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The Basics

Bill Heins

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I wrote this a couple of years ago for a graphics board...a few people there were also musicians but had no formal training and had no reading skills. This will be very basic and simple so it's not for most of the people here...but if it can help anyone out that's great! If anyone else wants to add, clarify, or correct my mistakes, please do :)



I'll do this for people who would like to create their own music using any instruments including software synths and samplers, but have no idea about composition, rhythym, melody, timing, etc. This time we will start with the basics, tempo, time signature, and key signature.


First we'll look at tempo. Tempo refers to the speed at which a piece is played. Classical music utilizes the Italian naming convention as a general rule. For example, Adante is a slow piece, while Allegro Con Brio is a quick lively piece. In the second case Con Brio is Italian for "with vigor". Tempo, unless specified is in relative terms, so there is no one set "slow" or one "fast", it's left to the conductor or performer to intepret the composers intent as they see fit to do. Now with modern music, things have changed a bit and some composers have actually stated a definite speed at which the piece is to be played. This is in the form of BPM or Beats Per Minute. When you see something at 120BPM it means that 120 beats are played in a minute. If you know the time signature(we'll be there in a few minutes- sorry about that!) you can figure out how far into the piece the one minute mark would fall. This is very important in soundtracking as you are usually working with cues which are locations for entrances and exits in a soundtrack and are usually pretty specific. Now for instance, a BPM of 120 in a 4/4 piece means that after 1 min. 30 measures have played(in 4/4 there are 4 beats to the measure so divide the total number of beats by this number to arrive at the number of measures, don't worry, this is coming up soon!).


Ok, let's look at time signature. First of all if you've ever looked at a piece of music and seen the letter "C" or the same letter with a line through them, they refer to a specific time. C is also called Common Time and is also written as 4/4. In a time signature the first number refers to the number of beats to a measure, and the second number refers to the type of note that is considered one beat. In this case four quarter notes make up one measure. Here's a list of what you would end up with if you used the various note values while in 4/4.


A whole note is played once.


A half note is played twice in the measure.(Two half notes equal a whole note.)


A quarter note is played four times in the measure.(Four quarter notes equal a whole note.)


An eighth note is played eight times in the measure, and so on. (Unfortunately I can't type these notes so you can see what they look like and I want to keep this as printer friendly as possible.)


Now it then follows that in say, 3/8 time, we would have three eighth notes, 9/8 we would have nine eighths, etc. Now we can also mix note values together to come up with a measure. So in our example of 4/4 we could have four eighths(equal to a half note) and two quarter notes to make a full measure. Now just as with notes, rests are treated the same way. A whole note rest for instance would result in an entire measure of silence, while a half note rest would result in half a measure of silence and half a measure of notes. Now to complicate things.


In order to get those in between note values that aren't available by using these simple note values, we can add a dot after the note. This dot increases the note value by one half, so a dotted quarter note would now be worth three eighth notes instead of what you would expect normally, 2. This device is used to create syncopated and dramatic rhythyms and melody lines. There is such a thing as a double dotted note, but it's very rare. It's value would be the note+half of the note+half of the half of the note. A double dotted quarter note for instance is worth a quarter+an eighth+a sixteenth. Pretty cool hunh?


Another interesting device is the triplet figure, which causes three notes to be played in the time of one regular note. This is used a lot in blues and reggae where notes in the triplet are sometimes dropped out to give that very syncopated feel to the music, a kind of shuffle if you will.


As far as counting goes here's a list of what you would count in a measure of 4/4 for each note. Remember each of these occurs in the same amount of time.


Whole Note-1

Half Note-1 2

Quarter Note-1 2 3 4

Eighth note- 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

Sixteenth Note-1 e and ah 2 e and ah 3 e and ah 4 e and ah

Eighth note triplets-1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah


Ok, let's move on to key signatures. When looking at that same piece of music you may have seen a few b's or #'s located on the staff(that's what music is written on, each line being called a ledger line on it's own. I won't go through all the keys, I'll just give you a general outline of what a key signature is and how to work with it. First of all a key signature refers tio a group of notes, a tonic(your base note) and the following six notes that are put together in a certain way to come up with a key. If you add six to the base note you have 7 notes, play the next note and you are playing something called an octave, basically the same as the tonic note only raised one deegree higher. Octaves are direct multiples as far as wavelength goes, but I won't get into that here. In the case of the key of C major(I'll cover the differences between major and minor keys another time as well as other scale forms) we have C,D,E,F,G,A,B,and then C again. This is easiest seen on a piano, it's basically all white keys starting on the C key and just going up to the next C. If you count all the keys including the black ones you will see how a key is formed as they all have the same number of keys in them, they just start on different keys. Each key is called a step, so from C to C#(the black key right after the C note) is one half step. To play a major key you would use this recipe, start with your tonic or base note, then- 1 step, 1 step, 1/2 step, 1 step, 1 step, 1 step, 1/2 step takes you to the next C or the octave. I'm going to leave here as I have probably confused the hell out of you, but I will go back over and over things as we go on so it will all come together, trust me. Questions are always welcome!



That's it for now, a lot to it and no pictures, but you'll do fine, trust me :)




Well that's it, I never wrote the next part...anyone care to finish it? ;)


Darkon the Incandescent





Hail Vibrania!

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