 15. When they appear below the staff, the word bassa is sometimes added.
Repetition and codas
A rapidly-repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency at which the note is to be repeated (or alternated). As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate.
In percussion notation, tremolos are used to indicate rolls, diddles, and drags. Typically, a single tremolo line on a sufficiently short note (such as a sixteenth) is played as a drag, and a combination of three stem and tremolo lines indicates a double-stroke roll (or a single-stroke roll, in the case of timpani, mallet percussions and some untuned percussion instrument such as triangle and bass drum) for a period equivalent to the duration of the note. In other cases, the interpretation of tremolos is highly variable, and should be examined by the director and performers.
Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.
Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. In the examples here, the first usually means to repeat the previous measure, and the second usually means to repeat the previous two measures.
Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings, or 1st and 2nd time bars)
Denote that a repeated passage is to be played in different ways on different playings. (Can also have more than two endings (1st,2nd,3rd...n'th endings) by changing the number inside the bracket to the number repeated. (Note: More than two or three endings is very uncommon but can be found in some musical arangements.) )
(lit. "From top") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music from its beginning. This is followed by al fine (lit. "to the end"), which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda (lit. "to the coda (sign)"), which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.
(lit. "From the sign") Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.
Mark used with dal segno.
Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).
The guitar has a right-hand fingering notation system derived from the names of the fingers in Spanish or Latin. They are written above, below, or beside the note to which they are attached. (The little finger is rarely used in classical music.) They read as follows:
Symbol Spanish Latin English p pulgar pollex thumb i índice index index m medio media middle a anular anularis ring c, x, e, q, a meñique minimus little
Tells the player to put the sustain pedal down.
Tells the player to let the sustain pedal up.
Variable pedal mark
More accurately indicates the precise use of the sustain pedal. The extended lower line tells the player to keep the sustain pedal depressed for all notes below which it appears. The inverted "V" shape (∧) indicates the pedal is to be momentarily released, then depressed again.
Other piano notation
m.d. / MD / r.H. / r.h. / RH mano destra (Italian)
main droite (French)
rechte Hand (German)
right hand (English)
m.s. / MS / m.g. / MG / l.H. / l.h. / LH mano sinistra (Italian)
main gauche (French)
linke Hand (German)
left hand (English)
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Finger identifications:
1 = thumb
2 = index
3 = middle
4 = ring
5 = little
- Graphic notation
- Music theory
- Glossary of musical terminology
- Eye movement in music reading
- Shape note
- ^ U+007B left curly bracket at decodeunicode.org; retrieved on May 3, 2009
- ^ "No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down" by Sarah Lyall, The New York Times (20 April 2008)
- ^ George Heussenstamm, The Norton Manual of Music Notation (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company), p.16
- ^ Anthony Donato, Preparing Music Manuscript (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.), pp. 42-43
- Comprehensive list of music symbols fonts
- Music theory & history (Dolmetsch Online)
- Dictionary of musical symbols (Dolmetsch Online)
- Sight reading tutorial with symbol variations Amy Appleby
Musical notation and development Staff Notes Articulation Development Related
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