Western Classical Music Basics

Western Classical Music has a very disciplined structure, and the music when composed is usually written on something called Sheet Music. A piece of composition of Sheet A piece of music written onto a sheet would be rather confusing to a "layman". It seems to be arbitrary scribblings on a few lines - but on the contrary it is a well structured written language in itself that lets the composer communicate to the musician or the instrument player easily.

In this article we would look at the few basic topics that go into understanding of western classical music and also a little bit about sheet music.

Parts of music

Before we look at how to read or understand a given Sheet Music, we need to know few basic elements of music. There are two basic things that you need to know about music if one needs to play it - the notes and the timings. The notes are the characteristic pitch that has to be created out of a musical instrument and timings relate to how long a particular note must be played.


Classical music is composed of basic notes, semitones and the associated octaves. There are seven basic notes in music, and can be written down in English as:


Here, the notes are written in the order of pitch belonging to a particular scale. We need not worry about scales now. C is the lowest pitch (towards bass) and as we move right, the shrillness increases and hence B is the highest pitch (towards treble).

If we need to write down the semitones as well, it would be as follows:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B

The semitones above are written in sharps (#). Note that there are no sharps for the notes E and B. Alternatively, the semitones may also be written down using flats(b):

C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B

Note again that there are no flats(b) for C and F. It is noteworthy that a sharp of a lower note and a flat or a higher note are one and the same. If it confuses, the following table should clear it up:

Basic notes With semitones as sharps(#) With semitones as flats(b)
- C# Db
- D# Eb
- F# Gb
- G# Ab
- A# Bb


Now, we come to the timing. The music is usually composed in parts called 'bar's. A bar may have different beats depending on the time signatures. Let us not get things complicated, and take an example of the 'Old MacDonald' tune that is composed of bars having 4 beats each. The first part of the 'Old MacDonald' tune if need be written simply, it would be written as follows:

| C(1) C(1) C(1) G(1) | A(1) A(1) G(2) | E(1) E(1) D(1) D(1) | C(3) -(1)|

Now, what does all that mean? Well, before I explain it, let me tell you that it is not a standard. It was just cooked up so that timing can be explained without going into Sheet Music that is much better adept with conveying timing.

The '|' to '|', denotes a single bar. The letters, as explained above denote notes. The number in the brackets beside the letters, tell how long a note has to be played. As you may see, the notation we have used above is much easier for a layman, but it can only be used to write very basic tunes. For much more complex and richer music piece, sheet music would be employed.

Sheet Music

Here is an example of a blank sheet music:

Note that it is a sheet music ready to be be written with scores in Trebble clef. There is also something called the Bass clef - do not worry too much about it now. It presently contains no information about timing. If we add that, it would be something as follows:

This would state that, every bar has 4 beats in it. Now, before we look at the different notes, let us see how the 'Old MacDonald' tune would look, if we write it up in this:

That is about it. It packs all the information about notes and timings, and it is a standardized form. Now, you can give this piece to any musician - to almost any instrument player - and he or she would be able to play the tune of 'Old MacDonald'.

Further Study

There is a lot more one would need to understand about sheet music from the information given here. For example the different types of scores denote the timing information, their positions denotes the note to be played. There would be additional indications if one has to play a sharp or flat of a note.

This is and many other such information would require another article. But at least now, you would be able to recognize few things from a piece of sheet music and not treat it as an artifact from an alien world.